Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Late Great Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer, the legendary actress who was the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, died today at the age of 104. The cause was pneumonia.

Luise Rainer was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on 12 January 1910. She grew up in Hamburg, Germany and Vienna, Austria. Her father was a businessman, while her mother was a pianist. As a child she was a bit of tomboy, becoming a champion runner at school. She took an interest in show business at age 6 when she saw a man on the tightrope at a circus. She became an actress at age 16 without her parents' consent when she travelled to Düsseldorf for an audition with the Dumont Theatre. She studied under the legendary Max Reinhardt and by age 18 she was an established actress. She appeared in such stage productions as Men in White, Saint Joan, Measure for Measure, and Six Characters in Search of an Author.

It was in 1930 that she made her film debut in the Austrian film Ja, der Himmel über Wien. In 1932 she appeared in the German films Sehnsucht 202 (its screenplay was co-written by Emeric Pressburger) and Madame hat Besuch. In 1933 she appeared in the film Heut' kommt's drauf an. She was appearing in Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author when MGM talent scout Phil Berg saw her. She was given a three year contract with MGM. Thereafter she moved to California. Luise Rainer's first Hollywood film was Escapade in 1935, a remake of  the Austrian film Maskerade (1934). Miss Rainer's next two films would earn her Academy Awards. She played Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The following year she played O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937), for which she also won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Luise Rainer then became the first actor to win two consecutive Academy Awards.

Unfortunately the two Oscars would not secure happiness for Luise Rainer in her career. She wanted to do more serious roles, but was she felt that she was constantly denied such by MGM. She made the films The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), Big City (1937), The Toy Wife (1938), The Great Waltz (1938), and Dramatic School (1938) before walking out on MGM. She was unhappy with not getting serious roles and felt that Hollywood itself was superficial and shallow. Afterwards she went back to Europe where she studied medicine and helped Spanish Civil War refugees orphaned by the conflict. 

Luise Rainer did return to the stage. On 1 May 1939 Miss Rainer played Françoise in Behold the Bride at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. She also played Françoise in Behold the Bride at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on 23 May 1939. In the United States she appeared in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan in 1940. In 1942 she played Miss Thing in  J. M. Barrie's A Kiss for Cinderella. Luise Rainer would appear in one feature film during the Forties. She appeared in the Paramount film Hostages in 1943. It would be her last feature film appearance for over ten years.  During World War II she also entertained Allied troops in Africa and Italy, as well as appeared as war bond rallies in the United States.

Over the next few decades Luise Rainer appeared sporadically on television and in film. On television she appeared on such TV shows as BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, Faith Baldwin Romance Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre, Suspense, Combat, and The Love Boat. She appeared in the 1949 BBC Production By Candlelight and Channel 4's By Herself  episode "A Dancer". She appeared in two more feature films: Der erste Kuß (1954) and The Gambler (1997).

Luise Rainer appeared at both the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards ceremonies for tributes to past Oscar winners. Upon her 100th birthday in 2010 she attended a British Film Institute tribute to her at the National Film Theatre. That same year she presented a showing of The Good Earth at the TCM Film Festival. 

While she made only a few films, Luise Rainer has always been loved by classic films buffs. Much of this is because she was incredibly talented. It would be very difficult to argue her back to back Oscar wins were not well deserved. While she had very little screen time in The Great Ziegfeld, her performance as Anna Held was both emotional and incredible. In The Good Earth she played a role about as far as from Anna Held as one can possibly get--the somewhat stoic, humble, and assuming peasant O-Lan. Again she gave a powerful performance. Miss Rainer's other films would not be of the same quality as The Great Ziegfeld or The Great Earth, but her performances were impressive even when the films sometimes were not. She was convincing as Frou-Frou, a French coquette, in The Toy Wife and gave a solid performance as Poldi Vogelhuber in The Last Waltz. Her guest appearance on Combat was also impressive. In "Finest Hour" she played a French Countess who must entertain German troops, all the while hiding an injured Lieutenant Hanley (Rick Jason). Luise Rainer was a truly great actress. One can only wonder what her career might have been like had she been given the more serious roles she wanted from MGM.

Of course, another reason that Luise Rainer is so admired by classic film fans is her courage. It would take a remarkable person to walk out on a successful film career at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is safe to say most stars probably would have (and many did) simply done whatever the studios wanted of them and demanded nothing more. But Miss Rainer wanted more out of her career than the parts she was being given and when she did not get them turned her back on Hollywood. It would be very difficult for anyone to argue she did not do the right thing. Ultimately she would have a marriage that lasted forty-four years (to publisher Robert Knittel), a daughter,  two granddaughters, and two great-grandchildren.

Ultimately Luise Rainer was an incredible woman. She aided refugees of the Spanish Civil War and entertained the troops during World War II. Those who had the honour to meet her always described her as both intelligent, charming, and gracious. In the end Miss Rainer was not simply a movie star, she was the epitome of a true lady.

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