Like many compatriots in the pre-war central European arts community, Luise Rainer escaped the fascist clouds gathering over Europe to become one of the leading lights of Hollywood's German expatriate...
Düsseldorf, , DE
|The Big City||Actor||Anna Benton||7|
|The Toy Wife||Actor||Gilberta Brigard||7|
|The Emperor's Candlesticks||Actor||Countess Olga Mironova||7|
|The Great Waltz||1937||Actor||n/a||19377|
|The Good Earth||1936||Actor||n/a||19367|
|Poem - I Set My Foot Upon the Air and it Carried Me||2002||Actor||n/a||20027|
|The Great Ziegfeld||1935||Actor||Anna Held||19357|
|Greta Garbo: A Lone Star||2001 2000 - 2001||Actor||Interviewee||20017|
|Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Film||2008||Actor||n/a||20087|
|MGM: When the Lion Roars||1991 1990 - 1991||Actor||n/a||19917|
|Changing Stages||2000 1999 - 2000||Actor||Interviewee||20007|
|The 70th Annual Academy Awards||1997 1996 - 1997||Actor||n/a||19977|
|Happy Birthday, Hollywood!||1986 1985 - 1986||Actor||n/a||19867|
|Appeared as a performer on the "Woman Overboard" production of "Faith Baldwin's Theater of Romance" (ABC)|
|Made occasional stage appearances during her "retirement" from film acting, including a solo performance of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden" at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in Los Angeles, CA|
|Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame|
|Celebrated her 100th birthday|
|Returned to features with an extended cameo in Karoly Makk's "The Gambler," starring Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoyevsky|
|Once again appeared on a televised play, the "Torment" episode of "Suspense" (CBS)|
|Raised in Germany, Switzerland and Austria|
|Left home to pursue acting career at age 16|
|Turned up as perhaps the best witness in TNT's "MGM: When the Lion Roars"|
|Made last film for 54 years, "Hostages" (Paramount)|
|Won second Oscar as O-Lan in "The Good Earth"|
|Guest starred on the long-running primetime series "The Love Boat" (ABC)|
|Starred on Broadway in revival of "A Kiss for Cinderella"|
|Joined Max Reinhardt's acting company|
|Made U.S. film debut in "Escapade," the first of three films made with William Powell; took over part abandoned by Myrna Loy|
|Coaxed out of a 20-year retirement to appear on "Combat!" (ABC)|
|Film debut in "Ja der Himmel uber Wien"|
|Won first Academy Award for playing Anna Held in "The Great Ziegfeld"; became the first actress to win an Oscar for portraying a real-life person|
|Left MGM after a series of box office and critical flops; retired from the film industry|
She was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on Jan. 12, 1910, the daughter of Emmy Luise and Heinrich Rainer, a wealthy import/export merchant and a citizen of the United States. Hearing the call of the stage early, she left home at age 16 to study at theatrical pioneer Max Reinhardt's Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, Austria. She acted in a raft of Reinhardt's productions, including Shakespearean works and George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." She made her screen debut in the short film "Ja, der Himmel über Wien" (1930), and appearing in her first feature two years later in the musical comedy "Sehnsucht 202" (1932). Rainer did two more German-language films, but the assumption of power by Hitler's overtly anti-Semitic Nazi party in Germany spurred her and other Europeans of Jewish ancestry, including Reinhardt and later Rainer's father, to immigrate to America. Wooed by Hollywood's prestige studio, MGM, Rainer signed a seven-year contract. The studio put her on familiar turf, casting her in the Vienna-set farce "Escapade" (1935) opposite one of its biggest stars, William Powell. She dazzled critics and impressed Powell enough that he insisted she be cast in his next film, a grandiose biopic of New York stage producer extraordinaire Florence Ziegfeld, "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936). It was only a small role, playing Ziegfeld's ex-wife, but Rainer's scene congratulating Ziegfeld on his imminent remarriage showed such bittersweet intensity that it helped her cinch the Best Actress Oscar the next year.
Even before her win, however, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg had set the stage for her next project, an ambitious adaptation of Pearl Buck's Chinese saga "The Good Earth" (1937). Thalberg had cast Paul Muni in the male lead, which complicated his hope to give the female lead to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, since the censorial Hays Office would not condone onscreen "miscegenation," the odious taboo America then assigned to interracial relationships. Over studio head Mayer's objections - he wanted to hone Rainer as another exotic glamour queen, a la Garbo and Dietrich - Rainer took the part. Her turn as the steadfast farmer's wife would win her a second Oscar, but "The Good Earth" would prove Thalberg's last production before his untimely death and his absence would portend poorly for her career. Mayer assumed MGM's production stewardship, and he and Rainer soon were at loggerheads. Mayer's pathological veneration of women led him to disproportionately lighten MGM's fare and gloss over any complexity in female characters. He altered one script wholesale by changing Rainer's character, a prostitute, into a virtuous young lady, the resulting film "The Bride Wore Red" (1937) which eventually starred Joan Crawford instead. Rainer's 1937 marriage to playwright Clifford Odets, a leftist and iconoclastic founder of the Group Theater, did not thrill the conservative Mayer either. And Rainer, ever unimpressed with Hollywood's pomp and circumstance, only attended the 1938 Oscar ceremony after Mayer ordered her to go.
As the relationship soured, she found herself snubbed for roles she actually wanted. She reteamed with Powell in "The Emperor's Candlesticks" (1937), played the wife of cabbie Spencer Tracy in "Big City" (1937), essayed a sister immersed in a love triangle opposite Melvyn Douglas in "The Toy Wife" (1938), and headed an ensemble in the anemic inside-acting yarn "Dramatic School" (1938). Her last true feature hit would be "The Great Waltz" (1938), in which she played the beleaguered wife of composer Johann Strauss. After that, however, her unwillingness to accept parts being offered her led Mayer to release her from her contract. Rainer moved to New York City with Odets - though the marriage deteriorated and ended in 1940 - and returned to the stage, starring in plays in the U.K. and making her Broadway debut in "A Kiss for Cinderella" in 1942.
Rainer returned to Hollywood briefly to make "Hostages" (1943) for Paramount, the taut tale of a group of Czech citizens jailed by German occupation forces until someone confesses to the murder of a German officer. Like many movie stars during WWII, she lent her celebrity to war-bond drives and entertaining U.S. troops, making tour stops as far afield as North Africa and Italy after Allied forces had secured them. But thereafter she would essentially leave show business and the U.S. behind by marrying English publishing executive Robert Knittel in 1945 and moving to England. It would not be until 1949 that she would make another movie, the BBC telefilm "By Candlelight." She took to the stage again in 1950, starring in a brief revival of Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" on Broadway. She would crop up during the 1950s in featured one-off performances in early U.S. television anthology shows, such as "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (CBS, 1951-59), "Lux Video Theatre" (CBS/NBC 1950-59) and "Suspense" (CBS, 1949-1954), but for the most part retired to her and Knittel's homes in London and Switzerland.
Privately, Rainer tried her hand at painting and was lured back before the cameras only rarely in ensuing decades, playing a countess in an episode of "Combat!" (ABC, 1962-67) in 1965 and making an improbable guest-shot on "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) in 1984. In 1997, she returned to the big screen in a UK/Hungarian/Dutch adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler," drawing raves for her scenes as an aristocratic matriarch invigorated by her discovery of the roulette table. Ensconced in a luxury apartment in London after Knittel's 1989 death, Rainer made an appearance at the 75th anniversary Academy Awards broadcast in 2003 for a tribute to past winners. In 2012, she was profiled in Entertainment Weekly in a story entitled "The Oldest Oscar Winner Speaks," in which the 102-year-old legend granted a brief interview, discussing her colorful life and brief tenure as a reigning star of Hollywood's Golden Age.
By Matthew Grimm
|Robert Knittel||Husband||Married July 12, 1945 until his death on June 15, 1989|
|Francesca Knittel-Bowyer||Daughter||Born June 2, 1946; father, Robert Knittel|
|Clifford Odets||Husband||Married Jan. 8, 1937; Separated in 1939; Divorced May 14, 1940|
|Heinrich Rainer||Father||Ran an import-export firm; American citizen|
|Rainer had two solo exhibitions of her paintings in London.|
|She became a U.S. citizen in the 1940s.|
|Rainer reportedly turned down an offer from Federico Fellini to appear in "La Dolce Vita" (1960) because she refused to go to bed on-screen with Marcello Mastroianni. She failed to land the role of Marie Curie (Greer Garson landed the part) and lost the female lead in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943) to Ingrid Bergman and, after moving to NYC and doing some theater there, rejected Tennessee Williams' invitation to appear in "The Glass Menagerie."|
|"Hollywood? I felt very alone in Hollywood. I couldn't wait to get out. I hated the films they asked me to make. They put me on a pedestal in Hollywood - and I didn't like being put on a pedestal." - Rainer to The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 1997|
|"I'm proud of one thing. I'm proud of having emerged unscathed without liquor or dope after 50 years of mostly not doing my work. I'm healthy and I kept healthy. When I see the dissipation of most actresses who don't work any more, I feel very lucky." - Rainer to The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 1997|
|About receiving an invitation to a screening for "The Gambler" (1997) and seeing her name at the bottom of the cast list in smaller print than the others: "I'm furious. I've been living in the background, and that's been fine because that's my life; I'm a little fly like everybody else. But I still have a name. I'm supposed to be a very good actress. And now when I do something - and for charity money - and I give interviews and help them a great deal...I find this invitation an insult." - Rainer in The London Times, Nov. 6, 1997|
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