The Long Life and Short Reign of Luise Rainer

For most of my time on this earth Luise Rainer (1910-2015) was one of Hollywood’s best known unknown actresses, on account of several distinctions that catapulted her to trivia contest immortality. She was the first actress to win two Oscars; she won them in consecutive years; and she won them before she was 30. And astoundingly, she went on to live nearly 70 years after having accomplished those things! She only died a few years ago at the age of 105. That small handful of facts were not strictly all WE knew about her. If you were a film buff like me, you had seen her fetching performance as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) several times, and caught her moving (if dated) turn as O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937) at least once. Those were her two Oscar performances, not incidentally. But beyond that…that was the “unknown”.

And truth to tell, as it happens, those couple of films were almost the entirety of Rainer’s Hollywood career. Born in Dusseldorf, Rainer had started out with the Louise Dumont company in that city, and later found fame in Berlin and Vienna with Max Reinhardt. This led to a couple of German language films, which brought her quickly to Hollywood and an MGM contract. The hope apparently was that she would be a new Dietrich or Garbo, but in spite of beautiful sad eyes and an insinuating smile, Rainer seems not to have become a sex symbol, nor does she seem to have been seriously tried as one. She was a stage actress, and a serious one. After English speech lessons with Constance Collier, she co-starred in Escapade (1935), a remake of the 1934 German film Maskerade, opposite her future Ziegfeld co-star William Powell. Then, the two Oscar turns. And then…oblivions as far as popular memory goes. She married playwright Clifford Odets in 1937, and summered and worked with the Group Theatre during their time together. They divorced after only a few months but remained close at least for a few years. Only five additional films followed on her original contract, all of them pretty well forgotten. She appeared opposite Powell again in The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937) based on a book by the Baroness Orsczy, who gave the world The Scarlet Pimpernel. There were also Big City (1937) with Spencer Tracy, The Toy Wife (1938) with Melvyn Douglas, and Dramatic School (1938) with Paulette Goddard. The most significant of the later films is probably the Strauss bio-pic The Great Waltz (1938), although it didn’t fare well at the box office.

So Rainer did the unthinkable and just quit Hollywood. With Europe embroiled in World War 2, she acted on stage in the U.K. and the U.S. from 1939 to 1942, then returned to Hollywood in 1943 to make one movie for Paramount, entitled Hostages. In 1945 she married publisher Robert Knittel, living mostly thereafter in the U.K. and Switzerland. In the early 1950s, she acted in several American live television dramas and appeared on the variety programs of Ed Sullivan, Ken Murray, Arthur Murray, Steve Allen, and (later) Johnny Carson. On very rare occasions she would emerge from retirement to take a role. She was in a 1965 episode of Combat! and a 1984 episode of The Love Boat (as twins)! And in 1997, the 86 year old Rainer appeared in a screen adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler with Michael Gambon, Polly Walker, and Jodhi May. Imagine doing that in your mid ’80s and then STILL living another 20 years!

To find out more about show biz history please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.