Largely forgotten for over fifty years, Luise Rainer arguably is as notable for her meteoric rise to stardom in 1930s Hollywood as she is for her subsequent obscurity. Born in Vienna, Austria, on January 12, 1910, she had already achieved acclaim on the European stage and screen in her twenties. She arrived in Hollywood amid a wave of European artists, writers, scientists, and other intellectuals fleeing Nazi persecution. A protégé of the legendary Max Reinhardt, German theatrical director and fellow refugee, she played in her most memorable roles opposite William Powell in The Great Ziegfeld (MGM, 1936) and Paul Muni in The Good Earth (MGM, 1937). Her performances in these films earned her both raves and an unprecedented two successive Oscars. As part of the gallery of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer luminaries, she also helped define the studio’s reputation as the “Tiffany” of motion picture companies in Depression-era America.
Within three years, however, Rainer’s career had vaporized almost as quickly as its success had taken shape. Columnist Louella Parsons diagnosed Rainer with what the influential Hollywood reporter called the “Oscar curse.” For her part, Rainer considered Hollywood superficial and largely devoid of ideas. Eschewing the glamor images of female stars promulgated through studio publicity, she was known to go without makeup and dress in comfortable old clothes. She reportedly even came to the 1936 Academy Award ceremonies several hours late, and with her hair in disarray. Although MGM touted her as the next Garbo, her subsequent roles typecast her as an obedient, supportive spouse. In both The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, Rainer had played a long-suffering, indefatigable, and loyal wife to celebrated impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and a Chinese peasant, respectively. Roles featuring stronger, more independent women eluded her. In a 1988 interview, for example, she told People Weekly that she attempted to convince MGM to give her the role of Marie Curie, the French scientist eventually played by Greer Garson in 1943. While a succession of undesirable studio-imposed roles and a disastrous marriage to playwright Clifford Odets have been proffered as explanations for the quick demise of Rainer’s career, the roles that had garnered Rainer such acclaim quickly became anachronistic. As the Roosevelt administration prepared the country for war, encouraging industry to usher women into a burgeoning wartime workforce, the image of the obedient, long-suffering wife appeared increasingly out of step with this new social reality. Today, one of Rainer’s greatest roles labors under condescending ethnic stereotyping as well. However compelling, the performances of both Paul Muni and Rainer offer the uncomfortable reminder that Asians and other minorities were largely visible only through stereotypes rendered by white actors and actresses.
In offscreen life, Rainer hardly fit the image of the lachrymose heroines she often portrayed. Along with Odets, Rainer joined other Hollywood talents as a part of the Popular Front, a broad-based coalition of leftist political activism that emerged out of Los Angeles during the 1930s. She served as one of the founding members (along with Muni, journalist Dorothy Parker, novelist and playwright Lillian Hellman, actress Gale Sondergaard, and other Hollywood notables) of the Motion Picture Artists Committee and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, organizations devoted to the cause of Republican Spain against the totalitarian forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
With the collapse of the Popular Front by the late 1930s and her divorce of Odets in 1940, Rainer increasingly eluded public view. Her last Hollywood film, Hostages (1943), received a lukewarm reception despite its timely depiction of the World War II underground resistance movement. Rainer then virtually “disappeared” from the Hollywood scene, though she continued to make infrequent guest appearances on American television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including an episode for the thriller anthology series Suspense (“Torment,” March 30, 1954) and opposite silent film star Ramon Navarro in the World War II series Combat (“Finest Hour,” December 21, 1965), in which she plays a sympathetic countess. In 1988, she appeared in “A Dancer,” a short film produced for Italian television. Having married publisher Robert Knittel (d. 1989) in 1944, she was living in London and Switzerland at the time, the same year in which People Weekly interviewed her for the sixtieth anniversary of the Oscars. Ten years later, she was a featured guest at the 1998 seventieth anniversary Academy Award ceremonies.
At about the same time, the octogenarian Rainer appeared in her first major film release in nearly fifty-five years. The Gambler, a Hungarian/English “story within a story” that weaves the Dostoyevsky tale of the same name with a story about his writing of it, premiered in Europe in 1997 and opened in the United States in 1999. One critic described her performance as “radiant one moment, bereft the next, so feverishly animated that you cannot take your eyes off her.” Appearing in yet another film in 2003, Luise Rainer— whose ninety-five years have spanned everything from Jewish refugee to glamorous Hollywood star—is an inspiring reminder that it’s never too late to return for the “second act.”
Luise Rainer died on December 30, 2014.
Poem – Ich setze den Fuss in die Luft, und sie trug (Poem: I Set My Foot Upon the Air and It Carried Me) (2003); The Gambler (1997); Hostages (1943); Dramatic School (1938); The Great Waltz (1938); The Toy Wife (1938); The Big City/Skyscraper Wilderness (1937); The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937); The Good Earth (1937); The Great Ziegfeld (1936); Escapade (1935); Heute kommt’s drauf an (1933); Sehnsucht 202 (1932); Ja der Himmel über Wien (1930).
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Rainer, Luise. Letter to the author. n.d. .
“Thank Offering; Shaw’s Saint Joan.” Time (March 18, 1940): 68.
Thomas, Bob. “The Viennese Vivacity: Actress Sets Sail on TV after 20-Year Absence.” The Atlanta Constitution (24 Nov. 1983).
“Where Are They Now?” Newsweek (April 15, 1963): 20.
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Carr, Steven Alan. "Luise Rainer." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 15, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rainer-luise>.