Luise Rainer’s film career spans 70 years, but in this time she appeared in just 14 feature films. Despite this she clocked up appearances in everything from costume drama to comedy, musicals, MGM epics and wartime melodrama.
Luise made her film debut in Sehnsucht 202 (1932) and appeared in two more films in Europe before she was signed up by MGM. Seeing an opportunity to launch a new star to keep Greta Garbo in check, MGM welcomed Luise to Tinseltown with fanfare. When Myrna Loy dropped out of filming on Escapade (1935) the studio had the perfect vehicle with which to launch their newest acquisition. Luise received joint billing with popular leading man, William Powell, and a star was born.
The trajectory of Luise’s career was swift but short-lived. Within four years she would make seven further films for MGM and win two Academy Awards. In Luise’s own words: “I played a governess, a tempestuous actress and an old Chinese woman but Louis B. Mayer, who was not one of my favourite men, said, ‘My God, that woman is hard to cast.’ I was so foreign to them in every way. They didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them.” A terrific workload, pressure to live up to the studio’s hype and her double Oscar-winning reputation, alongside a difficult marriage to Clifford Odets all contributed to her burn-out. In 1938 she informed Mayer that her “source had dried up” and that she needed time out to recuperate. His reply, “Why do you need a source, you have a director! We made you, and we’re gonna kill you”. It was their last conversation and the end of her Hollywood career, just four years after she had arrived. She returned to make one more film, for Paramount, in 1943.
Luise is probably now best remembered for her two Oscar-winning performances in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937), the latter an example of the kind of roles she was craving – an adaptation of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Pearl S. Buck, and a character of depth and weight. She found herself at loggerheads with Louis B. Mayer about the direction of her career and the parts she was being offered, lobbying him to play, in her words, “serious” parts – ‘Nora’ in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; Karen Blixen in Out of Africa; Marie Curie in the biopic of the great scientist. It seems like a perverse form of punishment for Luise’s nonconformity that she was so badly mismanaged, being instead thrown into a series of light but forgettable films, none of which reflect her status as a two-time Best Actress Academy Award winner.
Her opinion of Hollywood changed somewhat during the Second World War, after a few years away from the craziness of MGM. Realising that her ability to reach a huge audience, and the fame that she had so often avoided, was useful for bringing attention to causes which she felt were important or overlooked she visited troops in Africa and Europe, and she lent her name to anti-Fascist campaigns. This informed her decision to return to the big screen after a five year break to make one final film in Hollywood, the wartime melodrama Hostages (1943). It would be another 54 years before she made another film, The Gambler (1997). In 1987 she admitted that, “I was never really satisfied with my work. I always believed it could be done better. Actually, I’ve always felt guilty about not having continued to work [in film]. I should have made 50 more pictures.” Her final theatrically released film was the portmanteau work, Poem – Ich setzte den Fuß in die Luft und sie trug (2003), in which she spoke her native German on-screen for the first time in 70 years.
This is a complete list of all of Luise’s films made for the big screen.
Click on a title to see more details about each film. Below you’ll also find documentaries and television films in which Luise appeared and a list of other films to which Luise was connected.
Theatrical feature films:
Sehnsucht 202 (1932)
Madame hat Besuch (1932)
Heut kommt’s drauf an (1933)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
The Good Earth (1937)
The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937)
Big City (1937)
The Toy Wife (1938)
The Great Waltz (1938)
Dramatic School (1938)
The Gambler (1997)
Poem – Ich setzte den Fuß in die Luft und sie trug (2003)
Documentaries and films made-for-television:
Another Romance of Celluloid (1938) (documentary short)
By Herself: A Dancer (1988)
MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992)
That’s Entertainment III (1994) (archive footage only)
Greta Garbo: A Lone Star (2001)
Behind Poem (2004)
Ziegfeld on Film (2004)
Hollywood Chinese (2007) (documentary)
Although Luise left her MGM contract in 1938 she did not, as is often reported, give up on acting or retire from films. She continued to appear on stage and television and there were many other offers to return to the big screen. During her MGM tenure her name was attached to a number of projects that didn’t see the light of day, as well as those films which went to other actresses, and after walking out there were occasional reports of a comeback. These films are listed below together with films in which Luise wanted to appear and those which were never made but to which Luise aspired. Of all of the films she didn’t make, there are three which she has regularly cited as her greatest regrets; For Whom the Bell Tolls, Madame Curie and Love is a Many Splendored Thing; I will be writing about all of these films individually so click on a title (where available) to read more about how they fit into Luise’s story. Also in this list are any other films to which Luise’s name was attached, however briefly.
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935)
The General Died at Dawn (1936)
The Bride Wore Red (1937)
Double Wedding (1937)
Merry Christmas (1937)
Untitled Sarah Bernhardt biopic (1937)
La charrete fantome (1939)
Maiden Voyage / Bridal Suite (1939)
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Madame Curie (1943)
The Song of Bernadette (1943)
The Temptress (not filmed)
Dragon Seed (1944)
China Sky (1945)
Johnny Belinda (1948)
Unknown J. Arthur Rank Project (1948)
Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time (1949)
Give Us This Day (1949)
Unknown Vittorio de Sica Project (c.1950)
Unknown Carol Reed Project (c. 1950)
Unknown Japanese-set Project (1952)
Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955)
La dolce vita (1960)
The Singing Nun (1966)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Out of Africa (1985)
Love Affair (1991)