Released in December 1938, Dramatic School was Luise Rainer’s final film for MGM. It marked the end of an extraordinary relationship with Hollywood that saw a fresh-faced, naive, young German actress transformed into an overnight star, an Oscar winner and a liability within the space of four years. It is based on a Hungarian play by Hans Széleky and Zoltan Egyed and owes something to the RKO picture Stage Door (1937) which covers some of the same ground, with aspiring actresses (Katharine Hepburn et al.) sharing their ambitions to be on the stage.
Luise plays an aspiring young actress at the Paris School of Drama whose fantasies of living the high life draw her into a romantic entanglement with a well-known philanthropist. By day she attends drama class, but by night she makes ends meet by working in a factory. Rather than admit this to her classmates she creates an alternative life of parties and nightclubs with her companion, the Marquis D’Abbencourt, whom she had met, briefly, when he visited her factory with the brash actress Gina Bertier. She regales her fellow students with stories of this fantasy life, but one student, Nana, finds it hard to swallow and sets up a trap. She holds a party and invites both Louise (played by Luise) and the Marquis (who, by now, has heard about Louise’s stories and is determined to ‘out’ her in front of her friends). But, as he enters the party he hears Louise telling another great tale of her adventures with him and is bowled over by her charm – he decides to go along with the ruse and they become lovers for real. Louise describes her fantasies as ‘plays’ in which she is acting, but now her play has become reality. The relationship blossoms until, one evening at a nightclub the Marquis is smitten by the dancer La Brasiliana; Louise leaves alone and realises that this particular fantasy is over.
Meanwhile, at the school, her headstrong drama teacher, Madame Charlot, once a great actress but now sensing that her career is over as she has ‘matured’, is rejected for the role of Joan of Arc in a new stage production, being offered instead the much smaller role of Queen Catherine. Charlot and Louise have a strained teacher-pupil relationship (Louise had earlier fallen asleep whilst Charlot performed the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, after working a long night shift at the factory) and she is jealous of Louise’s ability as an actress and her youth (although she would never admit it). When Louise arrives late for class she takes the brunt of Charlot’s anger and frustration and she is sent from the class with the threat of expulsion. But, Louise thanks the teacher and explains that she must suffer for her art, to really understand life and become a great star, and she tells her how she was so inspired to act after seeing Charlot on stage, in her prime. When the time comes for Louise to be expelled Charlot surprises everyone by admitting that she has accepted the part of Queen Catherine and has recommended Louise for Joan. On opening night Louise plays the part to perfection and receives a standing ovation. The Marquis comes backstage to congratulate her and to offer her his companionship once again, but Louise turns him down; ultimately it is Louise’s love for the theatre which wins out. She rushes outside, with her faithful friend Annette to gaze at her name up in lights above the theatre entrance. “That’s me!” she cries.
This is almost a self-referential performance by Luise in her final film for MGM. As the aspiring actress, she expresses some of her own feelings about acting, of wanting to give to an audience and make them feel what she feels. There is a bittersweet taste at the end of the picture when the young Louise, fresh from her triumphant opening night performance rushes into the street to see her name in lights, another in the line of tears-through-adversity roles that Luise had been pigeon-holed in since The Great Ziegfeld‘s famous telephone scene. As her character’s career as a great actress is just beginning so Luise’s is coming to end. It’s a poignant final shot that, with hindsight, is a pertinent scene to end to a brief but illustrious part of Luise’s working life. Although the film would seem almost manufactured to give Luise this fitting farewell she hadn’t yet walked out of her contract, although this film could be seen as the final straw. This was the most tumultuous year for Luise; as her marriage to Clifford Odets disintegrated she found herself pregnant and in the summer of 1938 she had an abortion, and subsequently filed for divorce. Physically and emotionally drained she had begged Louis B. Mayer for a leave of absence to no avail. In March she had won her second Academy Award and by the end of the year three more of her films had been released. In an interview shortly afterwards Luise admitted that, “In Dramatic School I was so exhausted I hardly knew or cared what I was doing, what lines I was saying.” The filming wrapped on 16 October and Luise told her hairdresser that she was done with MGM, with films and with Hollywood. Summoned to the boss’ office Luise recalled the conversation:
“Mr. Mayer, I cannot work any more. It simply is that my source has dried out. I have to go away. I have to rest,” she implored. Mayer replied, “What do you need a source for? Don’t you have a director?” Luise was astonished with his response, the sense of being a piece of machinery, not human. She asked, if not for a full release for her contract at least for a break. Mayer stood his ground. “Luise, we made you, and we’re gonna kill you.”
That was it for Luise. “Mr. Mayer,” she said, “you did not buy a cat in a sack. I was already a star on the stage before I came here. Besides, God made me, not you. I am in my mid-twenties. You. Mr. Mayer, must be in your sixties! In twenty years from now you will be dead. That is when I am starting to live!” This was reportedly their final conversation.
Dramatic School was the third of Luise’s films to be released in 1938. It is a notable contrast to her previous vehicles with its down-to-earth characters and contemporary setting. Gone are the grand opulent costumes and sets of The Great Waltz and The Toy Wife, for a far more prosaic milieu (although the theatre and nightclub scenes do display some of MGM’s usual flair and Adrian’s frocks are as luscious as ever). It suffers somewhat from this limited spectacle and is another in the line of B movies that Luise was inexplicably given after her Oscar success. Luise wasn’t the original choice for the part; it was originally offered to Greer Garson, who couldn’t take part due to a riding accident. One fascinating aspect of the film are its short scenes of her performance as Joan of Arc, a role that Luise played on stage throughout her career, with over 400 performances of Bernard Shaw’s play in Germany, a charity performance in Washington DC during the Second World War (directed by Erwin Piscator), and a summer tour of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine in 1947, none of which exist on film. (To read more about Luise’s performances as Joan of Arc click here). The rest of the cast are starry enough, though, with Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard, Alan Marshal and Gale Sondergaard all turning in great performances, sometimes in stark contrast to Luise’s more expressionistic acting style.
Luise Rainer as Louise Mauban
Paulette Goddard as Nana
Alan Marshal as Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt
Lana Turner as Mado
Genevieve Tobin as Gina Bertier
Anthony Allan as Fleury
Henry Stephenson as Pasquel, Sr.
Gale Sondergaard as Madame Charlot
Melville Cooper as Boulin
Erik Rhodes as Georges Mounier
Virginia Grey as Simone
Ann Rutherford as Yvonne
Hans Conried as Ramy
Rand Brooks as Pasquel, Jr.
Jean Chatburn as Mimi
Marie Blake as Annette
Cecilia C. Callejo as La Brasiliana
Margaret Dumont as Pantomime teacher
Frank Puglia as Alphonse
Dorothy Granger as the Fat Girl
Directed by Robert B. Sinclair
Based on the play School of Drama by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed
Screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall, Jr. with uncredited treatment work by Jacques Deval
Produced by Mervyn LeRoy
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography by William H. Daniels
Edited by Frederick Y. Smith
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Set decoration by Edwin B. Willis
Gowns by Adrian
Associate Art Director: Gabriel Scognamillo
Sound Recording Director: Douglas Shearer
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Loew’s Inc. Production
From the archive:
The Family Circle / 6 January 1939 / USA
Those Flickers In Our Eyes, a review of Dramatic School
See all images in the Dramatic School gallery