There are many stories of Hollywood stars working their way through B pictures and bit parts waiting for that big break and the chance to shine. Not for Luise Rainer; already a star of the German stage when she was spotted by MGM and shipped over to their film factory there was some concern over what to do with her. It was generally thought that she was too unusual, too un-Hollywood in both looks and attitude for her to tread the usual path of audience-friendly supporting roles before launching her to stardom. It took some time before the American public saw Luise on the big screen. MGM holed her up in a beach house for over 6 months and, with her stilted English, she had been having regular lessons with Constance Collier, not only on her diction but also on her deportment, style and appearance. When Luise’s first film role did come along it was by default, not by design. Luise always felt that the studio didn’t quite know what to do with her, and her debut film in Hollywood is a perfect example. The part was originally intended for Helen Hayes but eventually fell to Myrna Loy; already riding high after the first of her Thin Manfilms with William Powell, this would team them up for the fourth time (their partnership would see them through a total of fourteen films). But Loy was concerned about being miscast and left the part after only two weeks. It has been rumoured that playwright and screenwriter Anita Loos first suggested that Luise take over the part, but it’s hard to see who else could have done it.
The film, a remake of the 1934 Austrian picture Maskerade was perfect for Luise. It was one of a number of European films whose rights had been purchased by MGM in the 1930s, riding on the wave of European faux-sophistication that made all things from across the Atlantic bankable commodities. Luise plays an attendant to the Countess Feldon in turn-of-the-century Vienna (played in the original by Paula Wessely) who is drawn into a scandal when well-known artist Fritz Heideneck (Powell) draws her name at random from the city directory to get himself out of a scrape. The fiancee of conductor Paul Harrandt (Reginald Owen) recently attended a social event where she won a chinchilla fur muff and scarf; the win was widely reported, so when her sister, Gerta (Virgina Bruce) takes the furs and sneaks out wearing them to visit Heideneck and pose for a risque portrait it sets off a chain of events that spirals out of control. Heideneck’s portrait shows only a scantily-clad lady, wearing only the furs, but does not reveal her face. When Harrandt’s brother sees the picture for the first time he recognises the furs and concludes that his brother’s fiancee has been improperly engaging with the artist. Harrandt dismisses the rumour and visits Heideneck to put his, and his brother’s mind at rest. Heideneck refuses to name his model but insists that it is not Anita, Harrandt’s bride-to-be. The conductor believes him, but, to satisfy his brother he asks that Heideneck choose a name at random, who they will then say is the subject of the portrait. From the city directory they choose Leopoldine Major (Rainer). Harrandt’s brother, Karl (Frank Morgan) is not satisfied with the answer and thinks up a ruse to visit the Countess, and so also Leopoldine…and so it goes. The farce continues apace with mistaken identity and romance, until the film takes a more sinister turn with jealousy, rage and gunfire! The film also features recordings of Enrico Caruso for many of the opera scenes as well as a new song, You’re All I Need, by Gus Kahn, Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann, sung by Lorraine Bridges.
MGM surrounded their new star with a supporting cast of their best-loved stars (it could be argued that the cast have far too good a pedigree for the material). As well as Powell, this included Frank Morgan as ‘Karl’, fresh from an Oscar nomination for The Affairs of Cellini (1934); as the troublesome sister there was Virginia Bruce, already a veteran of over 30 films at the age of 25. As the Countess Laura Hope Crews, star of Broadway and familiar to moviegoers for her recent portrayals of dependable matriachs (she is now best-remembered for playing ‘Aunt Pittypat Hamilton’ in Gone With The Wind (1939)), and Reginald Owen, never a lead, but a stalwart charactor actor for the studio, played Karl’s brother Paul, the conductor. Many of the cast reunited the next year for Luise’s second American film, The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
As if this wasn’t enough to herald the debut of their new discovery, MGM employed an unusual and possibly unique technique in the final reel; after the film has finished William Powell returns to the screen from behind a curtain and personally introduces his new co-star to the audience. Luise then joins him on screen to say a few words about her experience on making the film, and that she hopes her English will be better next time. Whether it’s just another MGM adman’s soundbite or a genuine, sincere request, Powell has been quoted as saying to the studio, “You have to star that girl, or I’ll look like an idiot!”, insisting that Luise had joint top billing. It was certainly an auspicious debut; Luise had arrived, MGM had a hit and a new star. The team of Powell and Rainer went straight off the back of Escapade into The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Luise worked with Powell again in 1937’s The Emperor’s Candlesticks and has often said of him that he was one of the few people she worked with that she genuinely liked, “a very dear man”.
Less than a month after the film’s release the UK magazine Film Weekly announced that ‘A New Star Is Born” in a two page spread featuring images from the film. “If the promise of her first film is fulfilled Luise is destined to take her place among the great stars of the screen.” The profile continues, “In her lighter moments Luise Rainer has something of Elizabeth Bergner’s style. She has a dramatic quality akin to Dorothea Weick allied to sex appeal approaching that of Marlene Dietrich.”
The following letter from a fan was published in Photoplay magazine in October 1935 and it amply demonstrates how, from this debut, her stardom was guaranteed, mentioned in the same sentence as Garbo and Dietrich and loaded with expectations:
“I should like to be among the first to throw my hat in the air and give a few lusty cheers for the new Viennese importation, Luise Rainer, who made such an auspicious beginning of her Hollywood career in “Escapade.” With the notable exceptions of Garbo and Dietrich, none of the foreign movie actresses has made a very startling success in spite of the avalanche of publicity with which they were launched. Miss Rainer’s case, I believe, will be very different. I can only hope that the movie moguls will refrain from bleaching her hair, plucking her eyebrows, and damning her with the twin epithets “exotic” and “glamorous.” She distinctly has something to offer, being a remarkably clever and finished actress with an odd sort of beauty all her own.” J.S.H., Washington, D.C.
MGM had also purchased the rights to Escapade‘s sequel Episode, but they never made it. Instead it went to Warner Brothers who filmed it in 1940 (as My Love Come Back). Escapade is now extremely rare and, as far as I can see, has never been released on home video or on DVD. It continues to prove elusive due to issues with the rights which are mired in complications. One theory is that once MGM’s ownership had expired the rights reverted to Walter Reisch, the original writer. This may account for its unavailability for public screening, although just how many copies even still exist is unknown. There were two very rare screenings in the early 1990s, most likely showing prints from private collections. In 1992 it was screened at the historic Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto as part of a William Powell retrospective (it was first shown at this cinema on its initial release in 1935). The film was also screened, apparently at Luise’s request, for her personal appearance at the Cinecon 30th anniversary event in Los Angeles in 1994. I have been unable to verify any other screenings and would welcome any further information. There are rumours that Luise herself owned a private copy of the film (which may be the print screened at CineCon), however, when I spoke to her about the films in 2002 she said she did not own any copies of any of her work at MGM. If it’s true that she did have a copy of the film this did not surface in the effects of her estate which were auctioned in October 2015.
Read the 1935 New York Times review (requires free registration)