by Harry Haun
Luise Rainer is on the telephone. It isn’t Flo. It’s a fan. From downstairs. The poor chap has come all the way from Boston to the lobby of the Regency just to meet her. She’s flattered, naturally – 40 years off the screen, any way you splice it, is 40 years off the screen – but she’s firm. Her schedule is very tight, she tells the caller, and she’s right in the middle of an interview.
She hangs up and settles back into the sofa. Where was she? “Oh, yes,” she lights up. “Millicent Martin.” She’d seen Millicent Martin do Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,’ on television, and from the way she carries on about it you’d think the song was Rainer’s own personal anthem. In time, she sees the irony of her ways, and a smile passes for an apology across her face. “Of course, it’s not My song,” she slyly concedes. “I’m still there.”
There, according to Luise Rainer’s timetable, is Hollywood of the ’30s – a golden time of great Deeds and Ziegfelds, when movies really were better than ever and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was accumulating “more stars than there are in Heaven.”
Luise Rainer was one of those stars. She went out there a star and came back a curio (albeit, a curio with two Academy Awards). No one had ever won two Academy Awards before her – much less won them consecutively – and to do this meant that she finished first on a classic track that included Greta Garbo in Camille, Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and Theodora Goes Wild, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas. None of these actresses ever won Oscars. They were lucky like that. Rainer, on the other hand, OD-ed on Oscars after only three years and eight films, which even beats Diana Barrymore’s record for too much too soon.
None of it was fun, Rainer claims,. “My career, if I can call it a career – it was certainly a strange career, a very short one – went up and up and up while my personal life went down and down and down. I had three years of monstrous existence, and the world thought I was on top.”
It’s an old, now-it-can-be-told story. Strangely, Rainer has never told it – “I hate these actresses’ books!” – and for the past 33 years she has been married to a publisher, Robert Knittel (of William Collins, in London). “He’s a rock of Gibraltar,” she says, and “Gibraltar” flies into a thousand pieces under the weight of her Germanized English. She speaks like grease frying – snap, crackle and Ouspenskaya – huskily theatrical, heavily Teutonic. A touch of laryngitis, which she blames on the hotel air-conditioning, wears especially well, breaking her words off nicely at the right emotional spots.
The eyes still have it, too. There’s a quiet little cry for help about them – the old damsel-in-distress signal that comes from another time, another place. Soulful was always an easy reach for Rainer. It was her trademark and ultimately, through overuse, her downfall.
MGM found her in a Viennese repertory company in ’34, starring (prophetically) in An American Tragedy, and signed her to a seven-year contract. She was to be the studio’s secret weapon to keep the then-difficult Garbo in line, but the cure quickly became worse than the disease. Two idle months elapsed before Metro could figure out how to use Rainer – and then only through the accidental intervention of Anita Loos, who encountered Rainer one evening dog-walking along the ocean and phoned the front office immediately. By the time Rainer returned to her bungalow, it was surrounded by limos to whisk her off to replace Myrna Loy in Escapade. Rainer remembers that the studio cars resembled a funeral procession.
Loos’ star instincts were readily apparent to William Powell, Rainer’s first and most frequent co-star. “He was a lovely person,” Rainer recalls. “After we shot the first few scenes, he went straight to the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, and said, ‘You’ve got to star this girl, or I’ll look like an idiot.’ Which was marvelous of him. That’s how I became a star, on my second day at the studio.”
Her new-found star status triggered her studio wars. Heaven and hell raged across Mayer’s desk. He wanted to loan her to 20th Century-Fox for the lead, opposite Ronald Colman, in The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, but Rainer balked and instead talked him into a much smaller role in Powell’s next picture. “There’s this little scene I think I can do something with, ” she told Mayer.
This little scene – which Mayer ordered out after the first previews but later restored – was the classic telephone scene from The Great Ziegfeld, in which Rainer, as the first Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld (actress Anna Held), extends her hollowest congratulations to her ex on his forthcoming marriage to Billie Burke. She gave the scene a touching, smiling-through-tears poignancy and got there, she now admits, by thinking of a doomed little cocker spaniel she had seen only the evening before. “All night sorrow welled up in me very naturally, and it came out during that scene whenever I thought of that little dog. Sadness is sadness. When you’re sad, you may be sad about one thing or another, but the feeling is the same and if it wells up in you, you can make use of it and translate it into whatever you need.” In this case, Rainer translated it into the New York Film Critics award and her first Oscar.
“When I received this Academy Award,” she says, “I did not feel any great thing about it. It wasn’t something I had coveted because I hardly knew what it was. I thought, ‘It’s like a good review or maybe a better review.’ It didn’t mean to me that I even deserved it, but I was supposed to say thank you, so I said thank you, and I wanted to go on to the next thing. The next thing was The Good Earth.”
And her second Oscar. This one was won under combat conditions. O-Lan, the Chinese peasant wife in Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-wining saga, was a considerably larger role than Anna Held, but it went the same long-suffering, cuckolded route, and Rainer played it in silence (with less than two dozen lines of dialogue in the whole picture). Also, her instinctual acting style was at odds with the overly calculated technique of her co-star, Paul Muni, who let it be known around the set that he did not approve of Rainer. She made use of his attitude: “As I played this poor drudge, it was quite alright not to be approved of.”
Meanwhile, Rainer was in love with a kindred-lost-soul-in-Hollywood, Clifford Odets, who, with three prestigious hit plays in ’35 and no money in the bank, had gone West to write high-priced screenplays for Samuel Goldwyn. The leftist elites back East accused him of selling out – “Odets, where is thy sting?” they wailed – and his life as “Mr. Rainer” took his ego down another notch.
“There was a great beauty to Odets,” says Rainer, “but he suffered under my success. He wanted to have me to himself – to be everything I was, with all the world success and everything, but for him alone and nobody else. It was a colossal discrepancy. I had never met a man like Odets before. He talked a language that was practically foreign to me. Throughout our marriage, I never even knew he was a Communist.”
Odets wrote The General Died at Dawn with his bride in mind for the heroine, but MGM refused to loan her out for the part. Mayer, a die-hard Republican, had in fact tried to head off the marriage – to no avail. “I don’t believe that one can prevent anything that happens in one’s life,” Rainer feels. “I should never have married Clifford Odets – not for his politics but because Cliff was not a human being who should have been married to anybody. Our marriage was disastrous, although I do believe that, as far as he was able to, he was very, very much in love with me. But the only way for him to get away from me – that is, to not love the very thing he feared might be destructive to his ego – was to kill me, not physically but emotionally.
“And, of course, the whole Group Theatre was part of it. Harold Clurman felt that he owned Clifford Odets. Whenever Cliff came to Hollywood to see me, the next day practically Harold Clurman followed and said, ‘You come back.’ The Group Theatre fought me tooth and nail, fought this marriage, and MGM fought this marriage, and Odets fought me, and in the middle of all this I was supposed to keep up an enormous career.”
The night Rainer made Oscar history with her second Academy Award was the only time in the Academy’s existence that winners were announced in advance, in time for the first editions. She got word from reporters who asked why she wasn’t attending the awards dinner and if she was snubbing the Academy. “I was so involved in my misery with Odets that I was completely unaware of the Oscars, but I felt that I had to at least go to the dinner. Odets and I then had an awful row, and I asked him not to come with me, but he came, and all the way down he was terrible to me. I was in tears by the time we got to the Biltmore, and we had to walk around the hotel five times before going in. I couldn’t go in the way I felt. And just when we finally walked in, they announced I got my second Academy Award.”
Anyone observing Rainer in the spotlight and Odets very much in her shadow would have concluded that A Star Is Born was more than a Best Picture contender that evening. But then, the life she led in those days – moving with the gods of Hollywood, a comet out of control – was the stuff that movies were made of. She once made the mistake of telling a screenwriter-friend about the time she knew her marriage to Odets was over – driving home from a music lesson, she turned on the windshield wipers and discovered it wasn’t raining at all, that she was crying – and Ingrid Bergman wound up doing the scene in Goodbye Again.
As for Odets, adversity strengthened his spirit. At this low point he was quietly incubating his greatest success, Golden Boy. (Not a few felt he got the title from glaring at Rainer’s Great Ziegfeld Oscar.) Two Oscars in their Brentwood home were tantamount to three strikes for the marriage, and the couple parted.
Career problems accelerated for Rainer with mediocre parts in The Emperor’s Candlesticks and Big City. A substantial increase in salary – (at the time of The Good Earth, Rainer was raking in all of $250 a week) – hardly compensated for such material. Whenever she raised objections, the studio would declare her “difficult” and take away her bonuses. Recognizing a runaway career in the offing, Rainer charged the front office and reduced Mayer to tears (“big tears, too”) on several occasions. “I became choosy,” she says. “I felt I’d rather sell my body than my soul. The work was my soul. During my time in Hollywood, this whole thing of being an actress turned from being an artist into show business, with the emphasis on business. I just didn’t fit into that. I still don’t.”
Eventually, a (verbal) “gentleman’s agreement” of two films a year was struck – but not honored. Shortly after the miscarriage she suffered during her marriage – between the filming of The Toy Wife and the fittings for Dramatic School – MGM sweet-talked an extra picture out of Rainer (needing her name to sell The Great Waltz, the film biography of Johann Strauss starring Fernand Gravet). The result, unfortunately, turned out to be the story of Mrs. Strauss and had to be almost completely re-shot. Victor Fleming replaced Julien Duvivier as director, minimizing Rainer’s suffering-wife role maximizing Miliza Korjus’ extramarital love interest.
A humiliated and depleted Rainer went to Mayer to request some time off. “I said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Mayer, but I have the feeling that my source has dried out.’ He looked at me blankly and said “What do you need a source for? Don’t you have a director?’ Well, how do you talk to a man like that? You must understand I came from a repertory theatre. I am connected. When I say I am connected, I mean that I need things to renew myself – trees, mountains, birds – so I can come and sing it out again.
“This whole thing about success, I thought, ‘My God, to be judged not by a basic talent that may go up and may go down, but by the success of the last thing you’ve done. What kind of an existence is this? This is berserk. This is not being an artist.’ I don’t believe in success. I believe in talent. I believe in gifts, and I’m very much against this kind of success madness. That’s the reason people don’t develop, why they’re killed off before they are really in bloom.”
Making no headway with Mayer, she started writing studio stockholders, in longhand, for her release. That too failed, so, on the last day of shooting Dramatic School, Rainer casually told her hairdresser that she would not be returning to the studio. A half hour later, Mayer was on the phone. “I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Mayer, I am leaving. I have been begging for my release, and now I have to go. I am physically and spiritually at an end.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you something: we made you, and we can kill you.’ I told him, “Mr. Mayer, you didn’t make me. God made me. And you can’t kill a talent.”
Mayer did a damn good imitation of it, nevertheless, and kept Rainer off the screen until ’43. She recouped in Europe in the interim, did a play in London in ’40 (Behold the Bride) and starred on Broadway in a revival of James M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella in ’42. When she was finally free to do films, she chose Paramount’s Hostages, basing her decision on the book by Stefan Heym. The script, alas, was unplayable. It was her ninth – and last – film. “The only person who ever saw it that I know,” she says, “was my mother-in-law, and she’s never forgiven me since.”
That disappointment was followed by another. Jean Renoir signed her to star in The Temptress, based on a Dudley Nichols script about a housewife who falls in love with a burglar. However, Jean Gabin, who had the male lead, wanted his amour-of-the-moment, Marlene Dietrich, for co-star and, to understate it, did not take kindly to the Rainer casting. “The head of RKO was so appalled by Gabin’s behavior,” Rainer says, “that he was never permitted to play anymore in Hollywood. We were all paid, and the film was called off.”
Rainer’s incredible ride in Hollywood ended on that downbeat note. “but look at me,” she says, “I’m very well, and I’m happy. Many people envy me, and maybe today they have more reason to envy me than they had then.” Aside from one major regret (not getting to play Madame Curie), she has not really missed the movies. Painting, occasional stage appearances and, most of all, playing London publisher’s wife have kept her busy. (The Knittel’s have a daughter, Franceska [sic], now 32 and Mrs. James Bowyer.)
“While I’ve been in New York this time, I’ve read various scripts,” says Rainer. “But it is better I never do anything anymore, unless I can do something that really gives something to an audience. After all, what did I fight for if, at the end, I give up to do the opposite?”
 Diana Barrymore‘s short life was very full – of both excess, love and turmoil. Her 1957 autobiography was titled Too Much, Too Soon.
 Maria Ouspenskaya, Russian actresss, who played memorable characters parts in Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.
 Luise’s pregnancy is not reported in any contemporaneous reports, however, private papers show that the pregnancy was terminated in the summer of 1938. She did not miscarry.
 Once again, this figure does not include the three films Luise made in Europe before moving to Hollywood. The total films she had made up to this point is 12.