by Harry Evans
YOU should see “Escapade” if for no other reason than to keep your neighbors from pestering you. And don’t worry, they will pester you. “Have you seen this new Viennese actress, Luise Rainer?” they will ask, and if you say you haven’t, they will back you into a corner and proceed to try to describe what no person can really describe to another. A screen personality. And having admitted defeat before starting, I will now try to describe Miss Rainer to you, along with several details of “Escapade.”
The film, co-starring Miss Rainer (pronounced Ryner) and William Powell, is based on a story which, at first hand, would seem to be just another of those tales about a man who is such a fascinating dog that all the ladies fall for him. And, as is so often the case in these narratives, the gal who finally slows him down to a wedding march is a mousey, unsophisticated little thing, whose very artlessness gets him. In “Escapade,” however, the general idea is exploited in an interesting manner due to the intelligence used in selecting the cast – the extravagance lavished on production details (costumes, scenery, and so on) – the excellent dialog written by Herman J. Mankiewicz – and the masterful direction by Robert Z. Leonard.
A quick glance at the list of players will convince the real movie fan that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer meant to make Miss Rainer’s American debut foolproof. Supporting the two stars are Frank Morgan, Reginald Owen, Laura Hope Crews, Virginia Bruce, Mady Christians, Henry Travers, and Mathilda Comont. No wonder the movies are giving the legitimate stage the jitters. No Broadway producer could afford to exhibit a third of that talent in one play and hope to make expenses.
HERE, briefly, is what goes on: The time is about 1900. Place, Vienna. Mr. Morgan, famous surgeon, is married to lovely, flirtatious Miss Bruce. His brother, Mr. Owen, noted concert conductor, is engaged to lovely but not flirtatious Miss Christians. Both gals care for Mr. Powell, popular artist. The surgeon’s wif, in a spirit of recklessness one evening, agrees to pose for the artist – in a set of furs. But she insists on wearing a mask to conceal her identity. The portrait appears in a newspaper, and all Vienna is agog “Who is this new lady-love who poses for Fritz (Mr. Powell)?” everyone is asking. And then the surgeon gets a clue. He recognizes the furs. They belong to his brother’s fiancee. What he doesn’t know is that his wife had borrowed the furs to wear that evening.
Confronted with the evidence, the artist denies that either the surgeon’s wife or the musician’s fiancee posed for him. But the affronted men do not believe him. He must either tell them the model’s name or fight a duel. Mr. Powell chooses a name at random. “Her name,” he stammers, “is Major. Major with a ‘j.’ ” Then the suspicious surgeon looks up the name in the Vienna directory and, sure enough, there is a Major. And just one. Leopoldine Major. She is the companion of a socially prominent countess.
So there is the mix-up. A naive, innocent lady suddenly branded as the model and girl friend of Vienna’s gayest Lothario. How love comes along to save her reputation and satisfy the National Board of Censorship should not be revealed here but it is all most engaging and quite convincing.
There is no need to tell you about any of the players except Miss Rainer. You are already aware that there is no man on the screen who can top Mr. Powell when it comes to playing the role of a fascinating philanderer. Nor can a word from this observer add anything to the reputations of such artists as Mr. Morgan and Mr. Owen. If either of them ever gave a bad performance, I missed the film. But about Miss Rainer:
LUISE RAINER is a native of Vienna. She is between 22 and 23 years old, which will make her 20 when you read her age in the fan magazines. She is exceptionally well educated, having attended number of schools in Austria and Germany, but she knew little English before coming to America about six months ago. Much of what she now knows of the language she picked up on the boat coming over. The rest she learned in Hollywood, sometimes to the consternation of her companions, because whenever she hears a new word, no matter where she is, she demands the definition – in detail. Her friends say that when it comes to asking embarrassing questions she is in a class by herself.
According to reprts from Hollywood, Miss Rainer was discovered Louis B. Mayer, head man at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. My guess is that Mr. Mayer was tipped off by Max Reinhardt, as Miss Rainer is his protegee. We are told that the lady has appeared in many Shakespearean plays under the observance and guidance of the illustriuos Mr. Reinhardt. (As you probably know, Mr. Reinhardt has just completed Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Warner Brothers. Advance notices indicate that it is one of the most elaborate productions in years.)
After reaching Hollywood, Miss Rainer was kept waiting around until her employers found a suitable role. When “Escapade” was accepted for production, Myrna Loy was cast for the part of Leopoldine Major but walked out on it. The producers then decided to take a chance on Miss Rainer, and it proved to be an inspiration.
Her great charm is her simplicity and directness. Because of her wide-eyed facial expressions, the manner in which she pronounces some words, plus certain tricks of inflection in readingÂ lines, Miss Rainer will be accused of imitating Elisabeth Bergner. This department is inclined to believe that this is partly true, maybe due to the lady’s own initiative and maybe through direct suggestion from the head men at M-G-M. Whatever the case may be, I believe Miss Rainer will prove to be a more popular screen performer than Miss Bergner. Miss Rainer is obviously a good enough actress to get by without imitating anybody, and she is a more pleasing camera subject than the actress with whom she is being compared so generally by critics. The newcomer’s most effective physical feature is her eyes. We have never been guilty of calling any actress “liquid-eyed.” That is, not until this moment. Miss Rainer is definitely liquid-eyed. And the shy innocence which her orbs reflect would do credit to a tot who has never been told about even the birds and bees. Amazing.
But this does not mean that Miss Rainer goes about looking like a frightened fawn. Nor does it mean that she cannot temper her childlike candor with a bitÂ of humor, or mix her guilelessness with a shot of dramatic emoting.Â No indeed. Miss Rainer can get her laughs, as she proves in that delightful bit in the cafe when she becomes a bit tight and tells Mr. Powell that she does not expect him to take her out again. Great stuff. And in a couple of weeping scenes she demonstrates that she is a first class chest-heaver and hysterics-thrower.
AS for Miss Rainer’s bosses, there is no doubt about their opinion of her work in “Escapade,” because they went so far as to establish a precedent to put this opinion on record. At the end of the film there is a trailer in which Mr. Powell steps out and says, in effect, “Ladies and gentlemen, now that you have seen Miss Rainer in this, her first American picture, we want you to meet her personally.” Miss Rainer walks from behind a curtain and joins Bill, after which they discuss the picture, she apologizes for her poor English, hopes she will be able to speak better in her next film, and hopes she will make all of her pictures with Mr. Powell. After which Bill Kisses her, and that’s that. It all passes of very pleasantly because the bit is intelligently staged, and because both Luise and Bill are charming enough to get away with such stuff.
P.S. Note the man that announces the winner of the furs during the ball. He is Mahlon Hamilton, who used to be one of the screen’s biggest stars. Also listen to those recordings of Caruso’s voice during the scenes at the opera. It made me realize why the experts say there may never be another such voice.