Luise Rainer - Classic Images: Features

Luise Rainer

Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:27 pm

During the 85-year run of the Academy Awards, more than two dozen performers have collected two of them, and a rare few even more. Only five, however, ever won that now-coveted honor in two consecutive years: Spencer Tracy, 1937 and ‘38; Katharine Hepburn, 1967 and ‘68; Jason Robards, as a supporting actor in the mid-1970s; and Tom Hanks, a generation after that. The very first to do so was Luise Rainer.

Besides talent, Luise is blessed with longevity. A few show business icons have reached the venerable age of 100, producer Hal Roach and comedians George Burns and Bob Hope among them. When Luise Rainer celebrated her birthday on January 12, 2013 she turned 103.

Luise’s career has been one of the most remarkable of any 20th century celebrity. Her film oeuvre comprises only thirteen theatrical films, two-thirds of them done over a period of 42 months in the mid-1930s, the last made a half-century after its predecessor. After all these years, one might think there would be nothing more to write about Luise Rainer and her brief four-year peak of fame in Hollywood—but that would be a mistake. While various aspects of her career have been examined exhaustively, her amazing life story still seems fresh when retold today.

Luise was born in 1910, although some sources, including Luise herself, have mentioned 1912. It was a prerogative of ladies in show business in that bygone era to shave years from their ages, and many of them did. Luise was born in Dusseldorf, an industrial center on the western border of Germany. As she once revealed, "I am really German, not Austrian." Dusseldorf was not a prestigious birthplace when she emerged on the international stage in the 1930s, so her birth was assigned to the more cosmopolitan Vienna, which is, indeed, where her artistic career began.

Her father, Heinz, was a successful Jewish businessman whom she refers to as "my strict Austrian father". When he remained in Austria during the First World War, his passport was revoked. That proved to be a misfortune a generation later when he was trapped in Belgium, at age 64, by the Nazi blitzkrieg of 1940 in the Second World War. Though he escaped to Dunkirk and went into hiding, before he could be transported out of continental Europe to England, his Austrian passport betrayed him. He was interned and shipped, via boxcar, to a concentration camp in the Pyrenees.

Heinz escaped with two other Austrians and made his way to Toulouse, then on to the major seaport of Marseilles where, while awaiting faked "appropriate papers" he was rearrested. Only the intervention of the American Consul, and the assistance of the American Committee to Aid European Children, which his daughter Luise had served devotedly, saved him. He escaped to Spain and then to the USA where she helped him regain his precarious health at her home in California. Her mother, Emy, whose papers were "in order" had already moved through Switzerland to Italy before reuniting with her family in California.

Before the cataclysm of World War II, Luise grew up in a privileged childhood, commuting with her family to Switzerland, and Italy, and Austria, where she studied in eight different schools. When, at the age of 16, she determined to become an actress, the way was paved for her with the help of others. First, there was the renowned director Louise Dumont, who hired her on a two-year contract for $20 per week so she could earn and learn after her first, electrifying audition. Then, as her reputation grew, Max Reinhardt, the greatest theatrical director of the age, recruited her for his own prestigious theatre. She became "the wonder child of Vienna". When she understudied the title role of Deval’s Mademoiselle, Luise went on stage after the star fell ill, and was a sensation. With Reinhardt’s company she played the classics, including Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and became the toast of Paris and London as well as Vienna. Of this time, she said, "Reinhardt came to me one day while we were on a big tour with Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author … and said, ‘Rainer, how did you do this? How did you create this?’ I was so startled and happy. It was the greatest compliment I ever got, better than any Academy Award."

It was Luise’s performance in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy that so impressed American tourist Clarence Brown, an influential MGM producer-director, and Rufus LeMaire, the studio’s casting director, that they offered her an MGM contract. She had made a few insignificant German films—Madame hat besuch and Sehnsucht 202, the latter with Magda Schneider, in 1932; Heut’ kommt’s drauf an with the prolific Hans Albers the next year. Thinking her career was better fulfilled in the theatre, she declined the MGM offer. Later, she would change her mind, and make a lasting mark in Hollywood.

In 1935, Luise crossed the Atlantic on the luxury liner Ile de France with her beloved Scottie dog "Johnny"; spent a few days in New York; then passed several days on a train crossing America, wide-eyed at its beauty. Her contract, designed to protect the studio’s investment with semi-annual options, gave her six months to learn English with a studio-assigned teacher. She did this expeditiously, and spent her free time exploring large parts of California, Canada, and Mexico in a car she’d bought—and later capriciously abandoned in Mexico. She expected to return to Europe eventually, but at the time, Nazi oppression was on the rise and Jews no longer were welcome in German films.

Soon, her six-month paid vacation was fast slipping by and she still had not made an American movie. Then, Myrna Loy absented herself from MGM’s production of Escapade, perhaps because she was on a genteel strike for more money, though Loy herself said that she refused her role in the film because she didn’t feel she was right for it. Escapade was an Americanized version of an Austrian picture, Maskerade, which had brought international acclaim to Austrian actress Paula Wessely. Movie writer Anita Loos, Luise’s neighbor and part of an influential MGM inner circle, alerted producer Irving Thalberg that the unfilled role was ideal casting for MGM’s unknown, underemployed Austrian contractee.

Overnight Luise learned a test scene and, under the direction of Robert Z. Leonard, she wowed her employers. After only a few months in America, Luise was working with William Powell, Hollywood’s suave icon, in her first of eight movies! Powell was so impressed by Luise’s performance he went to the head office and made a clever argument. Perhaps hiding his altruism under the guise of self interest, he told the studio that if they did not raise Luise to star billing, her impressive performance would make him look ridiculous. Not wanting to tarnish their star’s prestige, MGM gave Luise co-star billing.

In Escapade, Luise with her sweet smile and innocent eyes, was an ideal choice for the role of a young woman, Leopoldine, in turn-of-the-century Vienna who is innocently tied to a scandal over a semi-nude painting by artist Fritz Heideneck (William Powell). Despite the fact that Leopoldine does not resemble the figure in the nude painting, she’s caught in a swirl of intrigue that leads to another attempt to implicate her further. The artist meanwhile has fallen in love with the girl and tries to shield her from further scandal, but this only stokes the jealousy of his former lover.

"Europe’s Most Beautiful Eyes are now Hollywood’s", screamed the publicists in 1935. Escapade had proven profitable during the summer of 1935, and Luise had stolen the show, as her co-star had predicted. She next was paired with Powell again in a mammoth, hugely-expensive nearly three-hour musical extravaganza designed to celebrate the life and career of legendary Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld.

The Great Ziegfeld had been scripted and prepared by then-faltering Universal Pictures, soon to slip from the hands of its founding family, the Laemmles. The Ziegfeld project proved too mammoth an undertaking, and was sold to MGM which was better able to fund a production that necessitated magical production numbers staged on elaborate sets. Luise was assigned to play Ziegfeld’s "first wife", Anna Held, the predecessor of Billie Burke (played in the movie by MGM queen Myrna Loy). (In truth, the Polish Held was married to a Uruguayan, not to Ziegfeld, and she was a mother, but not by Ziegfeld. MGM chose to sanitize their relationship.)

Luise surprised her employers and her audiences with her mastery of turn-of-the-century music-hall techniques, but it was her solo telephone scene, inspired by a Jean Cocteau original in The Human Voice, which changed her life forever. Strangely, after the first preview the telephone scene was cut due to the length of the film. It later was put back in through the influence Irving Thalberg wielded with "the New York office" of MGM’s parent company Loew’s Inc. The scene would become the principal reason she won her first Oscar, and many think of it as the iconic capstone of her entire film career.

In this fictionalized account, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (William Powell), sets out on a lowly showbiz career despite his cultured background, and first finds success managing a performing muscleman named Sandow. Next, Ziegfeld woos European star Anna Held and even though he has blown his money gambling, she signs a contract with him. Anna falls in love with Flo and he makes a big star of her on Broadway after he spins a yarn to the press about Anna taking milk baths to maintain her lovely complexion. After Anna and Flo marry, however, he seems to neglect her amid all the work and worries of staging his smash hit The Ziegfeld Follies, featuring dozens of his "Glorified Girls" in elaborate costumes on stage. Anna sees one of the girls, Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), as a rival, despite the fact that Audrey’s drinking has distanced her from Flo. Anna then leaves Flo and seeks a divorce. Later Flo meets Broadway star Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) and is smitten by her, and they marry. Sick and broken hearted, Anna telephones Flo to offer her congratulations; all the while she pretends to be cheerful, but actually she’s devastated. Flo builds a happy home life with Billie and their daughter Patricia, but he remains chronically hounded by financial problems. Sensing that the public is turning against him, he vows to have four hits running simultaneously on Broadway, and then makes good on this boast. The Wall Street crash of 1929 wipes him out, however, and Billie, his wife, has to go back to work to pay the bills. Aged and broken, Flo dies dreaming of even more elaborate productions and greater successes.

The picture was tremendous in every respect. It cost $2,183,000 and amassed a worldwide gross of $4,673,000 which gave the studio clear profits of almost a million dollars. (MGM’s biggest profit-maker of the decade, released the same year, was San Francisco, with a profit of $2,237,000, a high-water mark until Gone with the Wind and Mrs. Miniver each more than doubled it within the next few years.)

Contrary to some reports, Luise enjoyed working with her mates at MGM: William Powell, with whom she did three of her eight MGM pictures ("a dear man" and "a very fine person", who campaigned for her to start at the top with star billing) and Spencer Tracy, and the directors and crews. Later, she admitted she liked Paul Muni much less: "my least favorite … a very difficult man … he had his own way of doing things and he got his own way…"

Her one true nemesis, though, was Louis B. Mayer, the former junk dealer from New Brunswick who had become the highest paid executive in Hollywood as his studio grew to reap the lion’s share of movie industry profits. Mayer opposed her taking a "supporting" role in The Great Ziegfeld—though it won her her first Oscar (and not in the Supporting category in which it more appropriately belonged, inaugurated that very year). Mayer also opposed her assuming her next role as an "unglamorous" Chinese farm wife.

The Good Earth (1937) was adapted from a popular novel by Pearl Buck and tells the story of Wang Lung (Paul Muni), a Chinese farmer who marries a kitchen slave, O-Lan (Luise Rainer), who earlier had been sold into slavery by her impoverished parents. O-Lan works in the fields, cares for her home, bears children with a stoic and even heroic dignity. Wang is a great success as a farmer and the family becomes wealthy, until drought sweeps over the land. Starvation forces the family to move to a city in the south where O-Lan and the children beg and steal in the streets. During a political upheaval O-Lan is almost killed but she finds some jewels that had been dropped in the turmoil. With this newfound wealth, the family returns to their farm and becomes richer than ever. Her husband, Wang, then falls under the spell of Lotus, a beautiful young dancer. O-Lan, now old and careworn is relegated to a lower status as her husband takes Lotus as his new wife. The family is further torn apart when Lotus seduces one of the sons. Finally, a plague of locusts descends on the crops, and after they are driven off by heroic effort and seemingly divine intervention, the family is reunited.

Luise agreed that she was probably all wrong for The Good Earth, and she knew that character actress Aline MacMahon and Anna May Wong, a real Chinese actress, both coveted the part. But Thalberg, her champion, won out, and Luise won her second consecutive Oscar. Interestingly, Thalberg at first considered hiring an all-Asian cast but eventually decided that he could not find enough suitable Chinese actors. Complicating matters was the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September of 1931. Since that time Japan’s growing imperialistic designs on China led to numerous military incidents, and Chinese sentiment was strongly opposed to casting any actors of Japanese descent in the film. (All-out war between the two countries would start in July of 1937, less than six months after the film’s premiere.)

The film found many admirers, and was called one of the year’s ten best pictures by the National Board of Review, the New York Times, and others. It was a mammoth production however, requiring the building of a Chinese village, and massive projects such as making nearby hillsides used for the exteriors look like terraced Chinese farm fields. Due to all the expense lavished on the film, it was not profitable. While some sources claimed it was a big money maker, MGM accountants figured that the studio lost nearly $500,000 on the production.

The film also stirred resentment in China from officials who disliked the Pearl Buck novel, so a great deal of time and effort was invested in working with Chinese consultants to eliminate offensive material. The project was also tinged with tragedy beginning with the suicide of its initial director, the brilliant George Hill, and culminating with the death of Thalberg, at the age of 37 in September of 1936, before The Good Earth was released. As a memorial, his name was prominently displayed onscreen with a title card reading, "To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg we dedicate this picture—His last great achievement." Thalberg had been a head of production at MGM since 1924, but this was the first time he was credited on screen. (In 1939, his name also appears in another onscreen dedication in the title sequence of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.)

Luise praised director Sidney Franklin as "a wonderful man … I worked from the inside out. It’s not for me, putting on a face or putting on makeup, or making masquerade. It has to come from the inside out. It’s what I wanted to do and he let me do it." That sounds today very much like the foundation of "The Method", to which her first husband Clifford Odets and his Group Theatre colleagues subscribed religiously.

Despite her great success, Luise seemed to have a premonition of what was to come. "It is very nice to win awards," Luise said at the time, "but it is very difficult to be put on a pedestal". And, later she said: "For my second and third motion pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me."

Her stunning success certainly made her few friends in Hollywood, since on her first nomination she won over Norma Shearer and Irene Dunne in 1936, and over Dunne (again), Barbara Stanwyck (for her iconic Stella Dallas) and the great Garbo herself (for her iconic Camille) in 1937.

To a fan magazine writer who ventured beyond the green gate of her Brentwood house she confided: "Hollywood is the most dangerous place in the world. It is sure to be, for an actress, who has to work on herself as a human being more than anyone else because she is supposed to be a symbol of many others. In Hollywood there is always interference. This demands the biggest sacrifice of all—peace. I am wishing for it always, but I will never find peace."

Luise was elevated to a four-suite dressing-room building with Garbo, Shearer, and Joan Crawford. Despite her prestige, however, she was still making a very small salary, considering her star status. Ominously, with Thalberg’s death, her future did not look bright. Her champion was gone and, now, Mayer’s taste would prevail. Never having had an agent, since she came directly to MGM from the European stage, she fought her battles herself, and not always discreetly. "I was very young, and sometimes I was quite a naughty girl."

The year 1937 saw the release of her third and final film with William Powell. The Emperor’s Candlesticks seemed a likely vehicle for Luise since it was a cosmopolitan tale set in Czarist Russia and Vienna, but this was a frothy romp of no great importance. In this spy yarn by Baroness Orczy of Scarlet Pimpernel fame, Robert Young plays Grand Duke Peter, son of the Czar, who is lured into the hands of Polish nationalists by the beautiful Maria (Maureen O’Sullivan). Two agents are then employed in a cat and mouse game of political intrigue with Baron Wolensky (William Powell) working for Poland, and Countess Mironova (Luise Rainer) working for Russia to free the Grand Duke. While the countess and the baron engage in their battle of wits, they fall in love.

Next, instead of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House she was handed The Toy Wife, which introduced her to her favorite costar, Melvyn Douglas—much later a two-time Oscar Winner himself. Douglas was intelligent and interested in the world beyond Culver City, in contrast to the more down-to-earth Robert Taylor, who once floored Luise by telling her that his humble ambition simply was "to own ten good suits"!

The Toy Wife (1938) features Luise as 16-year-old "Frou Frou," who comes back to her Louisiana plantation after finishing school in France. In New Orleans she falls for the worthless Andre (Robert Young), but then marries Georges (Melvyn Douglas). The flighty young woman gives birth to a son, but fails to mature, remaining something of a "toy wife." The script, Hungarian in origin, was transposed to the South, and aimed at exploiting the fantastic interest being generated by the success of Margaret Mitchell’s "Gone with the Wind", but Toy Wife never stirred up much more than a gentle breeze. At this point, Luise already was headed in the wrong direction.

Instead of Madame Curie, prepared for (but rejected by) Garbo—making a huge hit for Greer Garson six years later—Luise did Big City with Spencer Tracy. In this rather tame drama, Anna (Luise) and her husband, Joe (Tracy) are struggling to make a living off his job as a cab driver, but crooked taxi bosses make it tough. With sensitive director Frank Borzage, architect of Tracy’s highly-praised hit Man’s Castle, in charge, and a script by the prolific Norman Krasna, bigger things were expected, but Big City did not draw big notices. Ominously, a few critics began using unflattering terms to describe Luise, including "stolid immobility" and "bovine vacuity". On the other hand, the film made money and became the biggest hit of her four years at MGM, excepting only The Great Ziegfeld.

Instead of The Bride Wore Red, a bitter-Cinderella story which she refused do once it had been fatally adulterated from the Moliere original and which she relinquished to relentlessly ambitious Joan Crawford, Luise undertook a role reminiscent of The Great Ziegfeld, in that it was small in running time. Unfortunately, it also would be small in impact, too. The Great Waltz was the fictionalized life of Johann Strauss, of which the publicists crowed: "Only MGM could make such a picture". Yes, The Great Waltz did become something of a hit . . . in Soviet Russia, but to the critics and the American public that was faint praise.

Instead of a biography of Sarah Bernhardt, which she couldn’t do because of script problems, she was handed an imitation Stage Door with a director, Robert Sinclair, experienced on Broadway but not in Hollywood. Featured in the films was an up-and-coming starlet, Lana Turner, who also was a protégée of the film’s producer, Mervyn LeRoy. According to one prominent movie critic, Dramatic School was "designed to accommodate, accentuate and perpetuate the dewy charms of Luise Rainer . . ." Greer Garson was sorry she didn’t get it as a showcase for her American debut, but Luise was sorry that she did! It would be her last MGM film.

In Dramatic School (1938) Luise plays Louise Mauban an aspiring young actress whose night job in a factory leaves her so tired that she falls asleep during acting classes, despite her ambition to succeed on stage. After meeting a Marquis named Andre (Alan Marshall), Louise begins to fantasize a romance with the dashing aristocrat, and she even tells her classmates stories about Andre, as if he really were her lover. One of her rivals then sets out to shame Louise by bringing her together at a party with Andre, knowing that the Marquis won’t even recognize the poor girl. Andre learns of this cruel scheme, however, and kindly shields Louise from humiliation. Eventually, he actually falls for Louise, but her dedication to the stage leads to a surprising conclusion.

To make matters worse for Luise, her highly-publicized private life seemed to be at odds with her MGM image. During the summer of 1936, while filming The Good Earth at the height of her fame, she met leftist playwright Clifford Odets, then at the height of his fame. Their first meeting came while she was dining at the Brown Derby with E. Y. Harburg, and George Gershwin, shortly before the latter’s death. Later, they met again at a private salon at the home of Dorothy Parker. Odets pursued Luise, and they married modestly, with only director Lewis Milestone and his wife as witnesses. After a honeymoon in Mexico, they returned to begin what would be for Louise a three-year marriage of misery. Naturally, this would have a profoundly negative influence on Luise’s career. "He was a wonderful man, but a horrible husband" she later said of Odets. It was as if the stars were aligning against her as an unhappy three years of her professional life at MGM would overlap an equally unhappy three-year period in her personal life.

The leftist Odets even opposed her accepting her first Oscar, and argued with her en route to the awards ceremony. You certainly couldn’t say that he made for a boring mate. On one hand, he introduced Luise to Einstein (who flirted with her while the three were rowing on Long Island Sound), but on the other hand he began an affair with Frances Farmer when she joined the Group Theatre. With all this going on, Louise’s life was due for a big change.

"I didn’t quit; I stopped," Luise said years later—but could she have imagined when she walked out of MGM in 1938 that it would be 27 years before she would return? She negotiated a six-month hiatus and retreated to New York, with her husband, to navigate their unhappy marriage. She frequently argued with Louis B. Mayer over the bad material she was being given—Dramatic School being a sore subject with her.

"We made you and we can kill you," Louis B. threatened. "Mr. Mayer, you didn’t make me. God made me," she replied stubbornly.

While she was absent, her contractual option was dropped. And though she would remain famous, that heady phase of her life and career at MGM was over.

"Hollywood was a very strange place," she reflected. "To me, it was like a huge hotel with a huge door—one of those rotunda [revolving] doors. On one side people went in, heads high, and very soon they came out on the other side, heads hanging."

Luise was still Mrs. Odets, but they were not often seen together. She became an American citizen in 1938, like her father and mother, but then returned to Europe, in the waning days of peace before the outbreak of World War II, and worked for the American Committee to Aid European Children, rescuing children as the Spanish Civil War waned too. She found herself in London in a play, an inconsequential comedy called Behold the Bride, then came back and settled in New York. She enrolled at Columbia University medical school and began to study journalism at the same time—and she divorced the unfaithful Odets.

Luise sold War Bonds, sometimes on the same stage with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She also worked for the Red Cross to which she donated the proceeds of a one-week Washington DC engagement early in 1940 as St Joan—which she’d first performed at 17 in German—directed by her own personal choice as director, Edwin Piscator, "The Belasco of Berlin". Critics praised her delicacy and damned her restraint.

Her brothers, Robert and Rudolph, both joined the US Army, so she devoted herself to Army Special Services too—touring military camps in the South, visiting the battle theatres of North Africa and Italy, and spending an unforgettable Christmas in 1944 with a bunch of GIs stationed way out on Ascension Island located in the middle of the South Atlantic between Brazil and Africa. She came to realize that the celebrity she’d so heartily disdained was good for something after all, and decided to make use of it.

Fulfilling an obligation to Gertrude Lawrence’s husband, Richard Aldrich, Luise revived Sir James M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella for 17 sold-out performances at their Dennis, Mass. Playhouse, then followed it to Broadway for a 48-performance run at the Music Box Theatre from March 10 to April 18, 1942.

And she decided to accept a movie offer from Paramount Pictures. Working on a buildup, Paramount publicists told the world about the daring rescue of her father from Nazi Europe; that her favorite play was St. Joan and her favorite movie was A Farewell to Arms (a Paramount picture, quite coincidentally); and that her ambition was to do a comedy with Bob Hope (a Paramount star, quite coincidentally), whom she had not yet seen on the screen. But Luise didn’t get to do For Whom the Bell Tolls, after all, for which her name had been mentioned—Ingrid Bergman got that break. Luise never even saw her next picture, Hostages which was not a success. "I’d rather just forget about that," she said years later.

At the end of the war in Europe, on July 12, 1945, Luise married British publisher Robert C. Knittel, the head of Collins and Co. publishers in London. Robert was "a rock of Gibraltar", and their union lasted almost 44 years until his death in 1989. She became a mother, for the first and only time, lived a life of luxury in London and in Switzerland, and climbed the mountains of northern Italy for recreation. She developed an alternate career as a painter, and her one-woman show in London was a sellout.

She didn’t abandon her youthful obsession with the theatre, which she had always liked better than films. In 1965 she explained her point of view: "Film is such a hodgepodge of hands. Sometimes the hands are marvelous and sometimes they are dreadful. You never know what the hands are going to do. They pick out here and there. They make the star, not the performer! You never know what is going to be used."

Unfortunately, the theater would provide only an occasional, and sometimes unrequited, love. In 1950 she returned to Broadway, but Lady from the Sea lasted only 16 performances at the Fulton Theatre, not quite in the heart of Broadway, under the direction of talented blacklistee Sam Wanamaker. And she appeared in two early British television productions, in 1949 and 1950, By Candlelight, and The Sea Gull as Nina.

Two years later, in 1952, she returned to California to perform Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine at the tiny Ivar Theatre in the heart of Hollywood, a play which had been a transcendent star vehicle for the temporarily-disgraced Ingrid Bergman. But The Industry, preoccupied with survival against the encroachment of free television, scarcely noticed.

Luise still was visible in the media at this time. She did a half-hour filmed "short story" for the television anthology Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, in May 1952; appeared on the hugely-popular Sunday-night series The Ed Sullivan Show in New York five times during the decade; did a couple of episodes of Lux Video Theatre; and she appeared on a long-running celebrity game show called Masquerade Party dressed in an Oscar costume—and went unidentified by a celebrity panel of the 1950s!

Even that much visibility didn’t earn her the chance to play author Han Suyin in Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, a role she coveted, as she "greatly respected" the author and had been mentioned by name in the original book. Luchino Visconti reportedly wooed her to step before his cameras, and Federico Fellini, it’s said, almost enticed her for a role in his 1961 masterwork La Dolce Vita. How far that went is open to speculation.

Then, in mid-Summer 1965, Hollywood Casting Director Marvin Paige wrote a new chapter in her career when he sent a letter which reached her at the top of a mountain in the Dolomites. The letter inquired if she would consider returning to Hollywood to guest star in an hour-long episode of the ABC television series Combat!, to be shot on a schedule of one week. She accepted, but not until she got to Hollywood did she realize that the episode would be shot at MGM where the late Louis B. once said she would never work again.

And so, she returned to Hollywood for ten days in September 1965 to costar with Combat! series headliner Rick Jason and another MGM legend, Ramon Novarro, in "The Finest Hour", playing a French Countess who was patronized by both sides in the war. From the first day (Ext. French Chateau, still among the standing sets across Overland Avenue on Lot 2), Director Sutton Roley, and the entire crew were impressed with her mastery of her craft and her adaptability to the demands of frenetic series television production.

Luise was "thrilled to be working again at Metro", and to meet again costumer Marie Rose, who had worked on all eight of her MGM feature films. During rehearsal, she even elicited a laugh from the cast and crew when she had a bit of fun with her iconic MGM scene by picking up a telephone and saying "Hello, Flo? It’s Anna! I wish you’d get off that phone."

(This author will never forget speaking with friend, and fellow assistant director, George Fenady, who worked on that episode. Fenaday told the story of Luise, standing at the MGM main gate for the first time in 27 years, and recalling how Mayer had kicked her out of the studio.)

Her Combat! episode was telecast on a Tuesday night during Christmas week 1965 to considerable media attention and acclaim, and there was talk of "a role for Hitchcock" (but that went to Lila Kedrova in Torn Curtain), and "number 2 to Debbie Reynolds" (the Mother Superior in The Singing Nun, a role which went to Luise’s MGM successor Greer Garson). There also was talk of Luise reviving her Joan of Lorraine at the 1000-seat Huntington Hartford Theatre in the heart of Hollywood, only a block away from the tiny venue in which she’d played it a dozen years earlier. "I like to tease them by showing them I’m still a good actress, and then I go away again." And so she did.

Luise was enchanted by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1850 poem "Enoch Arden" about a man marooned on a desert isle for ten years who returns home to find his wife married to his rival. Over a period of three months, Luise committed the poem to memory—all 900 lines, and three roles, two of them male! Augmented with the score Richard Strauss had composed for it in 1905, she first performed it publicly in October 1981 at the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard, then took it to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, then on to New York City.

On April 11, 1983 Luise was back at the Oscarcast, escorted by Roddy McDowall, to present the Foreign Language Film Award to To Begin Again, the Spanish entry, and finally, two years after her odyssey with "Enoch Arden" had begun, she performed it for two nights in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA (Friday and Saturday, October 14 and 15).

Two days earlier, as prelude, she was a guest of the Academy for an evening celebrating her MGM films—with clips of six, plus The Good Earth shown in its entirety; only Dramatic School was ignominiously ignored. This was hosted by Robert Osborne in the days when he was boning up for what would become his career with Turner Classic Movies. And after a single day of rest, Sunday, following her UCLA performances, she began shooting a guest spot on the ABC series The Love Boat, costarring with Don Ameche, in which she played twins, which aired early in 1984!

After the death of her husband, Luise began commuting more frequently to Southern California for visits with her daughter, Franceska Knittel-Bowyer, and grandchildren. She also began to spend more time painting and exhibiting her work. One more request came from casting director Marvin Paige, and on May 3, 1990, she agreed to sit for an interview in Hollywood as part of a documentary miniseries MGM: When the Lion Roars—in praise of MGM! One of three dozen celebrated names associated with the company, she enchanted the small crew with her reminiscences. The award-winning cameraman, Michael Lonzo, still remembers her in this, describing her two decades later as "ethereal". In 1992, after MGM: When the Lion Roars was telecast, it won the Primetime Emmy as Outstanding Informational Series.

In 1994 she was honored at the annual Cinecon in Hollywood, escorted by her friend Marvin Paige. Then finally, in 1996, Luise played one more feature film role, in Budapest, more than a half-century after her last. This was The Gambler, an international co-production (French-British-Dutch-Hungarian), in color, with a cast that included Michael Gambon (soon to embark on his career-defining role as the replacement Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series) and Dominic West (soon to carve his own career in American television).

By all accounts, Luise entered in the middle of the picture for her role as a gambling grandmother and captured it entirely—though she was afterward displeased that she was portrayed as older than her real age. Roddy McDowall, "for years my best friend in Hollywood"—a sentiment echoed by a phalanx of Hollywood divas, from Lillian Gish to Elizabeth Taylor—persuaded her to do it. (The Dostoevsky novel that was its basis was also the source material, a half-century earlier, for a major Hollywood production, The Great Sinner, in which Ethel Barrymore played the role that Luise found so enticing!)

While touring to promote the release of The Gambler in America in 1999, she never ruled out accepting future film roles. The past decade has been one of personal appearances, playing Luise Rainer for new generations. In 2002, she returned from an African safari for An Evening with Luise Rainer promoted by a friend at Boston University, and early in 2003 appeared on the Oscarcast as a former Oscar winner. Then she was at the Golden Globes in Hollywood in January 2006, but a bad fall and its subsequent surgery later that year required her to use a cane and slowed her down—just a little bit.

According to www.amazon.com, Oberon Books published a 112-page autobiography titled "Unfinished Symphony" (now out of print) on almost the exact date of her 100th birthday. A decade earlier she had announced that the memoir she was writing had already reached 230 pages and covered her life only up to the age of 22 (!) so some judicious editing must have taken place!

Later in that same year of 2011 she was back in Hollywood to introduce a showing of The Good Earth at the Egyptian Theatre, now home to the American Cinematheque, as part of the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. She was still a straight and sturdy 5’ 4" and 90 peppery pounds, down from her movie "fighting weight" of 115.

Today, in 2013, Luise is still active and spends her time going to the theater in London with friends. She still lives in an upscale apartment in the Belgravia section of London which has been her home for many years. While promoting her last film, The Gambler, Luise said, "I am sensitive to life. I should have done more. I did too little of everything. This may sound conceited but, when you have a lot to give and you withhold it, that’s a waste."

We beg to differ, Miss Rainer—your career was no waste. The little you were allowed to give on screen amounts to a treasure of real and lasting value.

Note: Special thanks to Roy Thorsen for his generous help in preparing the photos for publication.