Luise Rainer

The Good Earth (1937, Sidney Franklin)

For maybe the first ninety minutes of The Good Earth, it seems like the most interesting thing to talk about is going to be how the filmmakers were able to make the lead characters in the film appear sympathetic while they were being, frankly, un-American. It makes sense, since the main characters are Chinese. The film’s set in the early twentieth century—with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution playing a short but important part, at least for the sake of plot contrivance and spectacle. At one point, upon moving south, on the run from famine, farmer’s wife Luise Rainer teaches her children how to panhandle. The scene’s particularly striking because you can’t really imagine any other big budget Hollywood movie on the late 1930s endorsing panhandling. And you also can’t imagine them doing it without a white actor endorsing it. Because Rainer is not Chinese. Neither is her husband, played by Paul Muni. Neither is his father, played by Charley Grapewin. And neither is Walter Connolly, playing Grapewin’s brother and Muni’s uncle. And neither is Tilly Losch, as the other woman. And Jessie Ralph, as the slave supervisor who tormented Rainer before she was married off? She’s definitely not Chinese either.

There are some Chinese actors in the film, but not for quite a while. For whatever reason, Good Earth doesn’t give the Asian-American actors anything to do until it’s Keye Luke and Roland Lui as Rainer and Muni’s sons. Weird how two white people in a bunch of makeup had Asian kids. Suzanna Kim is their daughter (grown), but she’s gone mute and dumb because of starving as a toddler, when famine hit and Muni wouldn’t sell his land because the movie’s all about him going from poor farmer to successful capitalist and losing his soul in the process. Though—and I’m going to be jumping around because Good Earth is really boring and and I don’t want to go through it linearly—but it’s not like Muni had much soul in the first place. He spends the first half of the film as a bit of a moron. He’s good-hearted, hard-working, sweet to wife Rainer, but he’s a dope. He talks all the time too, so much Rainer barely gets any lines. You’d think the filmmakers realized how obnoxious Grapewin’s performance was getting so they stopped giving him monologues (which Grapewin performs, albeit in yellow-face, a hillbilly stereotype), but in the last third or whatever, they give Connolly a bunch to do and he’s even worse than Grapewin, particularly in terms of the “Chinese” performance. Connolly, Losch, and Ralph are the worst performances. Ralph’s only got two scenes but she’s real, real bad. It’d be nice to say Luke and Lui are any good, but they’re not. Lui’s at least sympathetic. Luke’s got zero personality. Muni’s shockingly okay until the second half, when he’s got to play the rich man (who only got rich because, after almost being trampled to death in a riot—and left for dead—Rainer finds a bag of jewels), and then he’s bad. Muni’s too much of a dope in the first half to be believable in the second. The old age makeup for him is also weird. Rainer’s old age make up is fine, arguably better than just her yellow-face, but something goes wrong on Muni’s.

Rainer’s performance is… complicated. Well, not the performance, but whether or not it’s successful. See, the film posits one of the great things about China being the respect for the patriarchal system. Wives obey. Having multiple wives isn’t cool—one’s all a farmer needs—especially not when you’ve got one who gets up and makes you breakfast, works the field pregnant, delivers her babies by herself, and… I don’t know, doesn’t have any self-interest. Though Rainer eventually does get a monologue about the importance of not having any self-interest. And women also don’t get to talk much, especially not when the men are talking. So Rainer is already doing yellow-face, in this part where she’s not allowed any agency (in fact it’d be a failing), she doesn’t get many lines, she doesn’t have much chemistry with Muni. With those constraints? She’s fine. She’s really good in the old age makeup.

The film’s a technical marvel—just one with a lot of dragging sequences in between. There’s a great storm sequence at the beginning, the riot scene is well-executed (as action, not some much how Franklin shoots it), and the locust attack is phenomenal. There are occasionally some phenomenally edited quick cuts from Basil Wrangell. More than occasionally. Or at least more than the occasional bad cuts the film also features, though the bad cuts aren’t ever in those quick cut montages. They’re usually in dramatic scenes between Rainer and Muni in the first half, when they’ve got more chemistry than the script and director requires, but less than the film needs.

The montages are awesome though. Up until the second half, it at least seems like Good Earth is going to be able to keep going thanks to technical achievement.

But the stuff with Muni as a rich lord, listening to now sidekick crook uncle Connolly while dad Grapewin wastes away at the old house (now an estate), suffering from dementia… that stuff isn’t just tedious, it’s also narratively pointless. None of it ends up mattering for the film, except to drag Muni through the mud enough—combined with the weird makeup—to make him totally unsympathetic. Bummer.

I suppose, for a film no one ever should have produced the way they produced it, The Good Earth has some success. But it’s far more interesting as a relic of ingrained racism or maybe even a commentary on the nature of cross-cultural adaptation than a film. Muni and Rainer survive it, though Muni’s dangerously close to running out of first half momentum by the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Franklin; screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Albert Lewin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Paul Muni (Wang), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Charley Grapewin (Old Father), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Soo Yong (Aunt), Keye Luke (Elder Son), Roland Lui (Younger Son), Suzanna Kim (Daughter), and Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo).


The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937, George Fitzmaurice)

The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.

Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.

They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.

Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.

So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).

Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.

Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.

With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.

Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.

Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.

Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe, based on a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; music by Franz Waxman; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), and Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann).


Hostages (1943, Frank Tuttle)

At one point during Hostages, I thought there might actually be a good performance in it somewhere. Czech freedom fighter Katina Paxinou faces off with her mother over her Resistance work. It has the potential for a good moment, turns out it’s just an adequate one (amid the sea of inadequate ones in the film). Because there aren’t any good moments. It’s not like leads Luise Rainer and Arturo de Córdova have an iota of chemistry. Or like William Bendix out of nowhere gives a great performance as a famous Czech Resistance fighter (he doesn’t; he’s godawful). Maybe Oskar Homolka as the sniveling collaborator has the closest thing to a good moment, but director Tuttle doesn’t showcase it.

Tuttle doesn’t showcase anything in Hostages. He’s astoundingly disinterested in the film, going through the same series of setups, one after the other. Two shot, four shot, three shot. They all look exactly the same. It’s fine; it’s not like Archie Marshek would do any better with good shots. Even with the tepid ones, Marshek’s cuts screw up performances. They’re not going to be great performances (Lester Cole and Frank Butler’s script is even flatter than Tuttle’s direction) but they could be better. Marshek messes up Rainer the most. She’s already got a lousy role and bad cuts take away any hope for her to improve it. Though, again, she’s not really interested in it. No one’s got any enthusiasm.

Hostages is about Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Homolka is the collaborating coal millionaire. Rainer’s his daughter. Roland Varno’s her fiancé. Homolka gets rounded up on a bum charge with Bendix (who’s masquerading as a washroom attendant—spoiler, no toilets or sinks) and twenty-four other innocent people. The Nazis (led by Paul Lukas) are going to shoot them. See, the Nazis know it’s a bum charge but they want to steal the coal business from Homolka. de Córdova is the seemingly collaborative newspaperman who’s actually a Resistance fighter. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it but, even though Lukas is better at his job than the other Nazis, is actually really bad at his job.

So Varno and Rainer go to de Córdova needing his help to get Homolka released, while de Córdova wants to get Bendix released, while Lukas isn’t releasing anyone no matter what because coal. Eventually Rainer gets pulled in the Resistance, symbolically rejecting her collaborative father and fiancé, but not really giving Rainer anything approaching acting material. Everything comes out in bad exposition, sometimes god-awfully performed by Bendix.

While Bendix is woefully miscast in the film—he obviously is wrong for the part (and the only Yank amid foreign stars)—for a while you can at least pity him. But then Hostages gets even more tedious and it’s often thanks to Bendix’s bad acting. And then you realize you’re only a half hour in and there’s another hour and, wow, how did they mess this one up. The film doesn’t care about the titular Hostages, just Homolka and Bendix. There’s no saccharine introduction to the rest of the prisoners. The film’s mercenary in its disinterest.

It also has a cop out ending, which is the final nail. It was never going to go out well, but it goes out at its weakest. Okay, maybe not it’s weakest weakest because Bendix at least isn’t monologuing, which he does often and badly.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Lester Cole and Frank Butler, based on the novel by Stefan Heym; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Victor Young; produced by Sol C. Siegel; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Arturo de Córdova (Paul Breda), Luise Rainer (Milada Pressinger), William Bendix (Janoshik), Roland Varno (Jan Pavel), Oskar Homolka (Lev Pressinger), Katina Paxinou (Maria), and Paul Lukas (Rheinhardt).


The Toy Wife (1938, Richard Thorpe)

The only impressive thing about The Toy Wife (not good, not admirable) is the film’s ability to keep going professionally, no matter how stupid it gets. There are no easy outs in the picture; even when people start dying off to up the tragedy, there’s still a seemingly endless amount of run time remaining. The film only runs ninety-five minutes but seems like 195 years.

(The present action is something like six years, it gets a little unclear towards the end).

The problems with Toy Wife start before the action does. They start in the opening titles, when Theresa Harris’s credit as “Pick” appears onscreen. As in, holy shit is there going to be a slave named “Pick” in this movie? The answer is yes, yes indeed there is going to be a slave named “Pick” in Toy Wife. Because slavery is very important to Toy Wife. How wonderful it was for all the Louisianans to have slaves. There’s even a scene where—apparently in an attempt to humanize the character—rich widow Alma Kruger gives the gift of Jesus to her “black people.”

Toy Wife is based on a French play from the nineteenth century. The play is based in Europe. So screenwriter Zoe Akins added all the horrific racism. Whether it was her idea, the studio’s, or producer Merian C. Cooper’s… well, they’re all responsible and accountable regardless of who had the idea. And it’s not like Akins’s script would be good without all the racism. Akins’s script is the problem with the film. Director Thorpe staying engaged enough to get through the slough of a story… again, it’s not commendable but it’s impressive. One hopes other folks would have quit instead of putting this tripe to screen.

The Toy Wife of the title is “lead” Luise Rainer. She’s the younger daughter of wealthy plantation owner H.B Warner (who’s barely in the movie and comically bad when onscreen). Barbara O’Neil, in what turns out to be the film’s worst role, is the older sister. Warner moved the family to Europe when Rainer was just a baby. Now they’re back; in the source play, Rainer’s character is sixteen; in the film, her age is never mentioned, but she’s clearly not supposed to be twenty-eight like Rainer.

Because then it wouldn’t make sense when “leading man” Melvyn Douglas, who’s eight years older than Rainer, calls her “child” in the movie. At least he doesn’t do it during one of their chaste but not too chaste love scenes. Editor Elmo Veron does know how to imply with his fades.

O’Neil has been in love with Douglas since childhood, except once they return he’s only got eyes for Rainer because he’s a gross old man and she’s a flirt. Douglas wants to propose, O’Neil talks Rainer into accepting. Rainer, meanwhile, would rather be with Robert Young. He’s a drunken rich boy, a lot more fun than serious Douglas. But she acquiesces and marries Douglas and the film skips forward four years.

Or five years. Whatever.

Fast forward to the future—Rainer is still a bunch of fun, Douglas is still a stuffed shirt, they just now have a four year-old son (Alan Perl, who’s awful). After Rainer seduces Douglas for a little morning nooky, Douglas decides he’s going to go visit O’Neil (who never told Douglas or Rainer she was in love with Douglas) and beg her to come manage the house. Because… wait for it… Rainer’s way too nice to the slaves. She doesn’t work them hard enough.

O’Neil agrees, moving into the house and assuming the head of household role, including dictating toddler Perl’s childcare. Douglas is just happy someone is making the slaves behave, Rainer slowly gets more and more miserable her sister has assumed her role, and Young’s back to try to seduce Rainer away.

Will this assortment of loathsome human beings ever find happiness?

Who cares.

And O’Neil gets more loathsome, then it gets qualified, then gets less, then gets more. Same goes—sort of—for Douglas. Rainer meanwhile never gets any character development, even when it’s obvious her character has changed circumstances. She has no reaction to them, not in script or performance. Apparently Rainer hated the movie, but whatever. It’s not like she broke into the vault and had the prints burned.

All the performances lack in one way or another. Sometimes because of the script, sometimes because of the actor. It’s not really worth itemizing the film’s failures on a granular level. Toy Wife has zero potential. Even if you equivocate away the grossness, it’s still a terrible, boring motion picture. Technically, it’s competent, but never anything better.

The Toy Wife is a dreadful experience. All 195 years of it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Zoe Akins, based on the play by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by Merian C. Cooper; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Frou Frou), Melvyn Douglas (George Sartoris), Barbara O’Neil (Louise), Robert Young (Andre Vallaire), H.B. Warner (Victor Brigard), Theresa Harris (Pick), and Alma Kruger (Madame Vallaire).


Dramatic School (1938, Robert B. Sinclair)

Given Dramatic School is all about top-billed Luise Rainer’s rise of stage stardom, it might help if she were actually the protagonist of the story, instead of its—occasional—subject. Because Rainer’s got to share the film with a bunch of other characters, none particularly interesting. There’s Rand Brooks, who’s the headmaster’s son and from a long line of actors. Then there’s Gale Sondergaard as the renowned stage actress turned instructor, who resents having to teach in general and Rainer specifically. Though Rainer idolizes her. Supposedly. We don’t ever really see much of it. And then there’s second-billed Paulette Goddard, who doesn’t have much interested in acting, just gossiping with her classmates and dating a string of wealthy men and refusing to marry any of them.

Virginia Grey, Lana Turner, and Ann Rutherford play some of the other students. Rutherford is dating Brooks and ends up getting more to do than either Grey or Turner (Turner gets fourth billing, which is way too high even without Rutherford).

The film takes place in Paris, which only makes sense when Rainer is onscreen because no one else even hints at a French accent. Rainer goes to acting school all day and works in a factory all night, alongside sympathetic aunt Marie Blake (who has nothing to do in the film whatsoever, not even dote on Rainer when she’s down).

So one fateful night—in the first ten minutes of the eighty minute movie—stage sensation Genevieve Tobin (who’s also way too highly billed at fifth) shows up at the factory with her wealthy beau, Alan Marshal. There’s a little incident, but it’s not important other than to introduce Rainer to Marshal so she can make up this grandiose lie about having an affair with him. Eventually Goddard meets Marshal socially and sets a trap for Rainer, hoping to humiliate her.

Will Marshal let himself be played? Does it end up mattering?

I won’t spoil the first, but it doesn’t end up mattering at all for the narrative. When Rainer gets her big break, it’s got nothing to do with the plot until that point. It’s incredible how fast screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr. get bored with their… screenplay. Other than Goddard, the script doesn’t dwell on anyone. Turner and Grey are interchangeable, Rutherford is mostly scenery until she all of a sudden gets attention. Goddard doesn’t have a character. She exists as a foil to torment Rainer, who’s usually too busy in her own head to even notice Goddard’s plotting cruelty.

The third act has this big showdown between Rainer and Sondergaard, following the film infusing a “Sondergaard is getting dissed for being an actress nearing forty” subplot, which also brings in Henry Stephenson (as the headmaster) quite a bit. Stephenson’s only slightly less unbelievable as an accomplished Parisian actor than Sondergaard, who no one thought to give more characterization than shrill. She’s in the second scene of the film, bitching about (at that point) utterly harmless and barely introduced Rainer. Sondergaard is opposite Margaret Dumont in that scene; Dumont’s great. Shame she’s only in the movie for two scenes and never when Rainer’s finally out of her shell, which takes way too long. Especially for a movie ostensibly about her.

Rainer’s performance is fine. She gives the best performance in the film, which isn’t much of a compliment. Vajda and McCall can’t even be bothered with thin caricaturization, much less thin characterization. Marshal, for instance, is an utter bore. He’s got some charm, but he’s dramatically inert, upstaged by everyone opposite him. Including an uncredited, nearly silent John Picorri as his valet. Sinclair doesn’t know how to direct his cast, but he really doesn’t know how to direct Marshal.

Of the students, Grey’s probably the best. If Goddard got a character before the third act, she might be better but since she doesn’t… nope. Turner’s kind of annoying.

Sondergaard, who isn’t important for the majority of the runtime, ends up being the most important player in the film. She’s really not up for it. Stephenson’s miscast. Brooks gets a rotten deal as his son too. Supposedly Brooks can’t act. But based on the exercises in the acting classes, none of the students can act. It’s not until the third act, when Rainer’s on a real stage, there’s any evidence of ability. Watching Rainer’s play in the movie, you wish the movie were just Rainer in the play. It might make up for the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s not the movie and it’s also way too quick an interlude. Because then there’s the wrap-up, which is simultaneously tepid and vapid.

Dramatic School isn’t terrible. It doesn’t have enough energy to be terrible. Rainer’s got potential, but the script isn’t there and the direction isn’t there. Her character’s name is Louise too. It’s like, if you’re going to have the main character be an aspiring actress with the same name as the successful actress playing her… maybe there ought to be something to that coincidence. At least some emphasis. Instead, the script does everything it can to avoid Rainer and focus on everyone around her. But not give them anything to do until the end. And even at the end it’s just busywork, resolving pointless plot threads.

The film’s competent and useless. Even as a vehicle—as it seems to have been—for MGM ingenues, it’s useless. It seems like it’s more producer Mervyn LeRoy’s fault than anyone else’s. Like, Sinclair obviously wasn’t going to come through on the direction. Ditto the screenwriters. Someone needed to right the ship. No one does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert B. Sinclair; screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr., based on a play by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Louise Mauban), Alan Marshal (Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Gale Sondergaard (Madame Charlot), Marie Blake (Annette), Lana Turner (Mado), Virginia Grey (Simone), Ann Rutherford (Yvonne), John Hubbard (Fleury), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel Sr.), Rand Brooks (Pasquel Jr.), and Margaret Dumont (Pantomime Teacher).


Sum Up | Luise Rainer: An Incomplete Filmography

Between 1932 and 1997, two-time Academy Award winner Luise Rainer—who was the first actor to win more than one Academy Award and the first to win two back-to-back— made a total of fifteen films. Approximately. Austrian Rainer made three German-language films in the early thirties before Hollywood—MGM, specifically—discovered her and brought her to the States under a three-year contract. Her first MGM film, Escapade, came out in 1935. The last, Dramatic School, came out in 1938. Despite that three year contract, Dramatic School was after Rainer had signed a subsequent seven-year contract renewal with the studio. But that film would be the last straw for Rainer, who’d spent the last year and previous four films battling with studio head Louis B. Mayer about roles.

Rainer would return to Hollywood in 1943 for Hostages, which was a Paramount picture, not MGM.

Rainer and one of her Oscars.

According to IMDb (but without any other mention in online databases), Rainer appeared in the 1954 West German teen comedy Der Erste Kuß (The First Kiss). It’s a teen romance comedy with a couple twin sisters getting into innocent mischief. Sadly not the source for the Parent Trap but whatever. Rainer’s recognized return came in 1997 (fifty-four years after Hostages) in the British film, The Gambler, about Dostoyevsky writing The Gambler. After another break (only six years this time), Rainer appeared in Poem: I Set My Foot Upon the Air and It Carried Me, where she (and eighteen other performers) read a variety of German poems.

Rainer died in 2014 at the age of 104.

I’d heard of Rainer, but never seen any of her films. So when I needed a subject for “The Marathon Stars Blogathon,” Rainer was near the top of my list. I’ve been sort of curious; wasn’t Good Earth some Oscar-winning, protracted sharecropping melodrama. Especially since I’ve seen plenty of movies from the thirties, plenty of MGM movies from the thirties, plenty of William Powell MGM movies from the thirties, it seemed a little odd I’d never seen one of Rainer’s. One of the blogathon requirements is watching five films (at least five films) with the subject. Five films is a time commitment and I didn’t want to be half-assed about it.

Advertisement for Rainer’s last German film, 1933’s “Heut’ kommt’s drauf an”.

For example, watching Rainer’s three German films from the early thirties (regardless if they’re available), the 1997 cameo in The Gambler, then Poem… well, I wouldn’t have any idea what she did for the majority of her film career. So I wanted to schedule a nice mix. Rainer won her Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. Ziegfeld runs three hours, Earth almost two-and-a-half. I decided early on I’d only be able to do one of them, viewing schedule-wise. I went with Good Earth because it’s shorter.

The other four films I chose partially on availability, partially on relevance. I watched The Emperor’s Candlesticks, but would have rather watched the apparently nearly lost Escapade, which started Rainer’s Hollywood career and was her first pairing with William Powell. She appeared with Powell in Ziegfeld, then in Candlesticks. Dramatic School I picked because it seemed like a no-brainer—Rainer and fellow MGM contract actresses in an acting school. Toy Wife has Melvyn Douglas and a female screenwriter, why not. Hostages I tracked down because it’s her comeback picture. Plus, William Bendix.

Warner Archive’s Luise Rainer Collection.

Rainer made Escapade, Great Ziegfeld, Good Earth, Emperor’s Candlesticks, Big City, Toy Wife, Great Waltz, and Dramatic School for MGM. I watched Good Earth, Emperor’s Candlesticks, Toy Wife, and Dramatic School; fifty percent of them. I assumed I’d put together a good representation of her filmography. Even after reading about the other films (Ziegfeld, Big City, and Great Waltz are all readily available, just Escapade missing), it sounds like I did.

But, wow, is it a troubled filmography. Rainer never got the chance to establish herself. She was generically European, but… rarely in parts requiring her to be generically European. It might have helped her with Good Earth, when she was playing a Chinese woman, but comes off as Francophobic in Toy Wife, when she’s a naive but slutty Louisiana Southern belle. It doesn’t matter in Candlesticks. Great, she’s Austrian and playing Russian, but distinctly not Polish guy William Powell’s perfectly fine as the Polish guy. The part doesn’t need that ingrained texture (though it says something Candlesticks has Rainer’s best performance of the five films and the only one with personality). Dramatic School she’s a naive but not slutty poor French girl. Other than Candlesticks, none of the parts are good. Good Earth has a lot of technical requirements—yellow-face for one, but also aging forty or so years as well—but the part’s not good.

I’ll go over each film briefly presently, but in case you were wondering if somehow Hostages was a great return to the screen? No. Not only is it bad, it’s a lousy part for Rainer (though probably better than some of the “A-list” ones at MGM).

Rainer had three films in 1937—she had Good Earth in January, Emperor’s Candlesticks in July, and Big City in September. Now, she won the Academy Award for 1936’s Great Ziegfeld in March, so between Good Earth and Candlesticks.

Rainer and Paul Muni, non-Asians, playing Asians.

Good Earth. The Good Earth is the late 1930s Hollywood protracted sharecropping melodrama I was expecting, but I’d somehow forgotten about it being set in China. It’s a Classic Hollywood epic about a poor farmer in China getting rich at the beginning of the twentieth century. It stars a half dozen or more white actors in yellow-face, then some really supporting Asian actors later. Paul Muni is the lead. The movie starts with him marrying Rainer. They’ve never met before, he presumably buys her from the local great house, where she’s been a slave since childhood. Mark this point—slavery is bad in Good Earth and Rainer—even though she never gets to talk about it—hates even the mention of it. She never gets to talk about it because she rarely gets to talk. Muni talks all the time. Even after he stops talking all the time, Rainer barely gets any lines. It’s a bad part for so many reasons. Rainer’s best in the old age yellow-face, playing mom to grown sons, who are played by Asian men. Somehow, they make the scenes work, though maybe not succeed.

Good Earth is significant for showing how Classic Hollywood was willing to humanize non-whites, but only if whites could play them in complicated, “realistic” (i.e. not-blackface) make-up. Rainer gets a scene where she teaches her kids how to panhandle. You’re not going to see that sort of display if those kids were white. Ick but hmm sums up Good Earth.

Rainer and William Powell in “Candlesticks”.

So then, two months later, Rainer wins the Oscar for Ziegfeld, going into Candlesticks reuniting with that film’s lead, William Powell. It’s a comedic thriller, set in the late 1800s, with Powell as a debonair Polish gentleman spy and Rainer as a Russian countess who spies too. They’re enemies, even if they don’t know it, but thrown into an adventure together. It’s kind of a road picture, but not on the budget to be on the road or in the European cities it visits. Lots of interiors, lots of montages, lots of chemistry. Candlesticks is a bunch of fun.

Big City is a drama, which means maybe I should’ve watched it instead of either Dramatic School or Toy Wife because they’re both lousy dramas and Big City might be good. It’s got Spencer Tracy after all, and it’s from before Rainer went to war with Mayer.

It’s also before she won Best Actress for Good Earth; she got that Oscar in March 1938, which was before any of her films came out that year. Rainer was off-screen from Big City in September 1937 until Toy Wife in June 1938. Nine months. And she won another Oscar in between, set Oscar records in between. So it’d be interesting to see how Toy Wife played after Big City.

Robert Young seduces Rainer with promises of more slaves?

Because Toy Wife is a gross disaster. It’s all about Rainer—sixteen in the source play—seducing a dude away from her sister (Barbara O’Neil, who plays a character named Louise). They’re Southern belles. They have lots of slaves. Rainer loves having slaves. It’s one of those weird late thirties movies where all the white people love having slaves. It even becomes a plot point because Rainer is too nice to her slaves and they get lazy so her husband (Melvyn Douglas, the one she stole from O’Neil) has to bring O’Neil into the household to “run” the slaves. Meanwhile Rainer has a fling with Robert Young.

All the acting is bad. The writing is bad (screenwriter Zoë Akins added all the slavery stuff). Even 1938 audiences who were clamoring for that “slavery was awesome for white people” thing at the time didn’t like the movie.

Then November’s The Great Waltz, a Strauss biopic, did well (cost too much, but did well). So should I have watched Great Waltz to see how Rainer recovers from Toy Wife? Maybe I didn’t get a good look at her filmography, right?

Paulette Goddard, Rainer, and the other MGM contract stars in “Dramatic School.”

In December there was Dramatic School, costarring Paulette Goddard as Rainer’s slutty, rich, mean classmate. I guess Dramatic is sort of impressive for Rainer because she plays the part well, even though she’s supposed to be much younger and infinitely naive. The film—which opens quite wonderfully with Margaret Dumont—has so much potential. It could be all about Rainer acting these different famous parts and so on and so on. Rainer even plays a character named “Louise” in the picture. It has to mean something, right?

Nope. It’s this tedious rags-to-riches story with Rainer, who lies too much (because it gives her the opportunity to act all the time), and how she gets caught. Dumont’s only in two short scenes. Most of the film has Gale Sondergaard as the evil teacher who’s jealous of Rainer because Sondergaard is old and Rainer is young. Dramatic School manages to be tediously tedious.

So no surprise Rainer quit after doing it.

But why she wanted to come back for Hostages….

Technically, “Hostages” might be a once in a lifetime event; thankfully.

Hostages, released in October 1943, is a war picture. Czech underground fighters versus Nazis. Rainer had missed the start of the war, film-wise, and had returned in time for the propaganda picture. Starring William Bendix as a Czech freedom fighter. He’s godawful. Maybe if he weren’t so bad in the movie, the movie wouldn’t be so bad. But even if he were better (or, even better still, Bendix weren’t in the movie at all), the part for Rainer would still be too slight. Apparently she didn’t want to do an Oscar-bait picture or role, but Hostages isn’t just not Oscar-bait, it’s not a good project.

Top-billed Rainer gets overshadowed by romantic interest Arturo de Córdova, a Mexican actor on his brief, unsuccessful Hollywood tour.

A strong comeback picture, Hostages ain’t.

It also isn’t anything like Rainer’s MGM work. Especially not the better work.

Rainer in 1941.

Despite having seen over fifty percent (I have the math but don’t want to show my work) of Rainer’s Classic Hollywood output… I can only tentatively say I like her. She’s probably all right, maybe good, certainly not terrible and probably never inept. I don’t even know if seeing Big City, Great Waltz, or Great Ziegfeld will change that opinion. It might. But it also might not, given the erratic nature of Rainer’s output. Maybe Escapade is the one to see. Hopefully someday.

But, until then, I’m going to try to get to the three available MGM pictures sooner than later.

I’m still curious about Rainer’s career. More now I’ve started watching her films, which is another positive sign. Albeit a tentative one.


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