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(Credit: Vandamm Studio)

Film

The forgotten star of Hollywood: Luise Rainer

@Russellisation

Whilst you may well have heard of the likes of 1930s film stars such as Errol Flynn, Cary Grant and Clark Gable, few will have heard the name Luise Rainer, a German-American-British film star who earned critical acclaim during the very same period. Becoming the very first actor to win back-to-back Academy Awards, Rainer is very much the faded star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, inextricably fading into its history. 

Born on January 12th, 1910, in Düsseldorf, Germany, Luise Rainer was born into hardship as she was shuttled to Hamburg and later, Vienna where she would describe her childhood as “one of starvation, poverty and revolution”. Disaffected by her father’s absence and possessiveness, and her mother’s similar tempestuousness, Rainer became something of a rebellious tomboy in her youth seeking change from her home life.

At the age of six, she remembered deciding to join the world of entertainment with the revelation coming after she witnessed a circus act, making note of the “marvellous” man on the high wire whom she fantasised about running away with. Such a dream was kept alight until she reached the age of 16 when she started her acting career under the watchful eye of director Max Reinhardt, becoming an esteemed Berlin stage actress within only a few years. 

Appearing in the likes of plays such as Mademoiselle by Jacques Deval, Kingsley’s Men in White, and Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw as well as several German-language films, she was picked out by a talent scout from MGM who signed her on for a three-year Hollywood contract. Moving to LA in 1935, Rainer approached the industry as a flourishing star, quickly learning English before starting in her first Hollywood role in 1935’s Escapade. 

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Earning great attention from both audiences and critics, Luise Rainer was viewed as the ‘next big thing’ in Hollywood. Though dispute the nature of the industry at the time that was still yet to truly capture the true potential of the ‘star performer’ as we know of them today, Rainer’s attitudes towards LA showbiz was remarkably forward-thinking. As the actor told the paper La Crosse Tribune in July 1935, “stars are not important, only what they do as a part of their work is important. Artists need quiet in which to grow. It seems Hollywood does not like to give them this quiet…there is too much ‘bowing down’ before stars”. 

As a burgeoning young actor, Rainer’s next performance came in The Great Ziegfeld, directed by William Powell, following the real-life character Anna Held in the iconic award-winning musical biography. Winning the Best Leading Actress award at the Academy Awards in 1937, Rainer dominated the screen with her emotionally wrought, charming performance, leading to further Hollywood success for the young star.

Remarkably earning back-to-back Academy Awards for the very first time in the ceremony’s history, Rainer won the Leading Actress Oscar once more for her role in 1937’s The Good Earth, though this would strangely represent the end of the actor’s stardom. Starring in four consecutive MGM films throughout the remainder of the 1930s, each of these films was poorly received by critics and Rainer quickly fell out of love with Hollywood.

Her final performance for MGM came in 1938’s Dramatic School, though at this point the actor was dreading every day she remained in the industry. According to an interview Rainer gave for The Desert News on November 8th 1938, “All the acting I’ve done on the stage or screen has been nothing compared to the acting I did in New York, when I tried to make everyone think I was happy – and my heart was breaking”. 

Later admitting she was too young and unprepared for Hollywood, Luise Rainer fled from the industry and returned to Europe where she studied medicine and wished to return to a life of normality. Though she enjoyed several more performances on the theatrical stage, she would never return to the bright lights of Hollywood. 

Passing away on December 30th, 2014, at the grand age of 104, Luise Rainer is a rare example of an individual that rejected the studio system of Hollywood and sought to carve her own path of performance, armed with two secretive Academy Awards. 

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