When it came to recognizing the horrors of Nazism and fascism, the record shows that Luise Rainer was on the right side of history.
A look at the actress’s mercurial career in the pages of Variety offers ample evidence of her activism and efforts to raise awareness, long before America entered WWII, about the devastation in her native Germany and throughout Europe.
Throughout her up-and-down career in showbiz, Rainer was a vocal supporter of all manner of humanitarian causes, from Chinese orphans to anti-fascist forces in Spain.
At the peak of her Hollywood stardom, Rainer also displayed great affection for pant suits, to the delight of Variety’s “Gals and Gab!” column, and she doted on her beloved Scottie terrier, Johnny. She was also quite sickly, with many reports of illnesses and hospitalizations delaying production on her various pics.
Here are 20 things you didn’t know about the two-time Oscar winner (the first person to ever win back-to-back statuettes), who died Tuesday at the age of 104.
- The first mention of Luise Rainer in Variety came in the July 10, 1934, weekly edition with a two-sentence item headlined “M-G’s Reinhardt Importee.” It mentioned she had been recruited from the Max Reinhardt Company by Metro scout Bob Ritchie.
- Rainer arrived in the U.S. in January 1935 and immediately enrolled in Louis B. Mayer’s famous finishing school for ingenues. “She will further perfect her English before being spotted in a picture,” Variety assured readers in the Jan. 29, 1935, edition.
- Her first U.S. movie,“Escapade,” a light romantic yarn opposite William Powell in a role meant for Myrna Loy, performed well at the B.O. MGM gave her the Greta Garbo treatment, billing the movie as “introducing the fascinating Luise Rainer.” An ad in the July 5, 1935, edition declared: “Overnight fame for this girl. Be first to tell your friends about her!”
- A “Gals and Gab!” item from August 1935 noted the “excitement” stirred when Rainer was “discovered in brown slacks and a white sport coat” while taking in a movie at Hollywood’s Filmarte theater. A few weeks later the column noted that Rainer was spotted lunching at the “MG commissary” in a “smart desert brown tailor-made suit.”
- Rainer’s star continued to rise after she reteamed with Powell and “Escapade” director Robert Z. Leonard for “The Great Ziegfeld,” for which she would win her first Oscar. Just before the picture was released, MGM signed Rainer to a long-term contract. “A script reading orgy is on to find particularly suitable material for the actress,” an item in the May 23, 1936, edition noted.
- Rainer and playwright Clifford Odets honeymooned in Ensenada, Mexico, after being married by an L.A. Superior Court judge at her Brentwood home in January 1937.
- In March 1937 Variety reported that Rainer’s pup Johnny was a fixture on the set of her latest movie, “The Emperor’s Candlesticks.” “She talks to him in German, mostly,” the item noted.
- In July 1937 Rainer hosted a luncheon at the MGM commissary for Ernest Hemingway, just as Hollywood types were paying attention to the Spanish Civil War. Director Dorothy Arzner and Joseph Mankiewicz were among those in attendance. The hostess wore “a white tailored silk dress and no hat,” Variety noted.
- In November 1937 Rainer and Gale Sondergaard (an actress who was later a victim of the Blacklist) hosted a cocktail reception at Sondergaard’s home as part of a benefit for the Motion Picture Artists Committee for the Spanish Loyalists. Anna May Wong, Gloria Stuart and Edward G. Robinson were among the attendees.
- In February 1938 Rainer hosted a benefit at Clara Bow’s It Cafe in Hollywood for Chinese and Japanese war orphans.
- On Oscar night in March 1938, Rainer was at home when she learned around 8:30 p.m. that she’d won best actress for “The Good Earth.” According to Variety’s day-after report, Rainer “rather hurriedly dressed in a long-sleeved pink crepe gown. She did not bother with makeup or pause to more than comb her hair” before lighting out for the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. She would later celebrate her win by buying a new “phaeton” (aka convertible) car.
- By June 1938, Rainer had filed for divorce from Odets, citing “extreme mental cruelty.” Her complained alleged that Odets insisted “there is room for only one career in this family.” In November they reconciled and bought a farm in upstate New York where they vowed to “honeymoon six months out of the year.” By May 1940 she had revived her complaint, and the two split for good.
- In November 1938, Rainer, Frank Capra and John Garfield were among the organizers of a rally by a group billed as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy at the Philharmonic Auditorium (now a parking lot in downtown L.A.). The goal was to raise awareness in Hollywood of the threat posed by the Nazi movement in her home country.
- The year 1939 was one of substantial transition for Rainer. She did a play in London and then asked to be released from her MGM contract. The studio obliged, as her B.O. drawing power had begun to wane and she had famously clashed with studio chief Mayer over roles that she wanted — and didn’t want. But she was still a regular at benefits and rallies. In November, she was among the top-billed at the “Night of Stars” event at Madison Square Garden, organized by Joan Blondell and Dick Powell to benefit the “United Palestine Appeal” refugee effort.
- Rainer was not surprisingly caught up in the initial wave of anti-Communist hysteria. In August 1940, Rainer, Franchot Tone and Francis Lederer were “cleared” of charges by the House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities. However, in a statement, the committee noted that the trio had lent support to orgs whose goals were “inimical to the best interests of this country.”
- In April 1940 Rainer was in negotiations with Columbia to star in the B.P. Schulberg-produced “Blitzkrieg,” which was to depict the impact of war on ordinary people. But nothing came of the talks.
- In 1943, the same year Rainer made her first film appearance in four years with Paramount’s “Hostages,” she attended a reception at the Ambassador Hotel for China’s Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. It was held in connection with a starry China relief fundraiser staged at the Hollywood Bowl.
- By the time Ranier gave birth to her only child, daughter Francesca, in June 1946, Variety described her as “retired.” But she continued to do theater, radio and TV roles while living in London and Switzerland with her husband, publishing honcho Robert Knittel.
- In March 1949 producer Douglas Sirk announced a plan to bring Rainer back to the bigscreen with “Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time,” which he planned to shoot in Vienna. It was not meant to be.
- Rainer’s last waltz in film came in the 1997 Euro production “The Gambler,” starring Michael Gambon, Polly Walker and Dominic West. Variety reviewer Derek Elley was unimpressed except to note that “the pic briefly gets a real lift when veteran Luise Rainer bursts on the scene in a wonderfully showy part as a gambling-addicted granny.”