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Luise Rainer: Two-Time Best Actress Oscar Winner Was 104

Luise Rainer Today
Luise Rainer: MGM star in the mid-1930s.

Luise Rainer dead at 104: MGM actress was first two-time and first consecutive Oscar winner in acting categories, and oldest surviving winner

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The first two-time and first consecutive Academy Award winner in the acting categories, and, at age 104, the oldest surviving Oscar winner, Luise Rainer – Best Actress for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937) – died at her London apartment on Dec. 30 – nearly two weeks before her 105th birthday.

Below is a revised version of an article originally posted in January 2014, a few days after Rainer turned 104.

104-year-old two-time Oscar winner ignored at Golden Globes

Inevitably, Transformers movie franchise director Michael Bay (who recently had an on-camera “meltdown” after a teleprompter stopped working at the Consumer Electronics Show) and Transformers movie franchise star Shia LaBeouf (who was recently accused of plagiarism) were mentioned – or rather, blasted, in current media parlance – at the 2014 Golden Globes ceremony, held this past Sunday, Jan. 12, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Left unmentioned (and unblasted), however, was London resident and two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Luise Rainer – who just happened to turn 104 years old on the day of the Golden Globes telecast.

Of course, likely none of the people attending the Golden Globes had ever heard of – let alone seen a movie featuring – either Luise Rainer or the vast majority of her contemporaries. In fact, you would have been very lucky to find one single guest or nominee able to name one single movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille – in whose honor the Hollywood Foreign Press Association came up with the Cecil B. DeMille Award, which this year went to Woody Allen (by way of Diane Keaton).

You would have been just as lucky to find two people who could have named one single François Truffaut movie – Best Supporting Actress (TV) winner Jacqueline Bisset, the star of Truffaut’s Day for Night, and who else? And no, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t count. (I’m mentioning Truffaut because his death of a brain tumor became the punchline of a joke during Diane Keaton’s Woody Allen tribute.)

Best Actress Oscar winner

Admittedly, Luise Rainer didn’t star in many Hollywood movies – nine in all – but three of them were major productions:

  • Robert Z. Leonard’s Best Picture Academy Award winner The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which Rainer beautifully plays stage performer Anna Held, the longtime companion of showman Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell). Her telephone scene, smiling as tears roll down, remains one of the classic “great acting” moments in screen history.
  • Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth (1937), with Rainer quite moving as the Chinese peasant O-Lan, stealing the show from the Daniel Day-Lewis of the 1930s, Paul Muni (Best Actor Oscar winner for The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936).
  • Julien Duvivier’s lavish The Great Waltz (1938), a highly fictionalized account of Johann Strauss’ life. Top billed, Rainer skirts all the pitfalls of her saccharine, one-dimensional role: baker’s daughter Poldi Vogelhuber, the composer’s Hollywood-concocted sweetheart.

Luise Rainer won Best Actress Academy Awards for both The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, thus becoming not only the first performer ever to win two (as it happened, back-to-back) Oscars but also only the second individual to achieve that feat, following producer Walt Disney, whose animated shorts won a series of Academy Awards in the early ’30s.

Luise Rainer The Great Waltz Fernand GraveyLuise Rainer in ‘The Great Waltz,’ with Fernand Gravey.

Irrelevant Hollywood history

Now, back to the 2014 Golden Globes … Surely hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (and/or their writers) – or any of the presenters – could have come up with a good Luise Rainer joke/homage. After all, the Golden Globes are supposed to be a celebration of movies and television, right? Luise Rainer starred in both media. (On TV, she’s awesome as Ramon Novarro’s wife in the 1965 Combat episode “Finest Hour.”)

What’s more, there’s even a Luise Rainer-Woody Allen connection of sorts. Here’s the link:

  • Luise Rainer and Maureen O’Sullivan were both featured in The Emperor’s Candlesticks.
  • Maureen O’Sullivan was Mia Farrow’s mother.
  • Mia Farrow was Woody Allen’s off-screen companion and his leading lady in about a dozen films – e.g., Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, Alice, Husbands and Wives.

But for the two-time Oscar winner to be remembered, someone connected to the Golden Globes would have needed to be aware of the following:

a) Luise Rainer’s birthday.

b) Luise Rainer’s movie career.

c) Luise Rainer’s existence.

d) Hollywood movies made before Jaws – besides The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, The Sound of Music, It’s a Wonderful Life, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz.

Not likely.

See, if you’re neither “in” nor tabloid fare, you might as well have never existed. Most of this year’s Golden Globe nominees – and some of the winners – will learn that lesson in the years to come.

Luise Rainer movies

As found on the IMDb, here’s the full list of Luise Rainer movies.

The first three titles are German and/or Austrian (co-)productions. From 1935-1938, Luise Rainer was an MGM star; Hostages was made at Paramount.

  • Sehnsucht 202 (“Lonely Hearts 202,” 1932).
    Director: Max Neufeld.
    Cast: Magda Schneider (Romy Schneider’s mother). Fritz Schulz.
  • Madame hat Besuch (“Madame Has a Visitor,” 1932).[1]
    Director: Carl Boese.
    Cast: Attila Hörbiger. Herbert Hübner.
  • Heut’ kommt’s drauf an (“Today, That Depends,” 1933). Supposed to be a lost film.
    Director: Kurt Gerron.
    Cast: Hans Albers.
  • Escapade (1935).[2]
    Director: Robert Z. Leonard.
    Cast: William Powell. (Rainer replaced a recalcitrant Myrna Loy.)
  • The Great Ziegfeld (1936).
    Director: Robert Z. Leonard.
    Cast: William Powell. Myrna Loy. Virginia Bruce. Frank Morgan. Fanny Brice.
  • Big City (1937).
    Director: Frank Borzage.
    Cast: Spencer Tracy.
  • The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937).
    Director: George Fitzmaurice.
    Cast: William Powell. Robert Young. Maureen O’Sullivan.
  • The Good Earth (1937).
    Director: Sidney Franklin.
    Cast: Paul Muni.
  • Dramatic School (1938).
    Director: Robert B. Sinclair.
    Cast: Alan Marshal. Paulette Goddard. Genevieve Tobin. Lana Turner.
  • The Great Waltz (1938).
    Director: Julien Duvivier.
    Cast: Fernand Gravey (a.k.a. Fernand Gravet). Miliza Korjus.
  • The Toy Wife (1938).
    Director: Richard Thorpe.
    Cast: Melvyn Douglas. Robert Young. Barbara O’Neil. H.B. Warner.
  • Hostages (1943).
    Director: Frank Tuttle.
    Cast: Arturo de Córdova. William Bendix. Paul Lukas.
  • The Gambler (1997).
    Director: Károly Makk.
    Cast: Michael Gambon. Jodhi May. Polly Walker. Dominic West.
Luise Rainer The GamblerLuise Rainer in ‘The Gambler.’

And while their names mean anything … check out the full list of “Golden Globes 2014 Winners.” Among them:

12 Years a Slave. American Hustle. The Great Beauty. Frozen. Leonardo DiCaprio. Amy Adams. Alfonso Cuarón. Jennifer Lawrence. Matthew McConaughey. Spike Jonze. Jared Leto. Bryan Cranston. Robin Wright. Elisabeth Moss. Bono.

‘Madame’ mystery

[1] There’s some question whether Luise Rainer actually has a role in Madame hat Besuch, as there’s precious little information online about this Carl Boese effort – apparently a short and supposedly a “lost” one. I found it mentioned in three books online, two of which make reference to its censorship certificate.

Here are the book titles:

  • Paolo Caneppele’s Entscheidungen der Wiener Filmzensur: 1929-1933 (“Decisions of Vienna’s Film Censorship [Board]: 1929-1933,” Filmarchiv Austria, 2003). No further information is provided in the available (index) snippet.
  • Jan Distelmeyer’s Alliierte für den Film: Arnold Pressburger, Gregor Rabinowitsch und die Cine-Allianz (2004). Luise Rainer listed as a cast member; the film itself is referred to as a short. Certificate of censorship date: Sept. 29, 1932. Note: On the IMDb’s Madame hat Besuch page, producer Gregor Rabinowitsch is listed as Gregor Rabinovitch.
  • Christian Dewald’s Arbeiterkino: linke Filmkultur der Ersten Republik (Filmarchiv Austria, 2007). Only director Carl Boese and art directors Artur Berger and Emil Stepanek are listed in connection with the film.

Additionally, the German Film Institute website features the German censorship certificate (dated Oct. 22, 1932) banning the Madame hat Besuch poster/advertising from German territory, but little else about the film itself. (The poster, featuring a woman in a ball gown and two laughing men standing next to her as she hands an unfastened pearl necklace to one of them, was deemed offensive because of the depiction of a pistol pointed at the woman.)

Also, the IMDb lists Luise Rainer in the cast of Erik Ode’s 1954 comedy Der erste Kuß (“The First Kiss”), but I couldn’t find confirmation that she indeed has a role in the film.

The source for that information seems to be Jan-Christopher Horak’s 1986 book Fluchtpunkt Hollywood: eine Dokumentation zur Filmemigration nach 1933, which includes Der erste Kuß in Rainer’s filmography.

Der erste Kuß is discussed in other publications as well, but I could find no mention of Luise Rainer in connection with it.

And finally, according to several websites Ja, der Himmel über Wien (“Yes, the Sky over Vienna,” 1930) is supposed to have been a 1930 short featuring Luise Rainer’s first film appearance. Although that’s possible, “Ja, der Himmel über Wien” – the name of a popular song by Richard Fall – is an alternate title for Sehnsucht 202.

Elusive ‘Escapade’

[2] A Hollywood remake of Willi Forst’s German hit Masquerade in Vienna / Maskerade (1934) starring Paula Wessely and Anton Walbrook, Escapade is not lost, but has been unavailable for years. (There were at least two screenings, both in California, in the 1990s.)

According to one unverified source, Time Warner does not have a viewable print of the film. However, states that the film’s unavailability is due to rights issues.

Luise Rainer image: Publicity shot ca. late 1930s, via Doctor Macro.

Fernand Gravey and Luise Rainer The Great Waltz 1938 image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Luise Rainer The Gambler image: Channel Four Films.

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