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Signature Collection: Luise Rainer

(US DVD: 12 Dec 2010)

Luise Rainer is a legend, and a curious one. There’s no doubting her fabulosity. Hollywood bought or brought her from Austria in the ‘30s to rival Greta Garbo. In a brief career, she won two consecutive Oscars for Best Actress. The first was for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which the most memorable part of her role consists of a scene on the phone. Then she starred as a Chinese peasant in The Good Earth (1937) and picked up another statue. Then she made a few movies nobody thought much of—three of them are in this new DVD package—and vanished.


She didn’t completely retire but effectively she did, settling in London with a new husband after a failed marriage to playwright Clifford Odets and making scattered TV appearances. In 1997, she astonished the film world with a comeback when she played in the movie The Gambler.  If she’s still alive on 12 January, she will be 101-years-old.


Her two Oscars have always seemed like something between a joke and a legend. It seems that her Hollywood roles consist of opening wide her very large eyes (with plucked and redrawn brows), looking upward at the fateful blow of some plot development, then turning her head aside and casting her eyes down, bearing all with a stiff upper lip. Her accent cannot be hidden, but she usually plays anything except an Austrian or German—they didn’t have very good press at the time, what with Hitler and all.


The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a brisk, charming divertimento plastered with MGM gloss by director George Fitzmaurice and based on a romantic spy-adventure by Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel). It’s pure piffle, utter tosh, and sheer balderdash. It’s also not very likely. Nor is it meant to be, and that’s why it passes the time so agreeably. It’s not exactly light as a feather but it’s at least at light as the title piece of silver bric-a-brac, supposedly the property of Marie Antoinette. No small credit for watchability goes to star William Powell, who can do dashing and sophisticated in his sleep.


At first it seems to be about a Russian prince (Robert Young) and his blustering keeper or majordomo (Frank Morgan, not far from the Emerald City), who get kidnapped as a bargaining chip for the release of a Polish patriot about to be executed in Russia. Not much is made of this minor thread about Polish independence, since in 1937 the real Poland was already independent, though not for long. Anyway, Powell is introduced as the Polish spy who must deliver the note to the Tsar, and Rainer is a Russian spy ordered to deliver his death warrant into Russia.


Wouldn’t you know it, their mutual and respective fates are tied, along with their mixed-up messages, with the titular gaudy knick-knacks. They chase these double-McGuffins all over Europe in a plot that Hitchcock would have whipped into quite a soufflé. He’d have made a fetish of the cupids with the broken legs; the matched pair foreshadows the final pairing of the errant messengers from opposite sides. Everything is resolved by the forces of ultimate power (i.e. the Tsar), who turns out to be a decent chap and a romantic at heart, so that you wonder what all these political malcontents are on about. Oh well, never mind, it’s Chinatown.


Rainer’s next release was an altogether different plate of mackerel. The Big City opens with wacky cartoons in the credits, thus appearing to signal the start of a riotous comedy. The picture might be sued for false advertising, since much of the comedy is unintentional. Rainer plays Anna Benton, the wife of independent cabdriver Joe Benton (Spencer Tracy). David Shipman in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years declares that Tracy acts Rainer right off the screen. “She soffered, and soffered and soffered, and smiled through her tears without a sniffle.” He’s right. Tracy is present and mobile, even during the couple’s coyest teasing folderol at the beginning of the picture, while Rainer helplessly radiates like a star under the key lights.


The plot is some nonsense about the war between the independent cabbies and a big taxi company whose manager (William Demarest) uses fascist tactics to squash the competition. The indies hang together (except for one traitor in their midst) even while Anna is accused of murder and threatened with deportation. I’m not sure what language she speaks, but it appears to be English. That’s a joke; she seems to be Hungarian. Anyway, she even gets another big telephone scene where she emotes with tearful, self-sacrificing pathos.


The script by Dore Schary and Hugo Butler is clearly meant as a comment on fascist Europe, and the indies commit an act of communal subversion in refusing to give up Anna to the authorities. However, the film also makes it clear that all those in real power—the company owner, the district attorney, the mayor—are men of good will who are trying to run a fair city and who have clear suspicions about the bad apple who’s stirring up trouble. Whew, so the American audience needn’t worry about fascists in power any more than the Tsar was really a bad fellow.


Except that the way the villains are cleaned up is for a whole banquet hall of athletes appearing as themselves (including Jack Dempsey and Jim Thorpe) to use a greater show of force against the bad cabbies in the massive donnybrook that climaxes the film, while the sly mayor (Charlie Grapewin) looks the other way. So illegal violence really does work. Two of the athletes are big black men in tuxedos, and they have humorous moments such as flipping a coin to see who gets to knock out the guy they’re holding. It’s a striking scene, as it were. This may be the only Hollywood movie of the ‘30s to present the image of a black man using violence against a white man, and with the audience’s approval.


By this point in the movie, absurdities have progressed to where Anna is so relieved by how things are turning out that she’s having a baby. The details of what’s happening are whispered into the ship captain’s ear by the D.A. (either so as not to offend our sensibilities or because we wouldn’t believe it), and the captain responds by exclaiming that they have a doctor on board who’s “the greatest baby expert in the whole world!” It must be this expert who decides that instead of taking her to the ship’s medical ward, she should be relocated into a vehicle on the dock. After all, I guess the ship had a schedule to keep.


All this poppycock is smoothly watchable under the sure hand and eye of director Frank Borzage, who knew a thing or two about making actresses suffer picturesquely. Although hardly one of his most poetic achievements, it’s skilfull, professional, unboring work that focuses on a sense of the city, the details of character business amid the large supporting cast, and the exaggerated sense of unconditional love operating under great strain in his two stars.


Even after all the above, The Toy Wife (1938) is the silliest piece of frippery here and continues Rainer’s spiral into the most extravagant tomfoolery. Rainer plays Frou-Frou, the frivolous daughter of a plantation owner in antebellum Louisiana. (Now she’s supposedly talking with a French accent but sounds more than ever like Marlene Dietrich.) A lawyer (Melvyn Douglas) asks for her hand, to the chagrin of her sensible older sister Louise (Barbara O’Neil), who’s in love with the fool. In a display of self-sacrifice, Louise encourages the match (it’s practically an order), and five years later she more or less usurps the household. Meanwhile, Frou-Frou also receives the intentions of an incorrigible gambler (Robert Young) who is better suited to her.


It’s impossible for this situation to be resolved sensibly. The Production Code wouldn’t tolerate divorce merely because it would make everyone happy. One source of tension is to see how the characters try to maintain some kind of integrity while their motivations are twisted into bizarre shapes by the conventions of honor and scriptwriting. The unnecessary developments can be seen as the product of hidebound conventions of all kinds, and movies like this tend to undercut those conventions emotionally while slavishly following them.


Did we say slavishly? The most interesting aspect of this film is the unquestioned and patronizing attitudes to slavery. This element suffuses the drama, with most scenes having slaves prominently featured. The modern viewer may tend to wince at these depictions, and that wince may obscure something compelling about their very presence. This movie is unusual in crediting four black actors for the kind of servant roles that often go unlisted: Theresa Harris, Libby Taylor, Clinton Rosemond, and Clarence Muse.


Harris is the most dynamic presence in the movie, moreso by far than the white knuckleheads around her. She’s introduced early as a ragamuffin who stands out among a pack of slave women. She’s the only one with her hair in beribboned braids instead of covered by a cloth. She declares that she doesn’t have a name but they calls her Pick for “pickaninny” and she hopes Mamselle takes her as her own partickler darkie. That’s really what she says. She’s got eyes for Mamselle right off and later tells her “Pick don’t care if you hits her because Pick loves you”. Indeed, Pick is the only person who sticks by Frou Frou always, showing more passion and personality than the male suitors. She’s also the only truth-teller on the scene. (The slaves in general are allowed to editorialize, as when Taylor’s grumpy character dismisses politics as foolishness.)


I wondered where I’d seen this magnetic and lovely actress before, and IMDB reminded me. She was Barbara Stanwyck’s friend (allegedly a maid, actually a partner of some kind) in the pre-Code classic Baby Face. Amid more than 80 roles, she also played Bette Davis’ equally magnetic maid in Jezebel, the other 1938 antebellum drama to cash in on the imminent release of Gone with the Wind. Put this woman on a stamp.


To see a movie like this is to be reminded inevitably, for want of anything more dramatically interesting on the screen, of how Hollywood squandered the talents of certain actors. This is a common observation that renews its interest as one watches someone like Muse. Appearing in about 150 movies, he was an actor of the Harlem Renaissance who teamed with Langston Hughes to write the screenplay of an unusual 1939 slavery drama (with music!) called Way Down South. He was also a singer and songwriter whose works include “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”. He played Jim in a 1931 version of Huckleberry Finn, sang in the 1959 Porgy and Bess, and was still making movies in the 1970s, notably Car Wash and The Black Stallion. But most of his roles, like this one, are simply somebody’s discreet and avuncular retainer.


IMDB lists more than 20 other African American actors who appear in this film, including the important and impressive Madame Sul-Te-Wan. She needs to be on a stamp too. The daughter of freed slaves, her career began in the 19th Century and she was well seasoned when she appeared in D.W. Griffith’s seminal Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. She moved on to projects for Cecil B. DeMille, and her talkies include King Kong, The Maid of Salem (as the historical Tituba, accused witch), and Carmen Jones (as the heroine’s grandmother). Here, she’s one of many maids. The presence of all these black folks is a sign of the scenario’s ideas of conspicuous consumption, like the huge ballgowns and stairwells and carriages and candelabras, amid which Frou Frou is one more delicate music box.


The Toy Wife is scripted by Pulitzer-winning dramatist Zoe Akins (The Old Maid), from a French play first produced in the U.S. in 1870. This warhorse was a ready-made pre-GWTW project for producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong) and director Richard Thorpe. Comparisons can be drawn between the antebellum romances, and stronger comparisons can be made with Greta Garbo’s 1936 Camille, also scripted by Akins. Perhaps it was thought this project could do something similar for Rainer. That didn’t happen.


One curious fact about Akins’ script is that she shows how every decision in the film, whether economic or marital (the same thing), is made by women, who get all the best lines. From Pick to Frou-Frou to Louise to the iron-willed businesswoman played by Alma Kruger (the other interesting supporting character in the film), the women arrange things while the men pose for their honor. It makes you wonder who the toys are.


All three films are in “Signature Collection: Luise Rainer”, which is available only through the Warner Archives made-on-demand website.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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