Monday, April 1, 2013

Luise Rainer (b. 1910)

Like many compatriots in the pre-war central European arts community, Luise Rainer escaped the fascist clouds gathering over Europe to become one of the leading lights of Hollywood's German expatriate community, and the first actor of any origin to win two Academy Awards back-to-back. An up-and-coming star in Germany upon the Nazi party's rise to power in 1933, she emigrated soon after, signing on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and making her Hollywood debut in "Escapade" (1936). She soon had landed her first Oscar for her performance in "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936) and won it again the following year for her role in "The Good Earth" (1937). She made nearly as much buzz challenging the reign of the studio moguls, clashing with boss Louie B. Mayer until he made an example of her. Though Rainer's decline would be cavalierly chalked up to an "Oscar curse," Mayer - and by some estimates the actor's own Old School expressionistic acting style - subsequently denied her choice parts and prestige projects, prompting her to quit Hollywood after only seven years in the movie business. She would try her hand at the stage, including some star turns on Broadway, but would mostly be seen thereafter in odd TV projects in the U.S. and U.K. and, much later, in the European film "The Gambler" (1997). A classic thespian import of Old World style, Rainer's legacy would necessarily carry a cautionary example of how the bygone studio system would slap down even one of its most luminous stars.
She was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on Jan. 12, 1910, the daughter of Emmy Luise and Heinrich Rainer, a wealthy import/export merchant and a citizen of the United States. Hearing the call of the stage early, she left home at age 16 to study at theatrical pioneer Max Reinhardt's Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, Austria. She acted in a raft of Reinhardt's productions, including Shakespearean works and George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." She made her screen debut in the short film "Ja, der Himmel über Wien" (1930), and appearing in her first feature two years later in the musical comedy "Sehnsucht 202" (1932). Rainer did two more German-language films, but the assumption of power by Hitler's overtly anti-Semitic Nazi party in Germany spurred her and other Europeans of Jewish ancestry, including Reinhardt and later Rainer's father, to immigrate to America. Wooed by Hollywood's prestige studio, MGM, Rainer signed a seven-year contract. The studio put her on familiar turf, casting her in the Vienna-set farce "Escapade" (1935) opposite one of its biggest stars, William Powell. She dazzled critics and impressed Powell enough that he insisted she be cast in his next film, a grandiose biopic of New York stage producer extraordinaire Florence Ziegfeld, "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936). It was only a small role, playing Ziegfeld's ex-wife, but Rainer's scene congratulating Ziegfeld on his imminent remarriage showed such bittersweet intensity that it helped her cinch the Best Actress Oscar the next year.
Even before her win, however, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg had set the stage for her next project, an ambitious adaptation of Pearl Buck's Chinese saga "The Good Earth" (1937). Thalberg had cast Paul Muni in the male lead, which complicated his hope to give the female lead to Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, since the censorial Hays Office would not condone onscreen "miscegenation," the odious taboo America then assigned to interracial relationships. Over studio head Mayer's objections - he wanted to hone Rainer as another exotic glamour queen, a la Garbo and Dietrich - Rainer took the part. Her turn as the steadfast farmer's wife would win her a second Oscar, but "The Good Earth" would prove Thalberg's last production before his untimely death and his absence would portend poorly for her career. Mayer assumed MGM's production stewardship, and he and Rainer soon were at loggerheads. Mayer's pathological veneration of women led him to disproportionately lighten MGM's fare and gloss over any complexity in female characters. He altered one script wholesale by changing Rainer's character, a prostitute, into a virtuous young lady, the resulting film "The Bride Wore Red" (1937) which eventually starred Joan Crawford instead. Rainer's 1937 marriage to playwright Clifford Odets, a leftist and iconoclastic founder of the Group Theater, did not thrill the conservative Mayer either. And Rainer, ever unimpressed with Hollywood's pomp and circumstance, only attended the 1938 Oscar ceremony after Mayer ordered her to go.
As the relationship soured, she found herself snubbed for roles she actually wanted. She reteamed with Powell in "The Emperor's Candlesticks" (1937), played the wife of cabbie Spencer Tracy in "Big City" (1937), essayed a sister immersed in a love triangle opposite Melvyn Douglas in "The Toy Wife" (1938), and headed an ensemble in the anemic inside-acting yarn "Dramatic School" (1938). Her last true feature hit would be "The Great Waltz" (1938), in which she played the beleaguered wife of composer Johann Strauss. After that, however, her unwillingness to accept parts being offered her led Mayer to release her from her contract. Rainer moved to New York City with Odets - though the marriage deteriorated and ended in 1940 - and returned to the stage, starring in plays in the U.K. and making her Broadway debut in "A Kiss for Cinderella" in 1942.
Rainer returned to Hollywood briefly to make "Hostages" (1943) for Paramount, the taut tale of a group of Czech citizens jailed by German occupation forces until someone confesses to the murder of a German officer. Like many movie stars during WWII, she lent her celebrity to war-bond drives and entertaining U.S. troops, making tour stops as far afield as North Africa and Italy after Allied forces had secured them. But thereafter she would essentially leave show business and the U.S. behind by marrying English publishing executive Robert Knittel in 1945 and moving to England. It would not be until 1949 that she would make another movie, the BBC telefilm "By Candlelight." She took to the stage again in 1950, starring in a brief revival of Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" on Broadway. She would crop up during the 1950s in featured one-off performances in early U.S. television anthology shows, such as "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (CBS, 1951-59), "Lux Video Theatre" (CBS/NBC 1950-59) and "Suspense" (CBS, 1949-1954), but for the most part retired to her and Knittel's homes in London and Switzerland.
Privately, Rainer tried her hand at painting and was lured back before the cameras only rarely in ensuing decades, playing a countess in an episode of "Combat!" (ABC, 1962-67) in 1965 and making an improbable guest-shot on "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) in 1984. In 1997, she returned to the big screen in a UK/Hungarian/Dutch adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Gambler," drawing raves for her scenes as an aristocratic matriarch invigorated by her discovery of the roulette table. Ensconced in a luxury apartment in London after Knittel's 1989 death, Rainer made an appearance at the 75th anniversary Academy Awards broadcast in 2003 for a tribute to past winners. In 2012, she was profiled in Entertainment Weekly in a story entitled "The Oldest Oscar Winner Speaks," in which the 102-year-old legend granted a brief interview, discussing her colorful life and brief tenure as a reigning star of Hollywood's Golden Age.
By Matthew Grimm

Monday, March 1, 2010

Jean Harlow (1911-1937)


Actress. While only in the spotlight for ten short years, life was cut short by her untimely death and one can only speculate as to what might have transpired had she had a normal lifespan. Jean Harlow was married three times with a fourth on the horizon in William Powell. She appeared in forty one movies, was voted to the American Film Institute's list of the greatest actresses of the Golden Age and became the first movie actress to appear on the cover of Life Magazine. Her first feature film "Hell's Angels" drew an estimated crowd of 50,000 people at Grauman's Hollywood Theatre during its Premier. Her personal life was the substance that the tabloid media thrived upon: The suicide of her second husband, her relationships with gangsters, nude photos at the age of 17, problems with a greedy stepfather and a supposed abortion. Jean was the product of an overbearing, divorced, failed actress mother who prodded, trained with encouragement toward show business. She was born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City, her father a dentist. During a move to Los Angeles, she quickly found work as an extra and worked bit parts in films taking the maiden name of her mother, Jean Harlow. She was paired with Hollywood's leading men, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and William Powell thus becoming the cinema's chief money maker. Her mother was a constant presence in her life. She changed her roles from sensuous to comedienne making films such as 'Platinum Blonde,' 'Red-Headed Woman,' 'Red Dust,' 'Bombshell' and 'Hold Your Man.' Other well-remembered films include 'Dinner at Eight,' 'China Seas' and 'Libeled Lady.' She suffered from scarlet fever at 15 which probably led to the kidney disease which took her life at the young age of 26. Her funeral was an extravaganza staged at Forest Lawn, Glendale. Her co-star in five movies, Clark Gable was a pallbearer and Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy sang at the ceremony. A huge banquet followed the service and while a band played, mourners reminisced and remembered Jean Harlow. She was entombed in a private chamber in the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Glendale.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)


Actress, Hollywood legend. Born into an affluent yet unconventional family in Hartford, Connecticut, her parents, Dr. Thomas Norval and Katharine Martha Hepburn, were liberal, outspoken, and politically active. Their four children were raised in an atmosphere where no topic of discussion was taboo. Dr. Hepburn encouraged athletics, and young Kate excelled in golf, swimming, and figure skating. She attended Bryn Mawr College, and received a degree in history and philosophy in 1928, the same year she debuted on Broadway with a bit part in "Night Hostess". 1928 also marked the year of her only marriage, to businessman Ludlow Smith. Though the marriage was rocky and they divorced in 1934, Ludlow was very supportive - financially as well as morally - during the early years of Kate's career and they remained lifelong friends. Kate's stage work became the talk of New York, and Hollywood soon began to take notice. She was signed by RKO Pictures for her first film, "A Bill of Divorcement" in 1932. In 1934 she won her first Academy Award for best actress for her work in "Morning Glory". By 1938 she was unquestionably a star, but after a series of flops her career went into decline. This was exacerbated by her very outspoken anti-Hollywood attitudes and unwillingness to speak to the press, and she was labeled "box office poison". Kate returned to the stage in Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story", a play written specifically for her. After a successful Broadway run, MGM bought the rights, and the film, teaming Kate with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, was one of biggest hits of 1940. Kate's career was revived seemingly overnight. She made her first appearance with actor Spencer Tracy in 1942's "Woman of the Year". They fell in love, despite the fact that Tracy was married, and they remained together until Tracy's death in 1967. They made nine films together. Kate made over 40 films and 16 plays, and received 12 Academy Award nominations, a record that stood until 2002. She won four times, more than any other actor or actress in the history of the award. Some of her best known roles were "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Adam's Rib" (1949), "The African Queen" (1951) with Humphrey Bogart, "Rooster Cogburn" (1975) with John Wayne, and "On Golden Pond" (1981) with Henry Fonda. Her last film was 1994's "Love Affair". Katharine Houghton Hepburn died at her home in Connecticut at the age of 96, surrounded by her family.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Norma Shearer (1902-1983)


It would be easy (and more than a little cruel) to assert that Norma Shearer kept her job by marrying the boss. But MGM production chief Irving Thalberg couldn't have maintained Shearer's star status indefinitely if she hadn't been able to deliver the goods-and she did, time after time, in the vehicles he lovingly produced for her. A former child model who began her screen career in 1920's The Flapper she was signed by Thalberg in 1923 after making a strong impression in Lucretia Lombard He brought her to Metro (where he had recently set up shop after a stint at Universal) and groomed her for stardom, seeing that she got the best makeup, the smartest gowns, and the ablest cinematographers on the lot. (She had unconventional beauty and charm, but also had a pair of oddly focused eyes that had to be photographed just right.) Shearer appeared in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), Pretty Ladies, Tower of Lies (both 1925), The Devil's Circus, Upstage (both 1926), Ernst Lubitsch's delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), A Lady of Chance and The Latest From Paris (both 1928), among other silent films. Thalberg married her in 1927, from which time she got preferential treatment, including first choice of hot properties bought for or developed by MGM. She made her talkie debut in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), and followed it up later that year with two better films, The Trial of Mary Dugan and Their Own Desire (for which she was Oscarnominated). Shearer won an Oscar for her starring performance in The Divorcee (1930), playing a tolerant young society wife who finally tires of her husband's indiscretions and decides to match them with her own. She snagged another nomination for her turn as the spoiled lawyer's daughter who falls for exonerated racketeer Clark Gable in A Free Soul (1931). That same year she appeared with frequent costar Robert Montgomery in the delightfully witty adaptation of Noël Coward's Private Lives Thalberg guided Shearer's career choices, making sure she got the most sophisticated and elegant female parts MGM had to offer; he even took to buying established stage properties, such as Strange Interlude and Smilin' Through (both 1932), specifically for her. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), a literate, tasteful screen adaptation of the 19th-century romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, featured another Oscar-nominated Shearer performance, as did Romeo and Juliet (1936, opposite Leslie Howard) for which Shearer, who tried valiantly in the role, was far too old to be totally convincing. Thalberg's untimely death in 1936 devastated Shearer, who nonetheless went ahead with the filming of Marie Antoinette (1938), the last project he had developed for her. She earned yet another nod from the Academy. In blond wig for her role in Idiot's Delight (1939), again opposite Clark Gable, she was annoyingly mannered and, for the first time, seemed ill at ease. The Women (1939) gave her a more down-to-earth characterization, which she carried off admirably. But her career was nearly over; after finishing Escape (1940), and a pair of duds, Her Cardboard Lover and We Were Dancing (both 1942), she retired from the screen. Left very well off by Thalberg, Shearer remarried happily and lived in contentment until mental problems plagued her in her final years. Her last contributions to movies were in the guise of talent scout: she spotted Janet Leigh's picture while vacationing at a ski resort and arranged for an MGM screen test in the late 1940s; then, in the 1950s, she spotted handsome garment center executive Robert Evans alongside a swimming pool, thought he bore a strong resemblance to her late husband, and suggested him to play Thalberg in the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces launching Evans' short-lived acting career. Her brother Douglas was MGM's Sound Department head for decades, winning 12 Oscars for achievement on individual pictures and developing many technical innovations now considered commonplace.

Claudette Colbert (1903-1996)


LILY CLAUDETTE CHAUCHOIN was born on September 13, 1903 in Paris, France and in 1910 moved with her family to New York. While studying fashion design at the Art Students League in New York, she met a Broadway playwright at a party and landed a small role in his 1923 production The Wild Wescotts.

After a few more roles on the stage, Colbert made her film debut in Frank Capra's FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE (1927) and by Cecil B. De Mille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932), she had established herself as a screen beauty by bathing in asses' milk, no less. As the thirties rolled on however, Colbert proved her talents as an actress most notably in comedies but later several successful dramas as well. In 1934 she won her only Academy Award as Best Actress for her portrayal of runaway rich-girl Ellie Andrews opposite Clark Gable in Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, the Best Picture of 1934. Other memorable comedic performances included THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942), and several romantic comedies co-starring Fred MacMurray, like THE GILDED LADY (1935), NO TIME FOR LOVE (1943) and THE EGG AND I (1947).

The second two of Colbert's three Oscar nominations came for her dramatic performances however. In 1935 she was nominated for her role as a doctor in a mental institution opposite Charles Boyer in PRIVATE WORLDS (1935) and in 1944 received her third and final Best Actress nomination for her performance as Anne Hilton in the World War II homefront drama SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) with Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Jennifer Jones and Hattie McDaniel. Other notable dramatic roles included that of the title character in De Mille's CLEOPATRA (1934), Bea Pullman in IMITATION OF LIFE (1934), and Agnes Keith in THREE CAME HOME (1950).

Although Colbert's last film was PARRISH (1961), she had returned to the stage in 1951 with Nol Coward's Island Fling and later returned to Broadway in 1956 with Janus. Other notable stage productions included The Marriage-Go-Round (1958), The Kingfisher (1978) and Aren't We All? (1985). Having made a few television appearances in the 1950s, Colbert's last major project was the 1987 mini-series "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles." In 1989, the Kennedy Center honored her for lifetime achievement, and on July 30, 1996 Colbert died in Cobblers Cove, Barbados.

Mae West (1893-1980)


Born on August 17, 1893, Mae West (Mary Jane West ) would become the first :sex clown" on film. Her salacous eye-rolling and thinly veiled inuendo spawned a string of risque comedies in the 1930s. When Mae was only five years old when she began on the vaudevillian stage and by the age of 14 she was being billed as "The Baby Vamp."

In 1926, Mae wrote, produced and directed the Broadway show, "Sex," which led her to be arrested for obscenity. The following year, her next play, "Drag," was banned on Broadway because its subject matter was homosexuality.

With Diamond Lil (1928), West became the toast of Broadway and in 1932 she signed with Paramount. Her first film role was supporting George Raft in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932), in which Raft said "She stole everything but the cameras." The first film to star West, SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933), the film version of Diamond Lil, broke box-office records and saved Paramount from selling out to MGM. The Hays office brought in a new censorship code in 1934, largely to combat the code of the West, but she led them a merry chase through several more blockbusters: I'M NO ANGEL (1933), BELLE OF THE NINETIES (1934), GOIN' TO TOWN (1935) and KLONDIKE ANNIE (1936). Her popularity declined in the late 30s and, after the failure of THE HEAT'S ON (1943), (the first West film she didn't script herself) she returned to the stage and, later, the nightclub circuit. She turned down numerous film offers, including SUNSET BLVD. (1950), but finally made a comeback of sorts in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970).

West skirted the delicate sensibilities of Hollywood censors with sexual innuendo and double entendre and her witty observations were as widely quoted as Ben Franklin bromides: "It's better to be looked over than overlooked"; "I used to be Snow White but it drifted," etc. Although she cultivated the image of the "tough broad," West always conveyed a curious Victorian innocence coupled with a winking, self effacing amusement at her own preposterous creation. Her popularity reached such peaks that sailors were inspired to name their inflatable life jackets after her overemphasized 43 inch "assets," ensuring West a place, like no other actress to date, in Webster's Dictionary.

Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)


Actress. She was an international star of films, television and on the stage. Ingrid Berman made 50 films in her movie career winning two best Actress Oscars, an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award. Some of her films: Intermezzo, Casablanca, Walk in the Spring Rain, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, The Bells of St. Mary's, Joan of Arc, Anastasia and Murder on the Orient Express. Debuting on Broadway, she stared in Anna Christie and after an absence from the stage returned to play Joan of Arc winning her a Tony Award for Best Actress. Her third Academy Award was for Best Supporting Actress in Murder on the Orient Express. She was a regular on television and won an Emmy for the miniseries, "The Turn of the Screw." Diagnosed with breast cancer and despite failing health, she continued to work culminating in her last acting role in a TV miniseries, "A Woman Called Golda" where she won both an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award. On her 67th birthday she hosted a small gathering at her home in London in honor of her birthday. Later that day, she died peacefully in her sleep from the complications of cancer losing a seven-year battle with the disease. She was cremated. Her urn was buried beside her parents in Stockholm, Sweden. Ingrid Bergman was born in Stockholm, Sweden to a father who owned a photography shop and a German mother. During her formative years she became orphaned and was passed on to an array of relatives due to death eventually ending her teenage years with an uncle. She made her professional stage debut after attending the Royal Dramatic Theater School in Stockholm. She is remembered most for her bad marriage choices and indiscretions and even her banning from America in the face of scandal. However: Her storybook success as an actress where she never gave a bad performance nor made a bad movie is her legacy. The movie " Bells of St Mary's" where she was nominated for an Oscar playing the part of a Mother Superior has become an American classic.