On the last afternoon of 2014 I drove to Doylestown, our sister city in cinema now that the Garden and the County share the same management. As we crossed the Delaware to New Hope, I fed the stereo a CD of Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, produced in 1969 by Princeton’s own Joe Boyd. It took us five songs or about 20 minutes to reach a metered parking place on State Street across from the County. As I put the CRV in park, Sandy Denny was finishing her for-the-ages rendering of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” arguably the best cover of a Bob Dylan song ever recorded.
One of the many things to like about living in Princeton (if you can forget the property taxes) is knowing that an easy drive away there’s a bridge across a river into another state and then half a Fairport album’s distance to a hilly old market town with a gem of a movie theatre, three bookstores, a record store, an ice cream parlor, and a museum with exhibits ranging from intelligent design to the imagery of a Princeton-born watercolorist to woodcuts of river towns to astrophotography.
On the first day of 2015 my wife and I hiked along the upper path of the thickly wooded lakeside hill between Harrison and Washington Street bridges. Through the trees the blueness of the water had a cold Canadian clarity, gulls were performing amazing maneuvers overhead, fishing on the fly, splash-dancing on the water, and out in the middle of the lake a raucous congregation of geese had settled down and were engaged in an orgy of honking that prompted thoughts of the new Congress. Mainly, I was thinking about wishes and resolutions and how J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) had been born on New Year’s Day. Speaking of Salinger, my wish for 2015 is that the rumored publication of the work a world of readers has been waiting for since 1965 will finally happen.
Echoes of Luise Rainer
In a 2010 column about Fay Wray and Luise Rainer, who died December 30 at 104, I quoted Graham Greene on Rainer’s Oscar-winning performance in The Good Earth, which not only “carries the movie” but makes him think of Shakespeare, for “in acting like Miss Rainer’s we become aware of the greatest of all echoes.”
Coming to Hollywood in 1935 from Vienna, where she was part of Max Reinhardt’s company and played Joan of Arc at the Josefstadt Theatre, Rainer was billed as “the Viennese Teardrop.” Most obits portray the back-to-back Academy Award winner (her first was for The Great Ziegfield) as a victim of the Curse of the Oscar whose career tanked after she alienated studio boss Louis B. Mayer by marrying leftist playwright Clifford Odets. That her Hollywood work was essentially confined to the years 1936-1938 can be blamed on, among other things, the death of M-G-M’s head of production Irving Thalberg; Mayer’s vindictiveness in denying her roles that lived up to the Oscar-winners; the break-up of her marriage; and her impatience with the studio system and the way its money-is-everything ethos pervaded Tinseltown society.
Working with Borzage
While the obituary storyline suggests that Rainer’s other M-G-M assignments were no match for the Oscar-winning roles, she must have been looking forward to being directed by Frank Borzage in Big City (1937). Quoted shortly after her arrival in Hollywood, she said that she’d had no interest in pictures until she saw Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932), “and right away I wanted to film. It was so beautiful.” Her remark decades later that “working with Borzage was a perpetual joy” is borne out by the energetic, uninhibited interaction between Rainer’s Anna and her cab driver husband Joe, played by another Oscar winner Spencer Tracy.
Though Rainer scorned Big City as “idiotic” in a 2009 interview with the Telegraph, she has at least one moment equal to the jilted-wife’s-smiling-through-her-tears telephone call in Ziegfield that clinched her first Oscar. The sequence occurs during a surprise birthday party where Anna is encircled by friends, husband and brother, her face illumined in the glow of the candles on the cake as she reveals that she’s going to have a baby. The true-to-life quality of the moment is complemented by the music coming from a new radio, her birthday present from Joe and her brother. Rainer’s delicately felt response, touched with warmth and wonder, as if the music had come by magic out of nowhere, lives and breathes in the subdued spell Borzage has created around the glow of the candles. Like the scene it’s haunting, the music is simply, quietly, softly low-key. After the luminous birthday moment, the darker, more simplistic (if not quite “idiotic”) forces of the plot take over when Anna’s brother is killed by thugs working for a rival taxi company and she’s framed for the staged explosion that accompanied the shooting. Forced into hiding in the homes of various friends, she eventually calls the mayor and nobly turns herself in, having learned that the people harboring her could go to prison as accessories after the fact. She’s about to be deported when a star-studded assortment of athletes led by Jack Dempsey and Jim Thorpe comes to the rescue.
Luise Rainer’s life before and after Hollywood has levels of interest the obituaries could only begin to suggest. In addition to the doomed marriage with Odets and her later happier union with a British publisher, Rainer was for a time friends with Anais Nin, who refers to the difficulties with Odets in her Diaries and in her novella Stella, which opens with the title character, inspired by Rainer, sitting in “a small dark room” watching and unable to recognize “her own figure acting on the screen.” The image is “imponderably light, and moved always with such a flowering of gestures that it was like the bloom and flowering of nature.”
The passage echoes an entry from Diaries Volume 2 (1934-1939), where Nin is sitting in a cafe with Henry Miller after seeing Rainer in an unnamed film: “Henry, who likes her so much, began to talk about her. ‘She has wonderful gestures and bearing, such a gracious way of carrying her head, such delicacy. She is very much like you. Her gestures are so light, like wind almost, and she moves so gracefully.’”
Luise Rainer Was Here
Although Scott Fitzgerald had left Princeton a few years before the Garden Theatre opened in September 1920, with Civilian Clothes, a comedy starring Thomas Meighan and accompanied by a live orchestra on a stage decorated with ferns and palms, it’s likely he saw some films there, and more than likely that Jimmy Stewart did during his student years between 1928 and 1932. As for the clientele at the Doylestown’s County, which opened on September 1938 with Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway, you can figure Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and James Michener, not to mention stars doing summer stock through the years at the Bucks County Playhouse, as did Luise Rainer when she starred in the title role of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine for a week in August 1947. She reprised the role a year later in a different production by Harold J. Kennedy and Herbert Kenwith at the McCarter Theatre as part of the Princeton Drama Festival.
Apparently the only way to see Rainer as Joan of Arc, a signature role rarely mentioned in the obituaries, is to Google “The Brilliance of Luise Rainer,” which offers clips from her last M-G-M film, Dramatic School (1938), where, after a struggle against odds, she wins the part and gives a wildly applauded performance. She first played Joan in her teens in Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, and during the twenties and thirties she’s said to have played the part over 400 times. Probably her most unusual public appearance as Joan was in costume riding a white horse at the head of a march to the White House to open the American Youth Congress Citizenship Institute.
Luise and Einstein
The story goes that the failure of Rainer’s marriage to Odets can be partly blamed on his jealous tantrums about her relationship with another man. Would you believe Albert Einstein? Though Luise and Einstein were “only good friends,” Odets was “so consumed with jealousy that he savaged a photograph of Einstein with a pair of scissors.” In the 2009 article in the Telegraph, Rainer tells the interviewer, “I mustn’t talk of Einstein, too much is made of it. I was very young, full of life, full of nonsense, and he liked my vivaciousness.” At this point, she has her maid bring out a framed photograph taken with Einstein in Princeton in 1939. You can see the photo online. Under his cloud-mass of white hair Einstein is wearing a tee-shirt, his pants are rolled up to his knees, and his feet are in sandals. All in white, Luise is giving him a look — you could fairly call it the Gaze — that might well have fueled Odets’s suspicions. According to Rainer, Einstein “was probably smitten with a lot of females. He was a very simple man. When I say simple, I mean he had humility.”
So it seems at least within the bounds of reason to imagine Rainer and Einstein going to the Garden on a movie date in the summer of 1939. There’s another photo of Einstein rowing with Luise smiling impishly behind him. Online sources say the scene took place on Lower Saranac Lake. I prefer to think it’s another lake, the one right here in Princeton that Einstein famously loved rowing on.
Though Big City is available on DVD as part of Warner Archive’s 3-disc Luise Rainer collection, my wife and I watched it on a tape I made from a showing on Turner Classic Movies. For information about Starstruck and other exhibits currently at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, visit MitchnerArtMuseum.org.