The Great Ziegfeld (1936) has a few saving graces: the premise, the opulent musical numbers that look great even if they often go on too long, Ray Bolger’s song and dance scene, and the performance of Luise Rainer.
Rainer passed away today at the age of 104. She was one of the last surviving actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age. She was the first actor to win multiple acting Academy Awards (having won two for Best Actress) and the first to win awards in consecutive years (winning one in 1937 for Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld and obtaining another in 1938 for her role opposite Paul Muni in The Good Earth).
I didn’t immediately appreciate her performance in Ziegfeld. It grew on me as I scoured over footage for my video review. Natural with a taste of old fashioned movie acting is how I would describe her method. Her role as real life first wife of Florenz Ziegfeld (played by William Powell) is a pleasure. She has an energy and charm that works for the performer side of her character and a vulnerability that works for her human side. Her iconic scene on the phone with Ziegfeld near the end of that film is astounding and so heartbreaking.
Rainer’s roles in film diminshed after a brief retirement in the early 40s. She continued to have parts into the mid-1960s before leaving again until the 1980s. Her last role was as a grandmother in the 1997 film The Gambler.
She was never comfortable with being a star. Having only seen her in Ziegfeld, I can’t fully assess her skills, but if that award winning role is any indication, she had a wealth of talent.