An Interview with Paul Muni and Luise Rainer (1937) 🇺🇸
The Slurs of “The Good Earth” chat informally on the set at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and present their Personal Histories in this Special Interview by Pauline Gale.
Seated together on a wooden bench in a Chinese street were two discouraged-looking young Orientals. The man was dressed roughly in coarse blue cloth with straw sandals on his bare feet. The woman, in trousers and padded jacket, slumped wearily against him. They looked painfully poor, dreadfully tired and entirely broken in spirit.
“May I present Mr. Paul Muni and Miss Luise Rainer.” The studio official paused before these two with the amazing words. It was not until the Muni grin broke through the Chinese face before us that we identified the actor. Strangely enough, the Chinese “look” was still there, even though Paul Muni himself was recognizable.
The girl shook hands, smiling, again merely a glimpse of Luise Rainer shone through the Chinese makeup, the merest hint of that attractive and volatile star. The Chinese expression, the Oriental attitude of those two was in each gesture. It is the ineffable artist that lives in actors like these which permeates them so completely that during the enacting of a scene they live their part sincerely and unconsciously carry through even off-stage. To us, these people were Chinese, and throughout the long talk that followed, rarely did that illusion leave the minds of the various people who spoke with them, including the interviewer. Tired they truly were, for since early morning Luise Rainer had done back-breaking work in a paddy-field with Muni beside her, planting the new seedling rice plants for the next year in a scene for The Good Earth. The day was hot and real perspiration had trickled from under their make-up. Now they were exhausted and looked it. It was this very tired and sad weariness which director Sidney Franklin had wanted to catch in them for the last scene of the day. Now that it was over the feeling was still with them.
It is a long way from The Great Ziegfeld to “The Good Earth.” There is a vast difference between the vital beauty of the nineties played by Luise Rainer in the former picture as compared to the tired young Chinese wife broken by poverty and famine in “The Good Earth.” It is her versatility which proclaims Miss Rainer as a consummate actress.
Versatility is the keynote of Paul Muni’s characterizations as well. “If I ever get so typed that producers could talk about a ‘Muni story’ as though it fitted my type,” said Paul Muni earnestly to us. “I’d quit pictures for good.”
From the Mexican in “Bordertown” to the mine worker in “Black Fury.” From the gangster in Scarface to the story of “Louis Pasteur” and now the Chinese peasant in “The Good Earth” Paul Muni has gone, in each picture portraying with his forceful personality a different type of person.
There is a great deal in common between these two famous personages. Both Viennese, they have the love of music born in them. Paul Muni plays his violin, artistically and well, between pictures, for relaxation. The dark-eyed Luise Rainer loves all kinds of music and has a varied collection of orchestral records to play at her home. Her taste ranges from Beethoven symphonies to modern jazz. Paul Muni likes classics and the dashingly colorful folk songs of Russian origin. These he plays beautifully on his violin.
They both feel the urge to make “the perfect picture!”
“When I look at myself in a picture.” remarked Luise Rainer to Paul Muni and to us, “I always say to myself that it would be better if I did not watch my own acting. Something makes me want to look while all the time I feel, well — it makes me think of how much better I should have done!”
All this was said with expressive gestures singularly out of keeping with the Chinese garb and with the most fascinatingly hesitant accent in the world. Paul Muni laughed.
“I never look at my own pictures at all,” he answered. “For just about the same reason, too. When I finish a picture I try to forget it and have a fresh mind for the next. I think it is bad for an actor to look at his own pictures too much. The most satisfaction he can have is seeing something he might have done — and didn’t!”
“I want every picture and every scene in that picture to be as perfect as can he,” sighed Miss Rainer. “So I concentrate on it with all my mind to the exclusion of everything else.”
It was this concentration on the work at hand which made her the theatrical triumph she was when playing in dramas of Shakespeare and Ibsen, Pirandello and others with the Max Reinhardt players in Vienna.
Though a prodigy of the theatre, Luise did not come of theatrical parentage. Her father, Heinz Rainer, is a merchant. For many years he lived in the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen prior to returning to Europe to set up a business. Her mother. Emy Rainer, had never been behind the scenes of a theatre.
During her childhood, Luise’s family was wealthy. She had the advantages of the finest schools in Europe which later proved a boon to her for her background in the classics.
“I went to eight different schools in all,” laughed Miss Rainer. “My father adored to travel and insisted upon taking his family wherever he went. As a child I toured Switzerland. France, Austria and Italy. Although tremendously interested in music and art. it seemed that the theatre drew me most, so at sixteen I decided upon a theatrical career.”
A well-rounded chin, high forehead and intensely black eyes bore up the statement of her determination. We secretly decided that if Miss Rainer had put equal determination upon an artistic career or one of music, she would have been equally successful if only because of that very tenacity of purpose which is felt distinctly by her very presence.
She played mature roles in Deval’s Mademoiselle; Dreiser’s American Tragedy; Wasserman’s Lukardis; Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure; Jara’s comedy Is Geraldine an Angel? Castonier’s The Sardine Fishers; and, most recently. Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Vienna, Paris, London, all acclaimed her one of the greatest emotional actresses of the day.
It was while playing in this last production that Luise was urged to come to Hollywood by a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scout. She felt that she would like to try the new medium so she accepted and signed a long-term contract.
After two highly successful roles, one in “Escapade” with William Powell, her first American picture, the other as Anna Held in “The Great Ziegfeld” she is finishing her third and most interesting, to her, role so far. That of O-Lan, the Chinese wife in “The Good Earth.”
“As soon as I came to Hollywood,” reminisced Miss Rainer, “I studied English as hard as I could, to help out the rather stiff speech I had learned in school-books. First, I moved in a house by the ocean, but later I moved to the hills of Brentwood where I live with two servants and a small dog called ‘Johnny’.”
“And what about afterward, when this picture is finished?”, we wanted to know.
“Oh then.” She sighed happily. “I plan to return to Europe and visit my parents in Switzerland. Then, who knows? I must plan to marry, or return to Hollywood alone and resume my picture career. At all events, there will he some explaining to do, in view of all the erroneous romance rumours about me which have been printed in the papers.”
“What is the name of your mysterious fiance?” We knew she wouldn’t tell us, but we asked anyway.
“I won’t give his name,” she laughed mischievously, “but I can tell you that he is connected with diplomatic activities and resides in Paris.”
And that was all we could find out about a possible romance that sounded most interesting to us.
All this time Paul Muni had been quietly listening, so we turned to him. “Your turn next,” we warned. “Early struggles and some notes upon your life story, if you please.”
Paul Muni chuckled at that . “I have been sitting here figuring out what to say, so I’m all prepared,” he said. “Here goes: I was educated in New York after an early arrival from Austria where I was born, not Paul Muni, but Muni Weisenfreund. I changed my name because the last name I bore was too long and too difficult for American tongues to pronounce. My family, unlike Miss Rainer’s, was a theatrical one. my father and mother were actors and my two brothers musicians. Since my earliest childhood my ambition had been to be a great figure on the stage.
“Strangely enough, my first opportunity to show what I could do came when I was travelling with my family. They were about to open in a small town and needed an actor to play an old man’s role. No player being available. they tested me and I got the part. This was the first of many ‘old man’ character roles that I have played.
“The stage play, ‘We Americans,’ brought me my first recognition in a New York theatre though I had played before that with the Theatre Guild.”
“What do you consider your best picture role,” we asked.
“I regard “Counsellor at Law” as my favorite stage play;” he replied. “As to pictures I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is my best, I think — and ‘Seven Faces,’ is my worst.” He finished with a wry face.
“Contrary to common belief, I do not think the screen gives an actor more time or more leisure for home life than the stage. The stage is my preference, rather than the screen, and New York my choice as a place to live. At that, though. I am getting used to Hollywood, because I don’t mind it any more.”
At that Miss Rainer laughed. “I love it already. You sound as though it were medicine. Hollywood is exciting. I think. I will be glad to come back after my next European trip.”
Paul Muni sticks to his first love, the stage, with deliberate singleness of purpose. and insists in his contract to make only two films a year to assure him of a long season on the stage between pictures. He does not approve of the star system, and does not want to be billed as a star.
Luise Rainer’s favorite picture interested us so we asked.
“I liked A Farewell to Arms, was the surprising reply. “My best liked role is ‘Joan of Arc’.”
Luise is fond of ice cream cones and apple pie. Two new items of food that she hadn’t tasted before coming to America. She furnished these favorites right along with her screen likes so they must belong together. Her singleness of purpose and concentration does not seem apparent when she speaks, for she laughs often and puts completely irrelevant subjects together somehow making it seem all right.
At this point director Sydney Franklin strolled up and joined the group. “It is this very intensity that is the secret of Luise Rainer’s art.” he said to us. “Her quality can best be described as vibrant. She is an intense person and radiates something of which one is immediately conscious. When she plays a role, she has the gift of making her audience know what she is thinking, by looking into her eyes. She is a hard worker, but it is her ability to relax completely after an emotional scene, which is a great boon.”
Miss Rainer caught something of the conversation and shook her head at us. laughing.
“It isn’t fair to talk about me — it makes me blush.”
Sure enough, a glow was shining through the makeup that must have been a blush.
“All right,” chuckled Sidney Franklin — “We ll spare your blushes and send you back to work.”
“You see? ’ said Paul Muni in an aside to us. “We thought we were through — but we’re not!”
“On the set, please,” came the call. We shook hands with the yellow-skinned O-Lan and Wang, the peasant man and wife of China, and watched them trudge back to the paddy-field on the set with backs bent from weariness.
Somewhere near us a low-toned voice thrilled with admiration. “There.” it pronounced, “goes an actor and an actress.”
Source: Motion Picture Studio Insider, January 1937