1910-2014 Luise Rainer Academy Award-winner played Chinese servant "O-Lan" in "The Good Earth"

Suzanne Kai

December 30, 2014


Luise Rainer, the German-born actress who won an Academy Award for her starring role as the Chinese servant "O-Lan" in the 1937 movie "The Good Earth," died of pneumonia today at her home in London at age 104. 

AC - LUISE RAINER IN TH GOOD EARTHLuise Rainer was cast in the leading role as the Chinese servant "O-Lan" over other actors including Anna May Wong. Rainer was an Academy Award-winning actress for her role in MGM's "The Great Ziegfeld" one year earlier in 1936. In 1937, Rainer won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in "The Good Earth" becoming the first actress to win consecutive Best Actress Academy Awards. A well known actress in Europe, she was recruited to Hollywood by MGM in 1935, but her career in Hollywood was short-lived and she returned to Europe after disputes with MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer.

Rainer's passing was announced via Twitter by her daughter, Francesca Knittel Bowyer. Rainer is survived by her daughter, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren. Bowyer told CNN in an email, "Mummy had the fragility of an orchid, the energy of a hummingbird, the tenacity of a hunter. She could change calm waters into a raging storm with a look and the lift of a finger." "My heart is a hole without her, but that hole will definitely be filled with incredible memories, sweet, salty and funny. I want her memory to linger with those who knew her and be given to those who did not."


Rainer's 1937 Academy Award-winning role as the Chinese servant "O-Lan" in the Hollywood movie "The Good Earth" is a subject covered in history studies on the lack of Asian American actors in major roles in Hollywood film. Novelist Pearl S. Buck won a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize for her novel "The Good Earth," and was a public advocate for minority rights and women. Buck reportedly intended the film adaptation of her novel to be cast with all Chinese or Chinese-American actors. A Wikipedia posting cites the Hays Code as one of the reasons for casting non-Asians in the leading roles. It also cites film producer Irving Thalberg's wish to cast only Chinese actors. Paul Muni, a non-Asian was cast to play farmer Wang Lung.

A Wikipedia posting cites the Hays Code anti-miscegenation rules required Paul Muni's character's wife "O-Lan" to be played by a white actress.[5] MGM offered (Anna May) Wong the role of Lotus, but she refused, stating, "You're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."[6] Many of the characters were played by Western actors made to look Asian with aid of make-up techniques developed by Jack Dawn and used for the first time in this film.

Related on the Web:

Luise Rainer dies at 104; 1930s star had meteoric rise and fall in Hollywood by writer Claudie Luther, Los Angeles Times

Luise Rainer, back-to-back Oscar winner, dead at 104 by Todd Leopold, CNN.com

Double Oscar Winning Actress Luise Rainer Dies at 104 by writer Carmel Dagan, Variety.com

Luise Rainer, First to Win Consecutive Oscars, Dead at 104 by Tony Maglio TheWrap.com