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On March 4, 1937, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Luise Rainer won the Best Actress Oscar® for The Great Ziegfeld (1936), only her second American feature. It was the beginning of a meteoric rise seldom seen in Hollywood, then or since. A month earlier, her follow-up film The Good Earth (1937) had opened; she'd go on to win an Oscar® for that, too, a year later. Days after this 1937 ceremony, however, Rainer started work on The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), a film that is largely forgotten and, in hindsight, marks the beginning of her stardom's equally meteoric collapse. By the end of 1938, she'd be gone from MGM with her film career effectively over, following a string of critical and commercial failures. The Emperor's Candlesticks was one of them.
It wasn't for lack of trying by MGM. The studio lavished huge amounts of money and effort on the film, a true 'A' production with a formidable cast and sumptuous sets and costumes. Rainer's leading man was William Powell, who had previously starred with her in Escapade (1935), her first film, and The Great Ziegfeld. Joining them were fellow stars Robert Young and Maureen O'Sullivan, and supporting them were such stalwarts as Frank Morgan and Henry Stephenson. Even 18-year-old future star Carole Landis pops up in a bit part here, in one of her first screen appearances.
The story, based on a novel by Scarlet Pimpernel author Baroness Emmuska Orczy, is a spy yarn set all over pre-WWI Europe, with Rainer and Powell as rival spies after a pair of candlesticks in which are hidden state secrets. To audiences and critics of the time, the far-fetched and incoherent proceedings couldn't be saved by the considerable star presence. Today, it's that glossy star power, given the full MGM treatment, which makes The Emperor's Candlesticks fun to watch. (For the record, an Austrian version of the Orczy novel beat this MGM version to the screen by one year.)
Maureen O'Sullivan had already made three Tarzan movies by this point as well as many other excellent films. Eleven days before The Emperor's Candlesticks opened, she could be seen with the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races (1937). For her relatively small part here, film historian Connie Billips has written, O'Sullivan boned up on authentic period hairdresses, "a consideration not many would undertake."
Rainer's Oscar® is probably the reason why MGM rushed The Emperor's Candlesticks through postproduction and released it in July 1937, only three months after shooting wrapped. By then, Rainer was already well into filming her next movie, Big City (1937), a Frank Borzage-directed production she thought unwatchable but worth seeing for Rainer, Borzage and Spencer Tracy fans. Adding to the busy schedule for Rainer was her recent marriage to Clifford Odets, a union that would last only three years.
Rainer later reflected on her brief Hollywood career, saying, "For my second and third pictures I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me." Rainer would end up with the last laugh, though: as of late 2009, she is nearing her 100th birthday.
Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Director: Geo. Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: Harold Goldman, Monckton Hoffe; Baroness Orczy (book)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson, Oliver T. Marsh (uncredited)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: Conrad A. Nervig
Cast: William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O'Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton the Thief), Douglas Dumbrille (Mr. Korum a Conspirator), Charles Waldron (Dr. Malchor a Conspirator), Ien Wulf (Leon a Conspirator)
by Jeremy Arnold