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"Glory for one! Oblivion for thousands! This was the world she dared to conquer!"
Tagline for Dramatic School
The tagline for Dramatic School (1938) aptly describes the film's plot, concerning the struggles of acting students only one of whom (played by Luise Rainer) makes it to stardom. Rainer's on-screen success, however, was not mirrored by her career after this film's release, while some of her co-stars, most notably Paulette Goddard and Lana Turner, were headed for much greater fame and longevity.
The Austrian-born Rainer had shot to stardom at MGM after being discovered doing stage work in Berlin. Despite becoming the first actor to win back-to-back Oscars® -- for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937) -- her tremulous emotionalism was too far removed from the Hollywood norm for her star to burn long. Lacking the sensuality of such other European imports as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich and the all-American charm of such perennial good girls as Loretta Young and Olivia de Havilland, she soon faded from sight. Just two years after her second Oscar® win, MGM shoved her into the leading role in Dramatic School when Greer Garson, slated to make her U.S. screen debut as the young actress, hurt her back and was unable to continue in the role. After Dramatic School, MGM had nothing further for Rainer, and she had no use for Hollywood. Thoroughly disenchanted, she walked out on MGM and relocated in the East, where she tried to salvage her marriage to liberal playwright Clifford Odets (studio head Louis B. Mayer had considered the marriage a liability). She would only return to the screen two more times, for the low-budget World War II film Hostages (1943) and a 1997 adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler.
The rest of the film's cast was hardly finished with Hollywood. Paulette Goddard shared star billing with Rainer on the basis of one previous starring role. But that particular part happened to be the lead opposite her off-screen lover Charles Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), and it certainly warranted the billing. At the time, Goddard was under contract to independent producer David O. Selznick, who had signed her partly because he was considering casting her as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). She was still engaged in screen tests for the coveted role when MGM borrowed her to play the glamorous student who throws parties to help her colleagues hook up with wealthy benefactors. Gifted with vivacity and obvious physical charms, Goddard had already become a favorite of Selznick's board chair, Jock Hay Whitney, who regularly sent her gift baskets of gourmet foods. She usually shared these with the film's crew, inspiring them to put in extra time making her look her best in the picture. Her behavior ingratiated her to others at MGM. By the time Dramatic School had opened to tepid reviews and box office, she had lost the role of Scarlett to Vivien Leigh. That didn't stop MGM from offering her another plum role, this time in a hit, The Women (1939), which in turn brought her a starring contract at Paramount Pictures.
The film's other future star was Lana Turner. After being discovered by producer-director Mervyn LeRoy to play the sexually provocative murder victim in They Won't Forget (1937) at Warner Bros., she had followed him to MGM, which had offered LeRoy a much more lucrative contract. Unconvinced of Turner's star potential, Jack Warner declined to buy her contract from LeRoy. Her role as the most acid-tongued of Rainer's classmates in the same year she played a small-town temptress in Love Finds Andy Hardy, put her on the fast track at MGM.
Other up and comers in the cast included the girlfriend from the Andy Hardy series, Ann Rutherford, and, making their screen debuts, comedian Hans Conried and singer Dick Haymes. The studio even provided on-screen opportunities in bit parts for Edward Arnold, Jr. and Maxine Marx, the children of contract players Edward Arnold and Chico Marx, respectively. Ironically, the film also featured a supporting performance from one of Marx's most popular co-stars, Margaret Dumont, this time playing the school's pantomime teacher.
Critics dismissed Dramatic School as a pale imitation of RKO's much more successful Stage Door (1937), which had starred Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in roles similar to those now played by Rainer and Goddard. Although praising the cast, Variety's review included the prophetic note, "Story is a very unwise choice for Miss Rainer, and studio is apparently finding it difficult to supply her with proper material."
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda, Mary C. McCall, Jr.
Based on the play School of Drama by Hans Szekely and Zoltan Egyed
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Gabriel Scognamillo
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Luise Rainer (Louise), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Alan Marshal (Andre D'Abbencourt), Lana Turner (Mado), John Hubbard (Fleury), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel, Sr.), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Gale Sondergaard (Mme. Charlot), Melville Cooper (Boulin), Erik Rhodes (Georges Mounier), Virginia Grey (Simone), Ann Rutherford (Yvonne), Hans Conried (Ramy), Rand Brooks (Pasquel, Jr.) Marie Blake (Annette), Margaret Dumont (Pantomime Teacher), Minerva Urecal (Rose, Boulin's Secretary), Ona Munson, Dick Haymes (Students).
by Frank Miller