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Janet Gaynor: First Best Actress Oscar Winner Rembered

Janet Gaynor: First Best Actress Academy Award winner

A Star Is Born 1937 Janet Gaynor“Has anyone in Hollywood ever had a trajectory quite like the career and reputation of Janet Gaynor?” inquires Los Angeles Times film reviewer Kenneth Turan.

“Gaynor began as a true silent film goddess,” Turan explains, “but lost part of that dazzling glow (while keeping her enormous popular appeal) when sound came in. Only 32 when she retired from acting [in 1938, though there was a brief comeback in 1957], she gradually came to be remembered as no more than the answer to a trivia question, and today, except with die-hard film buffs, she is all but unknown.”

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Unknown indeed. In 2003, for the 75th anniversary of the Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences compiled brief clips of all the previous Best Actress Oscar winners. To represent Gaynor – the very first winner (for three films: Sunrise, Street Angel, and 7th Heaven) – a famous clip from Sunrise was included. The problem with that choice, however, was that the clip in question featured second-lead Margaret Livingston instead of Gaynor.

Such a mistake would never have happened 75 years ago, when Janet Gaynor was one of the biggest box office draws in the U.S. – and probably the world. From 1927 to 1933, Gaynor starred in numerous commercial and critical hits, including several that will be screened at a UCLA retrospective that begins this Friday, April 7*.

The series includes her most famous films – 7th Heaven (1927), Sunrise (1927), A Star Is Born (1937) – plus several rarities, such as The Johnstown Flood (1926), Lucky Star (1929), and Servants’ Entrance (1934).

Four of her twelve pairings with Charles Farrell will be shown. Besides the aforementioned 7th Heaven and Lucky Star,the program includes the 1931 musical Delicious (which pops up on the Fox Movie Channel every now and then) and the dreary melodrama Tess of the Storm Country. (This was a remake of a Mary Pickford vehicle that was creaky even when first filmed as a feature in 1914. Pickford herself remade it in 1922. Gaynor, in fact, was a less bratty, more vulnerable version of the Pickford persona.)

The two Frank Borzage films in the series – 7th Heaven (for which Borzage won an Oscar) and Lucky Star – can’t be missed. The unabashedly romantic Lucky Star, in particular, fully captures the otherworldly magic of silent film in which the absurd and the contrived feel more touching and genuine than life itself. I saw Lucky Star at the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam several years ago, and I do hope that the live accompaniment at UCLA will be as magical as the one at the Dutch screening. Lucky Star deserves nothing less.

By the way, Gaynor and Farrell were Fox commodities. Loath to abandon a successful formula, the studio kept their two lovebirds stuck in films of an increasingly bland sameness – so much so that the romantic duo at one point rebelled, refusing to appear in the 1931 social melodrama Bad Girl. That was a bad moment to play tough, for the film would have become their only talkie directed by Borzage. Adding insult to injury, Bad Girl – which eventually got made with Sally Eilers and James Dunn – was a big critical and box office hit that brought Borzage his second Oscar.

Gaynor herself was usually as outstanding or as uninteresting as her vehicles and her directors. She shone in her films with Borzage, and would hit another career high with the William A. Wellman-directed A Star Is Born – the best of the many versions and variations of the “There’s a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood” genre. On the other hand, she was shockingly ineffectual when stuck in poor material (as in the case of Tess or The Shamrock Handicap), or while working with directors that failed to recognize her special brand of talent. (Frank Lloyd manages to extract only a mildly competent performance from Gaynor in the so-so Servants’ Entrance.)

But whether Gaynor is great or ordinary in any particular film is basically irrelevant when discussing this retrospective. What truly matters is that the UCLA screenings are an excellent way to become acquainted with the work of one of the most important performers in film history.

* A special screening of Street Angel will be presented at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater on Thursday, Apr. 6.

In my invariably humble opinion, this romantic fable directed by Frank Borzage is the best film and the best Gaynor performance of the three for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The Louis B. Mayer Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive present JANET GAYNOR: A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

From the UCLA schedule:

Thursday April 6 2006, 8:00PM

Preserved by the Museum of Moden Art
(1928) Directed by Frank Borzage

In a bid to repeat the popular and critical acclaim of 7TH HEAVEN (1927), Fox reunited Borzage, Gaynor and Farrell in STREET ANGEL Even more mystical and visually ravishing than its predecessor, this stylized studio melodrama rings a few variations on Borzage’s patented romantic formula. Gaynor stars in the title role as an impoverished Neapolitan waif running from the law who finds refuge in the arms of Farrell’s vagabond painter. The least-known of the three films for which Gaynor received an Oscar, STREET ANGEL was adapted from a novel by Monckton Hoffe and incorporates authentic details into an expressionistic backlot design surely influenced by the émigré genius Murnau.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on a novel by Monckton Hoffe. Scenario: Marion Orth. Adaptation: Philip Klein, Henry Roberts Symonds. Titles: Katherine Hilliker, H. H. Caldwell. Cinematographer: Ernest Palmer. Editor: Barney Wolf. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Alberto Rabagliati, Gino Conti. 35mm, silent, with music soundtrack, 117 min.

This screening will take place at The Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 Vine Street (on the northwest corner of Fountain Ave.) in Los Angeles. Free parking is available behind the Academy’s building and can be accessed from Homewood Ave. on the north side of the building. Tickets are $5 for the general public and can be purchased at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., during normal weekday business hours, or by mail. To order by mail, please include a self-addressed stamped envelope along with your personal check made out to THE ACADEMY FOUNDATION and mail it to 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211. For more information, call (310) 247-3600 or visit

Friday April 7 2006, 7:30PM

Restored by the George Eastman House in collaboration with 20th Century Fox
(1926) Directed by Irving Cummings

Fox poached Gaynor from Universal with the offer of a supporting role in this proto-disaster movie, a period melodrama inspired by the actual catastrophe that struck the titular Pennsylvania town in 1889. George O’Brien stars as a prescient engineer who spots flaws in the local dam. Florence Gilbert is O’Brien’s love interest, but Gaynor steals the show in the minor but crucial role of Anna Burger, a workman’s daughter who rides through the valley on horseback to warn the people of the impending deluge. Gaynor’s memorable performance earned her a five-year contract with Fox, effectively launching her meteoric career.

Fox Film Corp.. Prod.: William Fox. Scenario: Edfrid Bingham, Robert Lord. Cinematographer: George Schneiderman. Cast: George O’Brien, Florence Gilbert, Janet Gaynor, Anders Randolf. 35mm, silent, 58 min.

Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art
(1926) Directed by John Ford

Gaynor got top billing in only her second feature at Fox. Directed by John Ford, THE SHAMROCK HANDICAP is a lighthearted racehorse drama set in Ireland. Gaynor plays the daughter of a kindly but destitute aristocrat (Louis Payne) forced to sell the bulk of his equestrian stable to a wealthy American. Romance blooms with the young jockey (Leslie Fenton) who rides her father’s prize filly in a steeplechase to restore the family fortune. Ford displays earnest affection for the land of his forefathers and a knack for ethnographic detail in this breezy tale rife with witty sight gags and old-fashioned Irish blarney.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on a story by Peter B. Kyne. Prod.: William Fox. Scenario: John Stone. Cinematographer: George Schneiderman. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Leslie Fenton, J. Farrell McDonald, Louis Payne. 35mm, silent, 55 min.

Saturday April 8 2006, 7:30PM

Preserved by the Netherlands Filmmuseum
(1929) Directed by Frank Borzage

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Gaynor’s last collaboration with Borzage finds her once again playing opposite Charles Farrell in a melancholy melodrama about an embattled couple whose love for each other overcomes all odds. Set largely in a rural village, LUCKY STAR features Gaynor as an impoverished, willful young woman enamored of Farrell’s wheelchair-bound WWI veteran. The misty fairy-tale-like milieu, fabricated entirely inside the studio, is vividly evoked via Borzage’s trademark chiaroscuro lighting schemes and soft-focus camera style. American gothic in the most sincere, unironic sense, the film entwines sentimental optimism with touches of terror, pathos and even lighthearted humor.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on the story “Three Episodes in the Life of Timothy Osborne” by Tristam Tupper. Prod.: William Fox. Scenario: Sonya Levien. Intertitles: Katherine Hilliker, H. H. Caldwell. Cinematographer: Chester Lyons, William Cooper Smith. Editor: Katherine Hilliker, H. H. Caldwell. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Paul Fix. 35mm, silent, 86 min.

Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art
(1927) Directed by Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage auditioned a parade of major theater and movie stars before selecting Gaynor and Charles Farrell as the central couple in his magnum opus, 7TH HEAVEN. Based on the phenomenally successful Broadway play by Austin Strong, Borzage’s tender and luminous film version features Gaynor as the vulnerable gamine who falls in love with Farrell’s stoic Parisian street cleaner against the backdrop of WWI. The picture won a raft of awards, and Gaynor was praised for her ability “to combine ingénue sweetness with a certain suggestion of wide awake vivacity; to mix facial lyricism with a credible trace of earthiness” (New York Herald Tribune).

Fox Film Corp.. Based on the novel by Austin Strong. Scenario: Benjamin Glazer. Titles: Katherine Hilliker, H. H. Caldwell. Cinematographer: Ernest Palmer. Editor: Barney Wolf. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard, David Butler. 35mm, silent, with music track, 120 min.

(Remade in 1937, with Simone Simon and James Stewart.)

Sunday April 9 2006, 2:00PM

Preserved by the George Eastman House
(1926) Directed by Victor Noerdlinger

Edmund Cobb’s Pep O’Keefe is a down-on-his-luck cowpoke who saunters into the Lazy “J” ranch looking for work. Instead, he falls for missing heiress May Kennedy, who is accompanied by friend June Adams, played by the fetching 19-year old Janet Gaynor. This two-reeler makes up for its slight plot with all-out boxing matches and rousing horseback rescues.

Universal. Scenario: Leigh Jacobson. Cast: Edmund Cobb, Janet Gaynor. 35mm, silent, (22fps.), 21 min.

Preserved by the Academy Film Archive, the British Film Institute and 20th Century Fox
(1927) Directed by F.W. Murnau

The great German director F.W. Murnau handpicked Gaynor to star in his first Hollywood feature. A masterpiece of silent cinema widely considered among the greatest films ever made, SUNRISE tells an elemental tale with virtuosic visual invention. The relatively simple story revolves around a hard-working farmer (George O’Brien) torn between devotion to his virtuous wife (Gaynor) and desire for a seductive vamp from the city (Margaret Livingston). Gaynor’s work here for Murnau, combined with her subsequent performances in Frank Borzage’s 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL, famously earned her the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1928.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on “The Journey to Tilsit” by Hermann Suderman. Scenario: Carl Mayer. Titles: Katherine Hilliker, H. H. Caldwell. Cinematographer: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss. Editor: Harold D. Schuster. Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingstone, Bodil Rosing. 35mm, silent, with music track, 97 min.

Friday April 14 2006, 7:30PM

New print courtesy of 20th Century Fox
(1931) Directed by David Butler

George Gershwin’s first original screen musical starred the popular romantic duo of Gaynor and Farrell in an immigrant saga about a Scottish lass who falls in love with a wealthy New York polo enthusiast. Though Gaynor performs only one song (“Somebody from Somewhere”), she’s the focal point of several major set pieces: the elaborate “Dream Sequence” that presages her welcome to the melting pot; and “New York Rhapsody,” an impressionistic urban tour that captures Gaynor’s fear and alienation as she wanders despairingly around Manhattan. DELICIOUS combines the best of Broadway musical comedy with the visual dynamism unique to the medium of motion pictures.

Fox Film Corp.. Prod.: Winfield Sheehan. Scenario: Guy Bolton, Sonya Levien. Cinematographer: Ernest Palmer. Editor: Irene Morra. Music: George Gershwin. Lyrics: Ira Gershwin. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, El Brendel, Raul Roulien. 35mm, 106 min.

Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art
(1933) Directed by Wilhelm Dieterle

Gaynor again essays musical comedy in this delightful costume romp based on a popular German film from the same period. Set in a mythical European kingdom lavishly realized on the studio backlot, ADORABLE spotlights Gaynor as a rebellious princess with a penchant for partying incognito with the proles, including a suave delicatessen owner (Henry Garat) who is himself a lieutenant in disguise. This humorous tale of romance and mistaken identity is further enlivened by catchy songs added to the original German score and some positively whimsical flights of fantasy and cinematic legerdemain directed with great panache by the patrician German expat Wilhelm (a.k.a. William) Dieterle.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on a screenplay by Robert Liebmann, Paul Frank, Billy Wilder. Screenwriter: George Marion Jr., Jane Storm. Cinematographer: John Seitz. Editor: Irene Morra, R.W. Bischoff. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Henry Garat, C. Aubrey Smith, Herbert Mundin. 35mm, 83 min.

Saturday April 15 2006, 7:30PM

Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive
(1935) Directed by Victor Fleming

THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE features Henry Fonda in his big-screen debut reprising the role that originally won him acclaim on the Broadway stage. Fonda plays a soft-spoken farmer who falls in love with the feisty cook (Gaynor) aboard a working canal barge. Gaynor was a top box office attraction of 1934 but felt she was fast outgrowing her ingénue period. Her forthright, spunky role in THE FARMER TAKES A WIFE enabled her to stretch her wholesome star persona into fresh territory. As Variety noted, “Gaynor is given a part which permits her to get away from her sometimes too sweet assignments.”

Fox Film Corp.. Based on the play by Frank B. Elser and Marc Connelly, and the novel Rome Haul by Walter D. Edmonds. Prod.: Winfield Sheehan. Screenwriter: Edwin Burke, Edward E. Paramore, Jr. Cinematographer: Ernest Palmer. Editor: Harold Schuster. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Henry Fonda, Charles Bickford, Slim Summerville. 35mm, 91 min.

Preserved by 20th Century Fox and the Museum of Modern Art
(1933) Directed by Henry King

Gaynor and Will Rogers headlined this family comedy that celebrates the rustic rituals of the annual state fair. Directed by Henry King from the bestseller by Philip Stong, STATE FAIR gets big laughs out of farmer Rogers’ struggles to prepare his prize hog, Blue Boy, for competition. Variety however preferred the film’s charming love story to its broad humor, claiming the “chief interest is the debut of a new romance team in Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayres.” Critics hailed the actors – ”Miss Gaynor here gives her best performance in talking pictures” (New York Times) – while the film itself garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on the novel by Philip Ston. Prod.: Winfield Sheehan. Screenwriter: Sonya Levien, Paul Green. Cinematographer: Hal Mohr. Editor: R.W. Bischoff. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Will Rogers, Lew Ayres, Louise Dresser. 35mm, 96 min.

Wednesday April 19 2006, 7:30PM

Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive
(1934) Directed by Frank Lloyd

Based on a popular Swedish novel-turned-film, SERVANTS’ ENTRANCE was one among the immensely successful talkie vehicles Fox designed for Gaynor in the early ’30s. Gaynor stars as an erstwhile rich girl who takes work as a maid in preparation for an impoverished future and falls in love with a handsome chauffeur played by Lew Ayres. The New York Times praised the picture as “an agreeable romantic comedy which should – and unquestionably will – find high favor with those who visit the cinema primarily in search of entertainment.” Especially noteworthy is Gaynor’s cartoon anxiety dream, an animated sequence produced for the film by none other than Walt Disney.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on the novel by Sigrid Boo. Prod.: Winfield Sheehan. Screenwriter: Samson Raphaelson. Cinematographer: Hal Mohr. Animation: Walt Disney. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Lew Ayres, Ned Sparks, Walter Connolly. 35mm, 88 min.

Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive
(1932) Directed by Alfred Santell

Fox conceived this remake of a Mary Pickford silent as another melodramatic vehicle for Gaynor and Farrell, their eleventh of twelve screen teamings. TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY stars Gaynor in the title part as the plucky daughter of an ornery skipper (Dudley Digges), while Farrell portrays the son of a dastardly local landowner on the seafaring coastline of the otherwise unnamed “Storm Country.” Director Alfred Santell considerably softened the naturalistic, often brutal source novel by Grace Miller White in an effort to fashion an upbeat, affirmative and romantic film for Gaynor’s legion of faithful fans.

Fox Film Corp.. Based on the novel and play by Grace Miller White. Screenwriter: S.N. Berhman, Sonya Levien, William Rankin. Cinematographer: Hal Mohr. Editor: Ralph Dietrich. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Dudley Digges, June Clyde. 35mm, 75 min.

Sunday April 23 2006, 7:00PM

(1936) Directed by William A. Wellman

Fox loaned Gaynor to MGM for this sophisticated romantic comedy originally intended as a vehicle for Jean Harlow. Gaynor plays a sharp young woman stifled by the limits of provincial life. Brain surgeon (and charming lush!) Robert Taylor sweeps her away to Boston after a quickie marriage, but snobbish urban society is soon scandalized by their spontaneous union. Variety hailed the film as “a smacko assignment for Gaynor and she displays considerable authority in her performance.” Based on a serialized novel by Ben Ames Williams, SMALL TOWN GIRL was directed with wit and energy by William A. Wellman.

MGM. Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams. Prod.: Hunt Stromberg. Screenwriter: John Lee Mahin, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Edith Fitzgerald. Cinematographer: Oliver T. Marsh, Charles Rosher. Editor: Blanche Sewell. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Robert Taylor, Binnie Barnes, Andy Devine. 35mm, 90 min.

New print courtesy of 20th Century Fox
(1936) Directed by Edward H. Griffith

In her last film for Fox, Gaynor appears alongside Constance Bennett and Loretta Young in a romantic drama about three girlfriends sharing a deluxe apartment while they search for husbands in modern-day Budapest. Gaynor got top billing to play the sensible gal enamored of a dignified doctor (Don Ameche). The New York Times reported on-set friction between the leading actresses, claiming that “[e]ach of the young ladies is known for being temperamental and diplomacy has been called into use more than once.” Based on the stage play Three Girls, the film’s story line became a virtual template at Fox in years to come.

20th Century Fox Film Corp.. Based on the play Three Girls by Ladislaus Bus-Fekete. Screenwriter: Melville Baker, Charles Kenyon. Cinematographer: Hal Mohr. Editor: Ralph Dietrich. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Constance Bennett, Don Ameche, Paul Lukas. 35mm, 97 min.

Friday April 28 2006, 7:30PM

Preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive
(1937) Directed by William A. Wellman

After leaving Fox, Gaynor starred in David O. Selznick’s gimlet-eyed melodrama about the Hollywood movie colony. A STAR IS BORN traces the rise of an aspiring actress (Gaynor) to the heights of fame and fortune, while also charting the obverse trajectory of her matinée idol husband (Fredric March), whose own career nosedives as hers soars to even greater success. Nominated for numerous Academy Awards – including one for Gaynor’s subtle, sympathetic lead performance – A STAR IS BORN became the biggest box office hit of the year and provided Gaynor with her most famous line – and one of the most memorable last lines in movie history – ”This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

Based on a story by W. A. Wellman, R. Carson. Prod.: David O. Selznick. Screenwriter: Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson. Cinematographer: W. Howard Greene. Editor: James E. Newcomb, Anson Stevenson. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, May Robson. 35mm, 111 min.

Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art
(1938) Directed by Richard Wallace

A witty, heartfelt screwball comedy from super-producer David O. Selznick, THE YOUNG IN HEART was also Gaynor’s last released feature before her retirement from the movies – and marriage to famed fashion designer Gilbert Adrian – in 1939. Gaynor stars as the wily daughter in a family of high-class con artists intent on fleecing a kindly old widow (Broadway veteran Minnie Dupree in her showstopping screen debut) out of her vast fortune. An original downbeat conclusion, derived from the source novel, apparently tested so poorly in previews that Selznick reassembled the cast and shot a new, upbeat ending for the final cut of the film.

Based on the novel The Gay Banditti by I.A.R. Wylie. Prod.: David O. Selznick. Screenwriter: Paul Osborn, Charles Bennett, Barbara Keon. Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy. Editor: Hal C. Kern. Cast: Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Paulette Goddard, Roland Young, Billie Burke. 35mm, 90 min.

Press release:

Beverly Hills, CA – Janet Gaynor, the first recipient of the Best Actress Academy Award, will be the subject of a Centennial Salute at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Thursday, April 6, at 8 p.m., in the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. The evening will feature a screening of a new print of Street Angel, in which Gaynor stars as Angela, and a discussion with Gaynor’s son [with costume designer Adrian], Robin Adrian, and her widower, Paul Gregory.

Gaynor started out as an extra in silent pictures before earning her break with a small but crucial part in The Johnstown Flood (1926). A long-term contract with Fox led to starring roles in several more studio movies, which brought her to the attention of directors F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage. She made two films with Murnau, including Sunrise (1927), and three with Borzage, who first paired Gaynor with leading man Charles Farrell in 7th Heaven. It was for her combined work in those films, along with her performance in the Borzage-directed Street Angel, that Gaynor won the very first Academy Award for Best Actress.

Gaynor and Farrell made twelve films together and crossed over successfully from silent pictures to the sound era. Indeed, the actress remained a top box office draw well into the 1930s. Her career in talkies peaked with an Oscar-nominated performance in A Star is Born (1937), and she retired from show business shortly thereafter.

In Street Angel, Gaynor portrays a poor waif (Angela) who steals in order to get medicine for her sick mother. While hiding out with a circus, she meets Farrell (Gino), an artist who poses her for a portrait of the Madonna. Angela eventually gets caught for stealing, but after serving her jail term, she is reunited with Gino. In addition to the Oscar for Gaynor, the film also received Academy Award consideration for Art Direction (Harry Oliver) and Cinematography (Ernest Palmer, for his work in both Street Angel and Four Devils).

The Academy’s event launches a retrospective series of Gaynor-starring films at the James Bridges Theater at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, presented in association with the Louis B. Mayer Foundation. Sixteen titles will be presented between April 7 and April 28. For more information about the series, contact 310-206-FILM or

Tickets for the Academy’s Centennial Salute to Janet Gaynor, featuring Street Angel are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members. They may be purchased in advance during regular business hours at the Academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills (8949 Wilshire Blvd.), by mail, or on the night of the event, if still available, when the doors open at 7 p.m. The Linwood Dunn Theater is located at 1313 North Vine Street in Hollywood. For more information, call 310-247-3600.

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