HAS anyone in Hollywood ever had a trajectory quite like the career and reputation of Janet Gaynor?
Gaynor began as a true silent-film goddess but lost part of that dazzling glow (while keeping her enormous popular appeal) when sound came in. Only 32 when she retired from acting, 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.
As anyone who’s seen her luminous performances knows, that is a brutally unfair situation. Though the actress was a wisp of a woman -- barely 5 feet tall and so light her male costars regularly picked her up off the ground -- when Gaynor was on her game, she took your breath away. UCLA’s Film & Television Archive is determined to refresh her image with its “Janet Gaynor: A Centennial Celebration” series, which begins Thursday with a showing of “Street Angel” at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
Thanks to the Louis B. Mayer Foundation (the level-headed Gaynor is said to be the only actress the rajah of MGM allowed in his home), spanking-new prints have been struck of the features in the series, many of which will go on a post-UCLA national tour.
“Street Angel” was one of three films cited (the others are “7th Heaven” and F.W. Murnau’s classic “Sunrise”) when Gaynor, in a moment dear to movie-trivia questioners, won the first ever Academy Award for best actress for work done in the 1927-28 movie seasons. When she collected the statuette in 1929, she was just past her 22nd birthday.
“Street Angel” is also one of three silent films in the UCLA series (“7th Heaven” and the legendary but rarely seen “Lucky Star” are the other two) in which Gaynor co-starred with Charles Farrell and was directed by Hollywood’s peerless romantic Frank Borzage. These films are in some ways the creative pinnacle of her acting career, but before Gaynor could get to them, she had to get through “The Johnstown Flood” (screening on April 7).
Until that 1926 film, which pasted a fictional story onto the all-too-real 1889 Pennsylvania disaster, Gaynor had been doing bit parts and extra work. But as Anna Burger, a logger’s daughter fated to see her love for a handsome engineer unreturned, Gaynor was such an incandescent presence she was immediately signed by Fox to a five-year contract.
The Borzage connection
EVEN today -- maybe especially today -- it is easy to see why. For if we tend to think of silent-film acting as broad, Gaynor, even at this early stage of her career, had an instinct for the most subdued and delicate underplaying. As an actress she was neither showy nor simpering; rather, she had a natural self-possession and grace that are timeless. And when she laughed, as a German critic wrote of a later performance, “one longs with all one’s heart to be where a human being is really so happy."With the kind of presence your heart completely goes out to, it’s no wonder that, despite her young age, Gaynor became the muse of director Borzage, a filmmaker who believed in love as a transcendent, transformative feeling, a sensation so powerful it can overcome reality and even death. “No director,” wrote the venerable French critic Georges Sadoul, “has shown better than he the intimate warmth of human love in a profoundly united couple.”
And though 6-foot-2 costar Farrell towered over Gaynor, together they formed just that kind of irresistible couple, powerful enough to last through 12 films together with several directors. It is the Borzage epics, however, that are their most lasting work.
Especially noteworthy is 1927’s “7th Heaven.” Starting with the unlikely idea of a Parisian sewer worker as a romantic hero, the film capitalized on Gaynor’s warmth and presence and Farrell’s rough and ready masculinity to create a fantasy romance that managed to include realistic World War I trench warfare and a beyond-words ending. “One can only stare with admiration,” summed up Herve Dumont, the reigning Borzage scholar, “at the skill with which the director turns this kitsch and improbable tear-jerker into an inspired diadem of purity.”
But as memorable as this film is, 1929’s “Lucky Star,” its companion on a can’t-miss double bill on Saturday, is even more of an immersion in over-the-top romanticism. Plus, it’s almost never been screened in Los Angeles. Originally made with some spoken dialogue sequences and long thought to be a lost film, “Lucky Star” was discovered and restored (minus those spoken words) by the Netherlands Filmmuseum. It was acclaimed as a lost masterpiece at its debut at 1990’s Pordenone festival and a follow-up screening at Telluride, and its power remains undiminished.
Farrell gives perhaps his best performance, playing a World War I veteran who comes home in a wheelchair, unable to walk. But it is Gaynor who controls the picture as a neighbor girl, part unsophisticated savage and part amoral ragamuffin, who Farrell’s character first civilizes and then, against staggering odds, falls in love with and attempts to win.
“Lucky Star” once again showcases Gaynor’s gift for underplaying in extreme situations, her instinct for quiet emotion and delicate character shadings. Her face is wonderfully transparent -- what she feels is what we see -- and there may be no one (with the possible exception of Garbo) we’d rather see in love.
When sound came, Gaynor made the transition fairly easily and never lost her great popularity: She was a fixture on the top 10 box-office list for five straight years, from 1930 to 1934, and made No. 1 in 1931. But, with some notable exceptions, its hard to see her sound years as her finest hours.
Speaking of sound
FOR sound, as it turned out, did Gaynor no favors. It couldn’t accommodate the kind of transcendent acting she accomplished without words, and ended up compartmentalizing her, easing her into the mold of the cheerful and perky ingenue. There was no room for the spirited self-reliance and determination to be her own person that characterized her silent roles.
There were, however, some sound high spots, such as 1933’s “State Fair,” in which she held her own against Will Rogers and a prize hog known professionally as Blue Boy, the grand champion of the 1932 Iowa State Fair. She also got to deliver one of the film’s best lines, telling an erstwhile beau who has just outlined elaborate post-wedding plans, “That would be a nice honeymoon. I’d almost marry you to make the trip.”
Gaynor’s most memorable early sound movie, 1935’s “The Farmer Takes a Wife” (screening with “State Fair” on April 15) was also Henry Fonda’s screen debut. Almost shockingly young and drop-dead handsome, Fonda plays a farmer who moonlights on an 1850s Erie Canal barge and falls in love with Gaynor’s feisty cook. Though the New York Times huffed that “Miss Gaynor is really too nice a person to be playing bad girls,” the result is a charming romance that takes full advantage of Gaynor’s unquenchable spirit and winsome egalitarianism.
Gaynor’s 1937 “A Star Is Born” (screening April 28) was one of the actress’ last roles and one of her best, good enough to get her an Oscar nomination. Shot in lovely early Technicolor and famously remade with both Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, it follows a young woman’s trajectory (and love life with Frederic March’s alcoholic matinee idol) from star-struck kid to major star. Only an actress with Gaynor’s qualities could be so believable as the innocent kid despite having been a major star for close to a decade. It’s heartening to know that Gaynor’s son, Robin Adrian, feels that the sensible, competent, caring character in this film “comes closest to the person I knew and loved.”
Gaynor announced her retirement not long after “A Star Is Born” came out, and she pretty much stuck to it. Maybe she heard footsteps and took to heart the line from that film in which a producer tells her character that “all the experts seem to think your type is a little mild for present-day taste.”
Likely, though, she knew she’d already given the screen some of its finest acting moments, and perhaps she figured that ought to be enough. As this UCLA series proves, it certainly is.
‘Janet Gaynor: A Centennial Celebration’
Where: UCLA’s Melnitz Hall, unless otherwise noted.
When: April 6 to 28
Thursday: “Street Angel,” Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 Vine, Hollywood, 8 p.m. Friday: “The Johnstown Flood,” “The Shamrock Handicap,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday: “Lucky Star,” “7th Heaven,” 7:30 p.m. Next Sunday: “Sunrise,” “Pep of Lazy ‘J’,” 2 p.m. April 14: “Delicious,” “Adorable,” 7:30 p.m. April 15: “The Farmer Takes a Wife,” “State Fair,” 7:30 p.m. April 19: “Servants’ Entrance,” “Tess of the Storm Country,” 7:30 p.m. April 23: “Small Town Girl,” “Ladies in Love,” 7 p.m. April 28: “A Star Is Born,” “The Young in Heart,” 7:30 p.m.