Pick a Janet Gaynor movie, almost any one of the nearly 40 features she starred in from 1926 through 1938. Watch it, and you will find that in the course of that picture, Gaynor is manhandled. Time and again, the diminutive star is hoisted onto shoulders, gathered up in bear hugs and waggled from side to side, bent over knees and spanked, savagely throttled, playfully knocked off barstools, or swung around dance floors while her feet dangle uselessly in midair. Surely no other movie star inspired such a consistently grabby oeuvre — save, perhaps, for Shirley Temple, Gaynor’s contemporary (though 22 years her junior) and fellow Fox moneymaker. That comparison may dredge up some creepy feelings, but a large part of Gaynor’s appeal was her capacity to embody a spunky living doll to whom it was safe to ascribe adult passions. At a time when degradation pervaded the national consciousness, Gaynor wielded her loaded physicality — round, dark eyes set in a dimpled, full-moon face, and the dainty stature of a pixie — to project youthful innocence and optimism through even the most debasing vicissitudes. It was a deceptively profound talent, one that propelled her to stardom in silents, then transitioned her safely to sound (despite a voice that wavered somewhere between Margaret Dumont and Betty Boop) and, in the end (as with Temple), brought her up against a dramatic dead end.
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Born Laura Gainor in 1906, the aspiring actor hit Hollywood after high school, spending a brief time as an extra and a two-reeler regular before making her mark with a crucial featured role in the 1926 disaster movie The Johnstown Flood. That same year, she scored her first major lead, in John Ford’s The Shamrock Handicap, and never looked back, going on to work with some of the cinema’s greatest directors — including Ford (again), F.W. Murnau, Victor Fleming and William Wellman — and helping to create a handful of its landmarks. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937) may be the most famous of Gaynor’s masterpieces, but UCLA’s three-week Gaynor retrospective also offers the three silent jewels — 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929) — that she and her frequent co-star Charles Farrell made with the great romantic director Frank Borzage.
Gaynor is the beating heart of these films, which pit the worst the world has to offer against the all-conquering power of love. As she plays variations on the same pure-hearted urchin, Gaynor’s delicate yet forceful presence makes her an ideal avatar of Borzage’s particular brand of spiritual resilience, not to mention a perfect subject for his trademark glowing close-ups. At the same time, her markedly natural approach to movie acting, and a ready ability to convey darker impulses, kept that exalted quality from spinning off into the stratosphere. Borzage won the first-ever Academy Award for directing 7th Heaven, and that movie, along with Street Angel and Sunrise, scored Gaynor the first for best actress. Still, it’s Lucky Star that stands out among the trilogy. A crazy breed of Expressionist pastorale, it stars Gaynor as a thieving farm girl and Farrell as the wounded soldier who loves her. In many ways, it’s Farrell’s film — largely bound to a wheelchair, he nonetheless projects a powerful vitality — but Gaynor’s performance is astounding, a layered rendering of romantic awakening conveyed solely through body language and two of the most expressive eyes ever to stare out from a movie screen.
Later, when Gaynor transitioned to sound, that bodily eloquence remained the source of some of her most powerful movie moments. One of the loveliest occurs in Henry King’s lyrical 1933 picture, State Fair, in which Gaynor plays yet another farm girl on the cusp of womanhood, this time off with her family to the fair, and destiny. En route, she sits in the back of the family truck, gazing out at the setting sun. In one secondslong shot, employing only an expectant pose and a certain shine of her eyes, Gaynor crystallizes the delirious rush of knowing that something big and possibly wonderful is about to happen. Five years later, frustrated at having to still play the ingénue, she retired, leaving behind a body of work that serves as a potent reminder that some things, and some people, are ageless.
JANET GAYNOR: A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION | At the UCLA Film and Television Archive | Through April 28 | www.cinema.ucla.edu