Few of us can lay claim to having been “The First” at anything. As time passes, those who are the true originals become more precious, and increasingly memorable for their importance and their pioneering spirit. One such actress, Janet Gaynor, will forever be remembered and revered for her central part in film history.
She was born Laura Augusta Gainer, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on October 6, 1906. Her family moved to the west coast, and young Laura graduated from high school in San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, she headed south for Los Angeles, armed with a zeal for acting, and a burning desire to be an actress. She worked briefly in a shoe store as a bookkeeper, and later as an usherette in a movie theatre. From the aisle, she soon transitioned to the screen, appearing as an extra in silent pictures, and eventually graduating to bit parts in Hal Roach comedy shorts (notably the 1925 short All Wet) and a lead in a two-reel Western. She soon was contracted by Fox, and her first substantial film part was in The Johnstown Flood (1926). The next year, however, would see her career skyrocket, her fame sealed, and her life changed forever.
The year 1927 was a significant one in film history: it was the year that the first major sound release, The Jazz Singer, altered the face of cinema immeasurably. That year, too, saw the career of Janet Gaynor soar. Two film roles, in particular, made her the most important star on the Fox lot: the F.W. Murnau masterpiece Sunrise and Frank Borzage’s box-office hit Seventh Heaven both strengthened her appeal and afforded her a singular honor: an Academy Award.
The first Academy Awards, given out by the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, covered films released in Los Angeles between August 1, 1927 and July 31, 1928; yet, the awards were not announced until February 18, 1929, and were only given out on May 16 of that year, at the famed Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Janet Gaynor was the recipient of the first Academy Award for Best Actress, based on her performances in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel (1928) – in those early days, awards were given for cumulative work. Nowadays, the Oscar is presented for a single notable performance. Her appeal, and her greatest claim to fame, can be summed up in a quote from an article on her in the September 1926 issue of Paris and Hollywood magazine: “One learns so much more by being versatile. I just won’t get into a rut if I can help it!”
Her career continued with great notice and fame, throughout the 1930s, often in a teaming with equally wholesome Charles Farrell: at the height of their popularity as a duo, they were known as “America’s Favorite Lovebirds”; in 1934, Janet Gaynor was Hollywood’s top box-office attraction. She left Fox in 1936, and scored in two great subsequent roles for David O. Selznick, A Star Is Born (1937; Oscar nomination), and The Young in Heart (1938). With the latter film in the can, Gaynor announced her retirement from the screen.
Matters personal took over her life. Back on September 11, 1929, Gaynor was wed to San Francisco attorney Lydell Peck. She received an interlocutory decree of divorce in 1933, which became final on April 10, 1934, in Los Angeles (Gaynor had testified that her husband was unreasonably jealous and often rude and discourteous toward her). Marital joy was finally hers with her marriage to legendary costume designer Gilbert Adrian – the two eloped to Yuma, Arizona, on August 14, 1939. Their son, Robin Gaynor Adrian, was born on July 6, 1940. Gaynor emerged from her retirement (which was primarily spent on a Brazilian ranch) occasionally in the 1950s for radio and television work, and one more film role, in the 1957 film Bernadine. Her twenty-year marriage to Adrian ended with his death, from a stroke, on September 13, 1959, at age 56. Gaynor wed her third husband, Paramount Pictures production executive Paul Gregory, on December 24, 1964, in Las Vegas. The two settled in Palm Springs, California.
In 1976, the multi-talented Gaynor’s still-life paintings were exhibited in a New York gallery. Two years later, in 1978, the Motion Picture Academy honored her with a special plaque noting “her truly immeasurable contribution to the art of motion pictures and for the pleasure and entertainment her unique artistry has brought to millions of film fans around the globe.” Her final acting appearances came in 1980, with a starring role in the short-lived Broadway stage adaptation of the film Harold and Maude, and in an episode of the television series The Love Boat. On September 5, 1982, a drunk driver in San Francisco smashed into the taxi carrying Gaynor, Gregory, actress Mary Martin, and her manager, Ben Washer. Washer was killed, and the others seriously injured. Gaynor sustained 11 broken ribs, a broken pelvis and collarbone, and various internal injuries from which she never fully recovered.
Janet Gaynor died on September 14, 1984, from pneumonia and the complications from the 1982 car accident. She was 77 years old. This superstar was honored with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6280 Hollywood Boulevard.
The career, and the demeanor, of Janet Gaynor was noteworthy not only because of its heavy star power, but for a quieter and gentler reason: her sweet and optimistic nature, visualized in Depression-era films, raised the spirits of our country at a very low period. She will always be remembered, not only as a lovely presence in motion pictures, but as the first actress to earn an Academy Award. The first of the best of that fine industsry. As her films are revisited by future generations, her glorious screen manner, and her internal and external beauty, will live on, forever.