Gaynor, Janet (1906–1984)

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Gaynor, Janet (1906–1984)

American film and stage actress who won the first Academy Award for Best Actress. Name variations: (pseudonym) Augusta Louise. Born Laura Augusta Gainor on October 10, 1906, in Germantown, Pennsylvania; died on September 14, 1984, from complications of pneumonia, in Palm Springs, California;daughter of Frank D. and Laura (Buhl) Gainor; educated in public schools in Pennsylvania, Chicago, and San Francisco; married Jesse Peck (a writer), on September 11, 1929 (divorced 1933); married Gilbert Adrian (a costume designer), in 1939 (died 1959); married Paul Gregory, in 1964; children: (second marriage) one son, Robin Gaynor Adrian (b. 1940).

Appeared in amateur theatricals as a child; was chosen at age 18 to appear in her first "bathing beauty" film; changed professional name to Janet Gaynor before embarking on a successful 15-year career as leading lady in films, winning the first Best Actress Award from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1927); retired from the business (1939); appeared sporadically on stage and television through 1981, but devoted most of her time to oil painting and her family.


The Johnstown Flood (1926); The Shamrock Handicap (1926); The Midnight Kiss (1926); The Blue Eagle (1926); The Return of Peter Grimm (1926); Seventh Heaven (1927); Sunrise (1927); Two Girls Wanted (1927); Street Angel (1928); Four Devils (1929); Christina (1929); Lucky Star (1929); Sunny Side Up (1929); Happy Days (1930); High Society Blues (1930); The Man Who Came Back (1931); Daddy Long Legs (1931); Merely Mary Ann (1931); Delicious (1931); The First Year (1932); Tess of the Storm Country (1932); State Fair (1933); Adorable (1933); Paddy the Next Best Thing (1933); Carolina (1934); Change of Heart (1934); Servants' Entrance (1934); One More Spring (1935); The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935); Small Town Girl (1936); Ladies in Love (1936); A Star Is Born (1937); Three Loves Has Nancy (1938); The Young in Heart (1938); Bernadine (1957).

One evening in 1926, a select audience filed into a screening room on the Fox Studios lot in Hollywood for the first viewing of The Return of Peter Grimm. Among the spectators was a young German director, F.W. Murnau, who had made enough of a name for himself in his native country's motion-picture industry for Fox to offer him a contract to direct his first American film. Murnau was on the lookout for a leading lady, and he had heard that the young actress in Peter Grimm just might fit the bill. The actress was Janet Gaynor, who would be awarded the first Best Actress award from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her performance in Murnau's film Sunrise, still considered the last great silent film before the movies learned to talk.

Janet Gaynor, whose given name was Laura, was born in 1906 in a section of Philadelphia then called Germantown for its high concentration of German immigrants; her mother Laura Gainor , for whom she was named, and her father Frank Gainor were second generation German-Americans. Frank, a painter and paper-hanger by trade, made extra money on occasion by taking bit parts in the German language films made at the old Lubin Studios in Philadelphia, and he often took his children (the couple also had an older daughter Helen Gainor ) to see the Hollywood films showing at the Mannheim Theater downtown. By the time she was in grammar school, "Lolly," as Gaynor was called, was entertaining her friends with imitations of Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge . Noting her ability to memorize almost anything, Frank taught her songs and poetry and encouraged her mimicry. "I never dreamed she would become famous," he told New Movie Magazine in 1931, when his daughter had become very famous, indeed. "We just did it because it was fun."

With the Gainors' divorce in 1914, Laura Gainor and her daughters moved to Chicago to live with relatives, but Laura continued to encourage her younger daughter's talents. During World War I, when she was barely ten years old, Gaynor was entertaining at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, singing for the recruits soon to be shipped off to duty in the North Atlantic; and during a winter spent in Florida with an aunt, she appeared in her first amateur theatrical, Fascinating Fanny Brown, playing an old woman. When Gaynor was 16, her mother remarried, and her stepfather—Harry C. Jones, a mining engineer—moved with his new family to San Francisco, where the two girls attended Polytechnic High School. Janet's performance reciting a dramatic verse at the Senior Rally in 1922 had the entire school buzzing about "that cute little Gainor girl."

Like Frank Gainor, Harry Jones ("Jonesy" to his stepdaughters) encouraged Janet's dramatic aspirations, especially when the family moved again, this time to Hollywood, where the girls went to secretarial school. On a lark in 1924, they auditioned at the old Hal Roach studios for one of Roach's trademark "bathing beauty" films, scantily plotted two-reelers in which young ladies posed and cavorted in full-body bathing suits that left everything to the imagination. The Gainor girls tested for a film called All Wet, to be shot over seven days in a park in downtown Los Angeles. To Janet's delight, she was offered a part; and to her further delight, her mother and stepfather gave their assent. The shoot made her eager for more.

Again, her parents acquiesced, as long as she didn't use her real name. It was Jonesy who came up with one she could use professionally. Instead of the name Laura, "he chose a name you couldn't diminutise," Gaynor once explained. "You can't put an 'ie' or a 'y' on the end of Janet." The change from "Gainor" to "Gaynor" was made only because her stepfather thought it looked better.

Two more Roach shorts followed. In 1925, Universal offered her $50 a week for the female lead in a two-reel western. Like the Roach films, such shorts were used to fill out programs featuring a studio's longer, more "serious" films, but at least Gaynor did not have to wear a bathing suit to play a western heroine. She did five more such roles, took small parts in Universal's bigger-budget productions, and was even loaned out by Universal to other studios for similar work. Her dedication and willingness to learn soon got her noticed, and it was the Fox Studios that first saw her box-office potential.

In 1926, Gaynor was offered the role of Anna Burgher, a young woman who braves a flood to warn her town of its impending inundation. The Johnstown Flood was Fox's silent epic based on the famous natural disaster in that Pennsylvania mining town in 1889, and it was Gaynor's chance at playing something other than a bathing beauty or a hand-wringing, peril-beset frontier girl. She gave up a sure $50 a week to take her first "emotional" role with feature billing, and played opposite George O'Brien, a former wrestler who would become one of the most popular early matinée idols. The film was well-received, and Fox offered her a five-year contract at $100 a week. Gaynor's gamble had doubled her money.

As you gain in years, you change mentally—or at least you should, if you have anything inside your head.

—Janet Gaynor

Moviemaking in those days was a much quicker business than it is now, and it was by no means unusual that Gaynor made four more pictures for Fox in 1926. The Shamrock Handicap was a family drama built around horse racing; Midnight Kiss was her first leading role in a romantic comedy, opposite another of her frequent leading men, Richard Walling; Blue Eagle was a naval adventure directed by a young John Ford in which she again co-starred with O'Brien. Her reviews ranged from raves to respectful restraint, but it was her fourth film for Fox—the one that Murnau came to see—that she later said made her a real actress.

The Return of Peter Grimm was a sort of supernatural melodrama, based on a 1911 play in which a father dies in such a troubled state over his daughter's pending decision on whom to marry that he returns from the grave to make sure she chooses the right suitor. Photoplay noted that Janet Gaynor "contributes some fine acting" to the film, notably in her father's death scene, in which her character had to gaily pretend ignorance of her father's passing while secretly knowing his death was imminent. Faced with the challenge of laughing and crying at the same time, Gaynor turned to a veteran of the stage, Alec Francis, the actor playing her father, who taught her many tricks of the cinema trade over the course of the shoot. Before the camera rolled for the big scene, Francis looked her in the eye and said, "This is our big chance, little Janet. We mustn't fall down." Knowing how ludicrous the situation was, she laughed; but the thought of actually letting the great man down made the tears flow so copiously that audiences in theaters cried right along with her, and Fox upped her salary to $300 a week.

Murnau's Sunrise, in which she was teamed again with O'Brien, brought her to full maturity as an actress. The film tells the story of a man who tries to abandon, then murder, his wife at the urging of an alluring, vindictive mistress. Murnau cast Gaynor as the long-suffering wife; the role was not only a dramatic challenge for her but a physical one. The climactic scene in the film occurs when O'Brien takes her rowing on a lake with the intention of drowning her. Murnau, with his German Expressionist background (his Nosferatu the Vampire, made in Germany in 1922, remains a classic of the style) took great care in staging the sequence, with Gaynor spending several weeks neck-deep in water at Lake Arrowhead while O'Brien tried to drown her several times over. (In the end, O'Brien's character realizes the horror of what he's doing, relents, and remorsefully asks his wife's forgiveness.) Murnau would push her each day until, she said, "it seemed I had not a spark of life in me. Murnau would thank me simply, and when I arrived home there would be a great bunch of red roses, expressing his appreciation." Although Murnau's original ending for the film, in which the wife actually does drown, was changed at the studio's insistence, the film was a sensation. Sixty years later, Gaynor would still insist it was the finest performance she ever gave.

But it was only the beginning. While Murnau was still editing Sunrise, Gaynor embarked on another Fox film, Seventh Heaven, with another director with whom she would form a close working relationship, Frank Borzage, and with the leading man with whom she would do her most popular films, Charles Farrell. Farrell had been managing vaudeville acts and doing extra work before he was chosen for the male lead in Seventh Heaven, in which he plays a man who comes to the rescue of an abused woman intent on suicide. Gaynor's portrayal of a victim of emotional and physical abuse who pulls her-self from the edge of self-extermination had a depth and poignancy new to her audience, leading the New York Herald Tribune to note that by "combining her idealistic prettiness with a skill at projecting believable emotions, she becomes immediately a novel screen personage."

When advance screenings of her next film with Borzage and Farrell, Street Angel, brought equally enthusiastic reviews, Gaynor was invited to attend a special awards ceremony organized by the new Academy for the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was, in fact, the first Academy Awards ceremony, although the golden statuette given to each honoree would not be given the name "Oscar" until 1931 (because the librarian of the Academy mentioned one day that it resembled her Uncle Oscar). Gaynor remembered that first awards evening in 1928 as "more like a private party open only to members of the Academy than a big public ceremony." Even so, it was a memorable evening for her. Gaynor was given the first award for Best Actress, chosen over Louise Dresser and Gloria Swanson for her work in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel (the awards in those early days were often given for cumulative work rather than specific performances). In addition, two of her last three pictures won awards, with Sunrise honored for "Artistic Quality of Production" and Frank Borzage named Best Director for Seventh Heaven, which had also been nominated for Best Picture.

Now arguably the most honored actress in Hollywood, Gaynor was sought out again by F.W. Murnau for his next Fox epic, Four Devils, a circus melodrama in which Janet played one of four trapeze artists. Instead of days on end half-submerged in water, Murnau required her this time to learn basic trapeze work for the close-ups, which would be intercut with wider shots of stunt doubles doing the difficult work. Although the film received warm reviews, and Gaynor's performance was tagged as "sympathetic, sincere, and touching" by Photoplay, the real significance of the picture was its re-release in 1929 with several dialogue scenes added. The transition to talkies was a matter of some anxiety for her, as it was for most of her peers in the business, some of whose voices destroyed their silent film personas and their careers. But Gaynor needn't have worried, for her voice was judged "an immediate added attraction." Her future in the film business was assured.

Now in the third year of her Fox contract, she churned out three more pictures, two of them romantic comedies with Frank Borzage at the helm and with Charlie Farrell as her co-star. She sang and danced on screen for the first time in Sunny Side Up, handling seven numbers and helping the film to win that year's vote as "most enjoyable production" in a magazine poll. Fox's publicity department was now billing Gaynor and Farrell as "America's favorite sweethearts," but Janet's real-life affections lay elsewhere. During 1928, she had met a young writer at Fox, Jesse Peck, who had ambitions to be a lawyer. The two were married on September 11, 1929. The marriage lasted only until 1933, but the divorce was a friendly one, and the fan magazines tiptoed around the breakup rather than besmirch their favorite star's reputation.

Gaynor had been such a hit in Sunny Side Up that Fox gave her two more musicals in 1930 (High Society Blues and Happy Days), but both flopped, and she knew why. "I know perfectly well I can't sing and that I didn't belong" in musical films, she told Film Pictorial in 1932. "I'd saved my money and I felt that I might just as well get out of films then and there with my screen reputation intact." She did precisely that after Fox refused to give in to her pleas for no more musicals. She took herself out of the business and moved to Hawaii for seven months, until Fox finally relented, having found Maureen O'Sullivan as its new musical-comedy ingenue.

With her return in 1931, in Raoul Walsh's The Man Who Came Back, Gaynor embarked on what would be the last phase of her film career, starring in no less than 12 pictures over the next four years, in roles as varied as a drug addict, a scullery maid, a spunky Irish sweetheart, and a southern belle. Among the pictures were five more romantic comedies with Charlie Farrell and, despite her tiff with Fox, two more musicals, although she had to sing only one number in each. Her reviews seemed to grow more glowing with each picture, and her name was box-office magic for Fox. "I want people to forget their troubles and string along with the characters they see on the screen," she said, and her legions of fans turned out by the thousands to do just that.

Her last picture for Fox was 1935's One More Spring. The studio was then in the process of merging with Twentieth Century Films, and Gaynor chose not to renew her contract with the new Twentieth Century-Fox, risking her reputation as the country's favorite romantic leading lady. Just as she had known musical comedy wasn't for her, Gaynor, now 29, knew full well that she was reaching the end of her tenure as America's youthful sweetheart. "I had no desire to hold time in check," she said, "because each age has its own joys and compensations." She started looking for more mature roles and found one in William Wellman's Small Town Girl for MGM, playing opposite Robert Taylor. It was Wellman who, later in 1937, would give her what Photoplay called "her best work since the advent of talkies," the role of Esther Blodgett in A Star Is Born, written by the husband-wife team of Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell (and said to be based on the marriage of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay). "The story was perfect for me," she said with characteristic candor, "a little nobody without any great talent who suddenly finds herself a star." Her performance, as the South Dakota farm girl who reaches the heights of show business stardom at great personal cost, brought her a second nomination for Best Actress, although she lost to Luise Rainer (for The Good Earth).

The next year, 1938, brought the two films which would be her last screen appearances for the next 20 years, The Young at Heart and Three Loves Has Nancy. The costume designer for the second picture was Gilbert Adrian, who would later build a successful fashion design house on his Hollywood reputation. He proposed to Gaynor while they were working on the film, and the two were married in August of 1939. At the same time, Janet announced her retirement from motion pictures. After working steadily for more than 15 years, she said, she wanted time to know other things. "I knew in order to have those things, one had to make time for them," she said. "Then, as if by miracle, everything I really wanted happened. Suddenly I was in a whole new world… a world Adrian exposed me to." An important part of that new world was a son, Robin Gaynor Adrian, born in July of 1940.

For the next 17 years, Gaynor devoted herself to those "other things." She took great joy in raising Robin, helping Gilbert establish himself as one of the leading haute couture designers of the 1950s, and indulging her passion for oil painting, a hobby she had developed throughout her film years, exhibiting many of her works under the name Augusta Louise. She and Gilbert purchased a ranch in Brazil in 1952 and became unofficial ambassadors for that country, with Gaynor receiving the medal of the Order of the Southern Cross for fostering relations between Brazil and the United States. She appeared on the new medium in 1953, taking a role in a television drama; and, in 1957, appeared in what would be her last film, Bernadine, a teenage romantic comedy in which she came full circle and played the mother of one of the young male leads.

In 1959, while Gaynor was in rehearsal for the Broadway drama Midnight Sun, her husband of 20 years died of a heart attack. Grief-stricken, she nonetheless went on with the show, earning respectful reviews in what was otherwise a short-lived production. She married for the third time in 1964, having met Broadway producer Paul Gregory several years earlier. Her interest in the Broadway stage brought her roles in 1980's Harold and Maude (in the role played by Ruth Gordon on film) and in 1981's On Golden Pond.

Later that year she was with Gregory in San Francisco, where she was rehearsing with her friend, actress Mary Martin , for the out-of-town opening of the comedy Over Easy. One night, as Gaynor, Gregory, and Martin were taking a cab to dinner, a drunk driver smashed into them. For the next two months, Gaynor lay in critical condition in a San Francisco hospital with severe damage to her internal organs. She never fully recovered, despite six operations over the next three years; on September 14, 1984, she died from complications of pneumonia at her home in Palm Springs, California.

During her 78 years, Janet Gaynor made some difficult decisions about the direction of both her career and her personal life. But she made them with a clear assessment of herself and her abilities. "For fifteen years I'd always ended in the fadeout where they were married and lived happily ever after," she told Hollywood columnist Earl Wilson in 1951, after she'd been away from films for 12 years. "And I wanted to go on into the fadeout and live happily ever after. And that," she said proudly, "is what I've done."


Billips, Connie. Janet Gaynor: A Bio-Bibliography. NY: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Perennial Library, 1979.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York