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A shooting star over Hollywood

Janet Gaynor's scant dozen-year career earns a retrospective.

April 02, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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