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Silent film actress Janet Gaynor won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929, for her role in the movie Seventh Heaven.
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Janet Gaynor was born on October 6, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She made her first film appearance in All Wet (1924). In 1926, she played her first billed role in The Johnstown Flood. For her work in Seventh Heaven, she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929. In 1937, she was in A Star Is Born. She retired in 1939 and died on September 4, 1984, in Palm Springs, California.
Actress Janet Gaylor was born Laura Augusta Gainer, on October 6, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Frank D. Gainer, a paperhanger, painter and amateur actor, and Laura Buhl, a housewife. She had an older sister, Helen. The family lived in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Following a divorce in 1914, Gaynor's mother moved to Chicago with her daughters. During World War I the sisters gave recitations at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station just north of Chicago along the Lake Michigan shore. After a severe bout of influenza, Gaynor spent several winters with her aunt in Melbourne, Florida, where she attended school and acted in amateur plays. Beginning in 1919 she attended Lakeview High School in Chicago.
In 1922 her mother married Harry C. Jones, who relocated the family to San Francisco, where Gaynor graduated with honors from Polytechnic High School the following year. Gaynor credited her stepfather for her movie career because he moved the family to Hollywood and encouraged Gaynor and her sister to enter the movie profession. The sisters studied at the Hollywood Secretarial School, becoming stenographers when not working as movie extras. Gaynor made her first film appearance in the bathing-beauty two-reeler All Wet (1924). She changed her name to Janet Gaynor on the advice of her stepfather, who thought it more professional. Shortly thereafter she acted in many silent two-reelers for Hal Roach, Universal and several other studios.
Gaynor attained popularity with audiences charmed by her diminutive stature, large saucer eyes, dimples, wholesomeness, and vulnerability. These qualities attracted the Fox studio, which saw her as the next Mary Pickford. In 1926 Gaynor played the heroine Anna in The Johnstown Flood, her first billed role. After this well-received performance, she became a favorite of Fox's chief of production, Winkfield Sheehan, who signed her to a $100-a-week contract and cast her in important roles in such major films of 1926 as The Shamrock Handicap, The Blue Eagle, The Midnight Kiss and The Return of Peter Grimm.
Gaynor always portrayed sweet, vulnerable child-women whose determination overcame in the end. She continued this role in the silent film classic Sunrise (1927), following which she commanded a $300-a-week salary. In 1927 Gaynor began her association with handsome costar Charles Farrell in the romance Seventh Heaven. The duo had chemistry on the screen and were dubbed the "world's favorite sweethearts." They went on to costar in a total of eleven romantic films, including Street Angel in 1928. For her work in Seventh Heaven, Gaynor received the first-ever Academy Award for best actress in May 1929.
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In the early years of motion pictures, actors were recruited from the stage, resulting in larger-than-life performances that seemed jarring when blown up to the size of a movie screen. As the years went on, actors began to understand the subtleties of the medium, and used more natural expressions to connect with their audiences. They became movie stars, known for their glamorous looks and identifiable personalities. As Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard would say, they didn't need dialogue, they had faces.
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