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.
Silent Film Star
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.
Transition to Talking Films
During the transition from silent to talking films, Gaynor appeared in three part-talkies: Four Devils (1928, partial dialogue added in a 1929 rerelease); Christina (1929) and Lucky Star (1929). She passed the voice test for the 1929 musical Sunny Side Up, her first all-speaking and singing part. Not pleased with her performance, she took voice lessons, but the studio persuaded her to be herself.
In September 1929 Gaynor married Lydell Peck. She appeared in several mediocre musicals with Farrell in 1930. Gaynor, upset with the repetitive ingenue roles assigned her, left for Hawaii and promised to return only when given meatier parts. After holding out for seven months, she resumed the same roles that had made her famous. In 1931 and 1932 she acted in the remake of Daddy Long Legs (1931); in The Man Who Came Back (1931), with Farrell; and in four other films.
From 1933 to 1938, more naive-young-girl-makes-good roles followed, but three movies stood out: the original nonmusical State Fair (1933), with Gaynor playing Will Rogers's daughter; The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), as novice actor Henry Fonda's wife; and the original classic A Star Is Born (1937). In the last of these, Gaynor gave her most notable performance as rising star Esther Blodgett. For her performance, she received an Academy Award nomination. Afterward, she acted in Three Loves Has Nancy (1938) and The Young in Heart (1938).
At the age of 33, Gaynor retired from acting in 1939 as Hollywood's highest-paid actress, earning an annual salary of $252,583. After devoting seventeen years to the screen, she wanted to experience another life, fall in love, and have a child, her childless marriage to Peck having ended in divorce in 1935. Her popularity was also waning. Prewar viewers, wanting bolder and more sophisticated heroines, had begun to tire of the typical Gaynor film. In August 1939, Gaynor married Gilbert Adrian. Gaynor and Adrian had one son, Robin, born in 1940. For the next twelve years, Gaynor traveled extensively with Adrian, assisting him with his fashion and furniture business. In 1952 they bought a ranch in Brazil, where for the next seven years they spent most of their time, with visits to their ranch in Palm Springs and a house in Hawaii.
Gaynor made a few professional appearances during World War II, participating in Victory Book Rallies in 1941 and 1942, a war bond tour, and a Navy Relief fund-raising tour. In 1951 she and Farrell reunited for a Lux Radio twenty-fifth anniversary production of Seventh Heaven. She made her final film appearance in 1957, playing Pat Boone's mother in Bernardine. During her later years, she attempted roles in three unsuccessful plays: The Midnight Sun (1959) and Harold and Maude (1980) on Broadway, and On Golden Pond (1981) in Chicago. She also appeared in several television productions, including The Love Boat, in 1981.
Adrian's death in 1959 left Gaynor devastated and ill. She credited her friend the producer Paul Gregory with her survival. They married on 24 December 1964 and made their home in Palm Springs, where Gaynor painted florals that she successfully exhibited. She also became a gourmet cook and merchandised a line of specialty foods. Gaynor died from pneumonia and complications from an auto accident in 1982 that had injured her husband Gregory and friend Mary Martin. She was buried in Palm Springs.
Despite her lack of professional training and beauty and her limited singing and dancing ability, Gaynor was one of Hollywood's most popular stars, performing in 37 major films. She gave Depression-era audiences a sympathetic and loving heroine. In later years Gaynor said, "We were essences. ... I was the essence of young first love." She was honored with a special award at the 1978 Academy Awards for the "pleasure and entertainment" she had brought to film fans worldwide.
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