On the night of May 16, 1929, Janet Gaynor became the first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actress, but according to the actress herself the real highlight of the evening was 'meeting Douglas Fairbanks.'
It seems an appropriate sentiment coming from a young woman (she was then 22) who became a star based on her innocent sincerity, natural sweetness and vivacity.
And there were few movie stars more popular than Gaynor in the 1920s and '30s. Her popularity survived the transition from silent to sound production and lasted through her retirement in 1938 at the ripe old age of 32.
Gaynor returned to the screen in the 1957 Pat Boone vehicle 'Bernardine' and turned up occasionally on radio and TV before making her final appearances in a 1980 Broadway stage adaptation of the cult film favorite 'Harold and Maude' and a 1981 episode of 'The Love Boat.' She died in 1984.
That Oscar she won was for three films: 'Seventh Heaven,' 'Sunrise' and 'Street Angel.' And it so happens that these are the opening-weekend attractions in the Northwest Film Center's monthlong series 'Janet Gaynor: A Centennial Celebration.'
Over 15 nights you can see 16 films, many of which have other individual points of interest. The 1937 'A Star Is Born' is arguably the best version of the oft-told tale of Hollywood. 'The Farmer Takes a Wife' marks Henry Fonda's screen debut. 'Delicious' has a George Gershwin musical score. 'The Johnstown Flood,' a sort of prototypical disaster movie, is paired with a rarity from the great John Ford titled 'The Shamrock Handicap.'
'Seventh Heaven' and 'Street Angel' - along with next weekend's 'Lucky Star' - feature the unabashed romanticism of director Frank Borzage, a distinctive stylist virtually forgotten today.
And 'Sunrise,' the Hollywood debut of German master F.W. Murnau, is an absolute masterpiece. Subtitled 'A Song of Two Humans,' it stars Gaynor and George O'Brien as a farm couple whose marriage is threatened by the husband's desire for a big-city temptress.
As interpreted through Murnau's expressionist sensibility, the simple story becomes a stunning visual symphony and a poetic study in contrasts. Like all the films in the series, it appears very rarely on the big screen - or in any other format, for that matter.
It should be almost as much fun as meeting Douglas Fairbanks in person.
- Pat Holmes
'Seventh Heaven' 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1; 'Sunrise' 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2; 'Street Angel' 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3; Whitsell Auditorium, $7, see www.nwfilm.org for a complete schedule