Street Angel (1927): Starring Janet Gaynor in Oscar-Winning Performance

The first ever Oscar winner, for three acting achievements in 1927, Janet Gaynor was a major Hollywood star in the early years of the Depression. The appeal of the diminutive, dimpled, and sweetly wholesome Gaynor lay in her ability to project naivete and vulnerability even when she played prostitutes and fallen women.

Born on October 6, 1906 in Philadelphia, Gaynor (ne Laura Gainor) graduated from a San Francisco high school before moving to Los Angeles, hoping to get into films. She worked briefly as bookkeeper in a shoe store and usherette in a local theater.

After appearing as extra in several movies, she gradually worked her way up to bit parts in Hal Roach comedy shorts and played a lead in a two-reel Western. Gaynor’s first solid part was in The Johnston Flood (1926), while under contract to Fox.

Within a year, Gaynor was the most popular star on the Fox lot, based on her strong performance in German director Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise, and Frank Borzage’s box-office hit Seventh Heaven. At 22, she won the first Best Actress Oscar for three films: Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. Gaynor is still one of the three youngest women to have won the Oscar.

Fox made a screen couple out of Gaynor and Charles Farrell, with whom she appeared in many pictures. At the height of their popularity in the 1930s, Gaynor and Farrell were known as “America’s favorite lovebirds.” In 1934, Gaynor shot to the position of Hollywood’s top box-office star.

After getting out of her Fox contract, Gaynor scored in two successful films for producer David O. Selznick: A Star Is Born (1937), for which she was also Oscar-nominated, and The Young in Heart (1938). Rather shockingly, she then announced her retirement from the screen, much of it spent on a Brazilian ranch.

Gaynor married attorney Lydell Peck in 1934, but divorced him two years later. In 1939, Gaynor married the noted costume designer Gilbert Adrian. Widowed in 1959, she married producer Paul Gregory in 1964.

In the 1950s, Gaynor emerged out retirement for some TV and radio work. She made a comeback in the romantic film Bernardine (1957), which starred singer Pat Boone.

In 1976, Gaynor’s paintings were exhibited in a New York gallery. In 1978, she was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for “her truly immeasurable contribution to the art of motion pictures and for the pleasure and entertainment her unique artistry has brought to millions of movie fans around the globe.”

Gaynor’s final appearance was in 1980, in the short-lived Broadway stage adaptation of the cult film, Harold and Maude, playing the Ruth Gordon part, and in an episode of the TV series Love Boat.

In 1983, she was critically injured in a traffic accident in which her husband and actress-singer Mary Martin (Peter Pan) were also hurt. She sustained broken ribs, broken pelvis and collarbone, and other internal injuries from which she never recovered. Her 1984 death of pneumonia was directly attributed to the accident’s injuries.

Over the last decade of Gaynor’s life, rumors abounded in the industry about her “special” (bisexual) friendship with Mary Martin.

Janet Gaynor’s Oscar Roles

Gaynor was nominated for four screen roles: three in 1927-8, for which she won the Best Actress, and one in 1937, for A Star Is Born.


Fox, 1927, directed by F. W. Murnau

In this celebrated silent film, Gaynor plays the dejected wife of farmer George O’Brien, who falls for a seductress from the Big City.

Nominated for four Oscars, Sunrise won three: Unique and Artistic Picture (Best Production), Best Actress for Gaynor, and Cinematography for Charles Rosher and Karl Struss; Rochus Gilese was nominated for Interior Decoration.

Seventh Heaven

Fox, 1927, directed by Frank Borzage

In this well-executed melodrama (Borzage’s specialty), Gaynor plays a waif rescued by Parisian sewer worker Charles Farrell, who then goes to War and comes back blind. The movie launches the successful teaming of Gaynor and Farrell, which would continue in half a dozen features.

Nominated for five Oscars, Seventh Heaven won three: Director for Borzage, Actress for Gaynor and Adaptation for Benjamin Glazer’s script, based on the play by Austin Strong. The other nominations were for Best Picture (then called Production) and Interior Decoration (Harry Oliver).

Street Angel

Fox, 1928, directed by Frank Borzage

In the third film cited by the Academy, Gaynor plays a poor woman who resorts to prostitution. Forced to flee by the police, she takes refuge with a circus and falls in love with a painter (again played by Fareell). Winning an Oscar for Gaynor, the film was also nominated for Ernest Palmer’s Cinematography and Harry Oliver’s Interior Decoration.

A Star Is Born

UA (Selznick International), 1937, directed by William Wellman

In the first of the three versions of this popular saga, Janet Gaynor plays a young, hopeful actress named Esther Blodgett, who upon arrival in Hollywood falls in love and then marries an alcoholic superstar, Norman Maine (Frederic March). As the career of Esther, now renamed Vicki Lester, goes up, Norman’s goes down, quickly hitting skidrow.

Produced by Selznick, the film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director (William Wellman), Actress (Gaynor), and Actor (March). The film won the Original Screenplay Oscar (by Wellman and Robert Gcarson) and a Special Award for W. Howard Greene’s color cinematography, which was then a novelty.

Gaynor’s Filmography

1926: The Johnston Flood, The Shamrock Handicup, The Midnight Kiss, The Blue Eagle, The Return of Peter Grim

1927: Seventh Heaven, Sunrise, Two Girls Wanted

1928: Street Angel, Four Devils

1929: Christina, Lucky Star, Sunny Side Up

1930: Happy Days, High Society Blues

1931: The Man Who Came Back, Daddy Long Legs, Merely Mary Ann, Delicious

1932: The First Year, Tess of the Storm Country

1933: State Fair, Adorable, Paddy the Next Best Thing

1934: Carolina, Change of Heart, Servants’ Entrance

1935: One More Spring, The Farmer Takes a Wife

1936: Small Town Girl, Ladies in Love

1937: A Star Is Born

1938: Three Loves Has Nancy, The Young in Heart

1957: Bernardine