Hello, everybody. Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, coping today with our own Mrs. Norman Maine, who’s all atwitter about today’s subject, the very first actress to play her onscreen.
Yes, we are talking about Janet Gaynor, who played “Vicki Lester” in 1937’s A Star Is Born directed by William Wellman and costarring Fredric March as “Norman Maine” with Adolphe Menjou as “Oliver Niles.”
As our Mrs. Maine well knows, the Gaynor role was superbly taken and shaken by Judy Garland, with James Mason as Norman and Charles Bickford as Oliver, in director George Cukor’s 1954’s A Star Is Born. For our money, this version is by far the standard bearer.
A lot less memorable is 1976 version of the movie costarring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which had the temerity to changes the protagonists’ names to “Esther Hoffman” and “John Norman Howard.” Our Mrs. Norman took that as a personal affront. (We won’t even discuss yet another remake currently bruited about in Hollywood to costar Tom Cruise and Beyonce Knowles.)
But Gaynor’s adventure as “Vicki” was not the best of her movies.
Born Laura Gaynor in 1906 in Philadelphia, Janet began her career in silents in 1926. She managed the conversion to sound nicely, but classic movie fans today tend to forget that her best work may well have been behind her when the “talkies” came in.
By then she had already established herself as what British critic David Thomson calls an innocent, waif-life girl – enhanced by her wholeseome beauty and saucer eyes.
No wonder she turned up as the sweet, neglected wife of a man (George O’Brien) corrupted by “an evil woman from the city” (Margaret Livingston) in German-born director F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
If this title doesn’t immediately ring a bell, you are not alone. While the restoration of silent films has spurred a revival of many pre-sound titles, this one does not leap to mind. This 94-minute gem deserves the widest audience possible.
We were reminded of this when Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was extolled in the current issue of British film journal, Sight & Sound.
Not only was it chosen the best movie ever made in the silent Twenties but the fifth best ever made — period (according to S&S’s 2012 poll of critics and directors conducted once every decade since 1952).
Many things make this film more than just a morality tale about temptation and lust, a fable about a young husband so crazy with desire for a city girl that he contemplates drowning his wife, an elemental but sweet story of a husband and wife rediscovering their love for each other, writes critic Isabel Stevens.
‘Sunrise’ was an example — perhaps never again repeated on the same scale — of unfettered imagination and the clout of the studio system (the picture was made by Fox) working together rather than at cross purposes.
Sunrise was one of two pictures that won Gaynor a best actress Oscar in 1929. Hers was, wrote Thomson, a glorious performances of humility and sacrifice in one of the silent cinema’s masterpieces.