Two retrospectives starting today (Friday) at Pacific Film Archive will illuminate the work of actress Janet Gaynor and director Frank Borzage, both sterling talents in their day but unjustly overlooked in ours.
Janet Gaynor worked as an usherette at San Francisco’s Castro Theater soon after it opened in 1922 before heading to Hollywood to work as an extra. Within a few years she not only found her way into starring roles but established herself as one of the industry’s top talents, appearing in some of the era’s best movies and along the way earning herself the Best Actress Oscar at the first Academy Awards in 1929.
“Janet Gaynor: A Centennial Celebration,” running through Aug. 13, is actually a touring exhibition put together by the Louis B. Mayer Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It features her first supporting roles and the three starring performances that earned her the Academy Award, as well as a selection of her sound-era work, including 1937’s A Star is Born.
Gaynor’s signature role was something of a waif, a wide-eyed innocent, fragile but with great moral strength. In a sense, she was like the second coming of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, both of whom were beloved by audiences for their down-to-earth style and pixie-like charm. Gaynor managed to take seemingly limited roles and imbue them with an expressiveness that demonstrated virtue and nobility as well as a delicate vulnerability.
Her most celebrated role is in Sunrise, the first American film by German director F.W. Murnau. Murnau had made a name for himself as one of Germany’s top directors with films as disparate as the horror masterpiece Nosferatu, the Expressionist classic The Last Laugh, and a cinematic retelling of Faust. In America, his varied interests would lead him to further expand his repertoire, directing “women’s pictures” and even documentaries. It is precisely this wide-ranging virtuosity that has caused him to be overlooked by history, as there are few consistent threads running throughout his career to cement his identity in the public consciousness.
With Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Murnau brought Germanic technique and a palpable European sensibility to American commercial filmmaking. The film is celebrated for its roaming camerawork, its evocative set design, its emotional range and fable-like qualities. It is considered one of the finest films of the silent era, and Gaynor’s performance is one its greatest virtues.
The movie concerns a young country couple whose happy home is threatened when the husband is tempted by a footloose city flapper. Murnau sets up dichotomies that are almost allegorical: between city and country, love and lust, virtue and temptation. It is melodrama raised to the level of poetry, a fable of love, devotion and redemption.
Some of the performances may seem a bit dramatic to modern eyes, but that is part of the scheme: We’re not simply looking at a couple, we are looking at “two humans,” at archetypes, at people who serve more as symbols that as characters.
Gaynor’s performance, however, is subtle and at times profound. Her graceful, demure character undergoes dramatic changes, from loving and devoted to wounded and disillusioned, to frightened, endangered and mistrustful to redemptive, forgiving and strong. Her supple face and soulful eyes somehow manage to convey a range of thoughts and emotions that pages of dialogue could only suggest.
Gaynor easily made the transition to talkies, her voice matching the public perception of her character, and her career remained steady through the mid-’30s, a span that included a series of 12 films with co-star Charles Farrell, including Street Angel (1928), Lucky Star (1929), Delicious (1931), and a remake of Pickford’s Tess of the Storm Country (1932).
Tonight’s screening of Gaynor’s first pairing with Farrell, Seventh Heaven, marks an overlap with another PFA series looking back at the career of director Frank Borzage.
Borzage captured, perhaps better than any other director, the euphoria of romance. His films may at times seem too sentimental, but they are remarkably effective, using the simplest of themes, strategically repeated, to make the heart skip a beat. With a skillful blend of light humor and sincere emotions, Borzage’s films manage to be quite stirring.
PFA will present “Frank Borzage’s Philosophy of Desire,” a selection of films spanning both the silent and sound eras, through Aug. 23.
The strengths of Borzage’s work are readily evident in Seventh Heaven: His street scenes are evocative; his interiors are convincing, self-contained worlds unto themselves; his simple themes are threaded throughout each scene; and his actors know their characters well and hit all the right notes. Some of the film’s most notable moments are the shots of the couple walking up the stairs, a scene that is hardly subtle (seven flights to heaven) but certainly charming as the waif timidly follows her benefactor; the humble abode itself, small but warm and inviting, a cozy ramshackle studio beneath the stars, the rent for which would keep a Berkeley landlord in the chips for years to come; and the joy that lights up Gaynor’s face when Farrell finally allows her to stay. Borzage is a master of tone, never losing his grip on the atmospheric and emotional details.
The film may be a bit long, considering its slight and somewhat predictable plot line, but it punches through its mundane source material with strong moments of poignancy and drama. Its fault lies with the fact that Borzage is not content to simply leave those moments alone. Genuine moments that would best be played simply and unfettered are instead restated, emphasized so emphatically that too often the moment is robbed of its emotional power.
If you intend to see the film and don’t want its conclusion revealed, read no further, for many of Borzage’s virtues and vices are perfectly embodied in the film’s final scenes, and they cannot be discussed without giving too much away.
One of the loveliest but flawed moments in Seventh Heaven provides a perfect example of all that is right and wrong with Borzage’s technique. After Charles Farrell makes his way through the throngs of celebrants in the streets and climbs the seven flights of stairs, he bursts through the door and calls out the name of his beloved. She stands just a few feet away, across the room, and we see his hands reach for her. At that point, Borzage cuts to a shot from behind Gaynor, and we look over her shoulder as she runs to embrace Farrell. In an example of masterful direction, we see that as Gaynor runs to him, Farrell’s eyes do not follow but stay fixed just above the camera, and the realization dawns on us that he has lost his sight. This is superb filmmaking, with details revealed artfully through blocking, direction and editing.
They can’t leave it there, however. The characters then take a few seconds to restate the obvious, drumming it into us with redundant intertitles when a simple reaction closeup of Gaynor’s beautifully expressive face could have done the job much more effectively.
But these are minor quibbles. Borzage worked in a time when such displays of emotion were more acceptable and when subtlety was not often rewarded in commercial moviemaking. His characters were wholesome and pure, with their hearts on their sleeves, overcoming tragedy by the transformative power of love.
The coming of World War II would puncture a hole in that world view, as a new sense of irony and detachment would brand Frank Borzage’s work as nostalgic, sentimental and out of date. And, as with Janet Gaynor, the simplicity and directness of his work would lead to decades of neglect and a lack of appreciation.
JANET GAYnOR: A CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
July 21-Aug. 13.
FRANK BORZAGE’s philosophy
July 21-Aug. 23.
2575 Pacific Film Archive, Bancroft Ave. Visit www.bampfa.edu for a complete schedule of screening or see the Planet's Arts Calendar for daily showtimes..