Tag Archives: janet gaynor

The Oscars in History

Today is Oscar Sunday, and your author is in rain-soaked Los Angeles today trying to stay dry. Tonight, right down the street and for the 86th time in history, the Academy will pick what it considers to be the best achievements in filmmaking over the past year.

To many people, the Oscars are synonymous with glamour, fame, chic, and high fashion. The one night when the stars we see on the screen come together to celebrate the best among them, in the best outfits from the best designers. We see joy at wins and barely masked sorrow at losses, a lavish ceremony punctuated by long breaks for expensive commercials. It has become a moneymaker and a television extravaganza, and genuine appreciation for the talented winners is often trumped by concern for corporate sponsors and commercial breaks.

But it has not always been this way. The Oscars of today would be almost unrecognizable by those who attended the first Academy Awards 86 years ago, in a small room in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929. It was a private dinner with awards announced in advance for the best and brightest of the years 1927 and 1928. Janet Gaynor won a Best Actress Oscar for 3 roles (Seventh Heaven, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and Street Angel), while the Best Actor Oscar went to Emil Jannings for two (The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command). The entire ceremony lasted for 15 minutes, and it was not broadcast over any medium.

Janet Gaynor receives her Oscar from Douglas Fairbanks.

Janet Gaynor receives her Oscar from Douglas Fairbanks.

Over the years, the Oscars morphed into what they are today. With the advent of television and corporate sponsorship of the telecast, the ideas, morals, and priorities have shifted to make the Oscars primarily a moneymaking endeavor for the network on which it is broadcast. That does not mean, however, that the Oscars themselves have lost their significance. Despite the capitalistic drive of the Oscar telecast, the Oscars remain an integral part of the industry and influence forever the lives of all who are nominated or win. They have become a part of our cultural fabric.

Owing to the mass audience that the Oscars attract and the interconnection between the ceremony and culture as a whole, the Oscars have a reputation for being political, whether those politics manifest in choice of winners, in speeches, or in occurrences during the ceremony. National and world struggles have often been reflected during the Oscars, and they have helped shape the lens through which we perceive what goes on in our world.

Here are some classic Hollywood Oscar moments that have interwoven into our national dialogue.


For a film whose premiere she was not allowed to attend, and at a segregated ceremony in which she was relegated to the back of the room, Best Supporting Actress nominee Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind at the Academy Awards in 1940. Her speech is, in my opinion, one of the most eloquent and heartfelt of any speech ever given at the Academy Awards.


In the same vein, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964, Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. It marked the second Oscar in history for a black actor, after Hattie McDaniel’s historic win in 1940. After the ceremony, Poitier declined to comment on the significance of the occasion to reporters, preferring to reflect further before making a statement so important given the times.


In 1972, Jane Fonda won the Oscar for Klute in the wake of her active campaigns against the Vietnam War. She was a very controversial figure in Hollywood at this time and during her speech she acknowledged the controversy by saying “There is a great deal to say…and I’m not going to say it now.” A few months later, Fonda went to Hanoi to continue her anti-war campaigning, becoming known to a generation as “Hanoi Jane.”


The Aesthetics of “Sunrise” (1927)

A scene filmed in double exposure in “Sunrise.”

A foreseeably grim story about a man intent on killing his wife in order to live with a seductress gradually fades into a simple, beautiful, heartwarming tale of devotion and love, in this 1927 silent masterpiece by F.W. Murnau. Starring Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, Sunrise (the full title is Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans, but it is most often referred to as simply Sunrise) is considered to be one of the best silent films ever made, and like the seminal film The Jazz Singer, released later the same year, it incorporated a wide variety of synchronized sounds occurring throughout the movie. We hear car horns, the squeal of a pig, even human voices in the sounds emanating from a large crowd. To audiences in 1927, this was a real spectacle.

Following the release of The Jazz Singer, movie studios were faced with the reality that the future of silent pictures would be extremely short. Though silents did not disappear overnight, they began to slowly fade until 1929, when silent cinema all but became extinct. Sunrise, though released 2 weeks before The Jazz Singer,seems to bridge the gap between the great silent films and the beginning of great sound films, incorporating truly the best of both worlds–the fading silents and the rising talkies.

In addition to the film’s use of audio, it also utilizes magnificent cinematographic techniques that enhance all of the emotions involved in the story. A rather odd font choice is used for the intertitles, suggesting a scary story to come with its large, uneven, drippy type. However, the intertitles are used very sparingly, and Murnau relies most heavily on the environment and the actors’ faces to tell the story. The use of double exposures, cross-fades, and skillful cuts transports us from one mindset to another–from hating the husband as he is about to kill his wife, to sympathy for him in his guilt in ever wanting to commit such a crime. It also brings worlds together–in the opening shots, in which it is shown through a superimposed intertitle that this is “Summertime, vacationtime,” we are taken from a bustling train station in the city to a shot of vacationers sunning themselves on a beach, to a shot of people boating on a tranquil lake in a serene countryside. Each is clear in its emotional intent, and the scenes work together in harmony to create a lovely wholeness to the feeling of summertime.

The temptress and the man, with the beckoning of the city apparent with the city party scene looming over their heads.

The temptress, who urges the man to kill his wife, is shown in a beautiful double-exposure shot almost as a demon inside his head. She appears and disappears like a specter, and he is possessed by her power. At the end, when all is well with the man and his wife, Murnau creates the opposite image–she returns to the city on the back of a cart, dejected, with her head down, the defeated warrior for a man’s affections. The image is powerful, and I, as a rather oversensitive human being, felt bad for her.

Janet Gaynor, as the wife, is truly stunning in this role. Playing a beautiful innocence and naïveté, but with a soul you can feel, she inhabits the character and you feel that under that innocence lives a strong woman. Her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress of 1927/28, in the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. It was one of three films that earned her the award, due to the nature of the Academy Awards for the first three years of its existence, and in addition to Sunrise she won for her performances in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel.

Janet Gaynor receiving her Oscar from Douglas Fairbanks at the first Academy Awards ceremony.

The title is interestingly symbolic–though at the outset, it may be read as simply the timing of the last shot of the film, it also symbolizes the rise of a new understanding and relationship between the husband and wife. The beginning of the film is bleak and dark for both of them, as the husband is intent on a life with his mistress. When he realizes how much he loves his wife, this is the beginning of their own personal sunrise. The majority of the film leads up to this moment, where the physical sunrise in the sky meets with their personal sunrise as a couple. Given the progressive nature of this work, it is also, in a way, ironic that the film is called Sunrise–as coming on the heels of both The Jazz Singer and the rise of talkies, it heralds the dawn of a new era in filmmaking.

The final shot of the sun coming up over the house of the man and his wife.