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Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell: A Brief Biography

Janet Gaynor & Charles FarrellMovie history is rewritten with each passing generation. Scandals are retold to better suit the morals of the current public; actors who were mere bit players become elevated to star status and vice versa; actors’ sexual orientations change on a whim. Actors who were box office dynamos back in the day are pushed aside for less popular, but showier personalities who often make a renaissance with a new generation. A good case in point is Louise Brooks, who was a brilliant actress and who receives kudos nowadays but back in the 1920s was hardly a box office bombshell. Another case in point is the romantic team of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, a team that is often cited as the sexiest, most popular romantic team of the 1920s. This is a revision based on both Greta Garbo’s later popularity and John Gilbert’s spectacular and tragic fall from grace. Any moviegoer in the 1920s would have immediately told you that the hottest romantic team going was Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor.

Charles Farrell, born in 1900, and Janet Gaynor, born in 1906, were promising stars when they were first teamed in 1927. They were both products of the studio system, putting in a combined total of 27 bit parts for the two years they had been working since arriving in Hollywood in the early 1920s. Farrell hit it big as “The Commodore” in Paramount’s epic Old Ironsides (1926) while Gaynor stole the show in her first credited role, as Anna Burger in Fox’s The Johnstown Flood (1926). Farrell signed with Fox in 1927; Gaynor had signed with Fox in 1924 and was being groomed for superstardom by producer Win Sheehan. Their first film together was the smash hit 7th Heaven (1927), which Gaynor started the very day she wrapped up filming for Sunrise.

7th Heaven is both a romance and a parable of faith regained through the healing power of true love. Gaynor plays Diane, an abused street waif, who is taken in by Farrell, who plays a “very remarkable fellow,” a street cleaner named Chico. Diane regains her strength through Chico’s love; Chico regains his faith in God through Diane’s love. The chemistry that Farrell and Gaynor shared in real life is reflected in their performances onscreen. 7th Heaven has aged remarkably well; there is no silly vamping, no nostril-flaring lust, no cigarettes lit with sexy, heavy-breathing undertones. Farrell and Gaynor simply glow onscreen, from within; their embraces are passionate, deeply felt, even pure.

7th Heaven was an immediate smash, one of the biggest hits of the silent film era. The film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Gaynor, who won based on the strength of her performances in Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. The public clamored for more Farrell and Gaynor, and Fox happily obliged. The pair went on to make nine more films together.

Janet Gaynor & Charles FarrellIt was rumored that Farrell and Gaynor had enjoyed a romantic relationship early in their careers; this early romance blossomed into a deep friendship that endured throughout their lives. On the set, they read their lines together, watched the rushes together during their lunch breaks, and requested to do scenes over again. In 1951, Farrell reminisced, “I remember we (Gaynor and Farrell) had a standing date to see the picture every Monday night. And when we drove away from the theater, the cars following us were lined up for blocks.” One reviewer wrote, “Hollywood has never known of any pair who worked so completely together for the good of the team.”

The Farrell/Gaynor team was often directed by Frank Borzage, another silent film artist who is unjustifiably overlooked by this generation. Borzage was a master of moody, atmospheric romances; his direction of the waterfront confrontation between Angela (Gaynor) and Gino (Farrell) in Street Angel deserves as much praise as is lavished on F.W. Murnau today. The Gaynor/Farrell/Borzage collaboration reached its peak with 1929’s Lucky Star. This film is unique because it marks the end of an era: it was Farrell and Gaynor’s last collaboration with Borzage; it was their last silent film together; and it was the best film of their careers. Gaynor played Baa-Baa, a cynical “dirty ignorant girl” who brings hope and courage to Tim (Farrell) a disabled veteran.

The Farrell/Gaynor team made the transition to sound smoothly, starring in a musical talking picture Sunny Side Up in 1929. This film was voted the most enjoyable production of 1929 in polls by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News; Farrell and Gaynor were also at the top of all the popularity polls. The pair was so well-received as musical stars that Fox seemed to forget what made them click so well in the first place. Gone were the sensitive romances; Fox began to remake the pair as a musical comedy team, in the same mold as Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. At first the pair complied; but with the release of High Society Blues in 1930, Gaynor put her foot down. As she stated in a later interview, “I went to Mr. Sheehan and said, ‘I want something dramatic,’ and we had quite a do about it. I went off to Hawaii in something of a huff and when I came back they said all right, I could have a dramatic role. It was The Man Who Came Back and it was positively the worst picture I ever made.”

The Man Who Came Back was a huge departure for Farrell and Gaynor; Farrell had to play a drunk ne’er do well, Gaynor an opium addict. Mordaunt Hall’s review for the New York Times praised both Farrell and Gaynor: “[They] have a better opportunity here than they had in the previous vocal picture, and they make the most of it.” If the film has not aged well, it is due, in most part, to the unexpectedly wooden direction of Raoul Walsh. Though its reputation nowadays is pretty bad, the film was highly popular with contemporary audiences.

Farrell and Gaynor continued to make two or three pictures a year together until 1934, when they made their last film, Change of Heart. Farrell left Fox that year, having married film star Virginia Valli in 1931. He devoted himself full-time to the proprietorship of the Palm Springs Racquet Club, which became known as the “Playground of the Stars,” and later served several terms as the Mayor of Palm Springs. He made a triumphant comeback to show business in the 1950s, playing Vern Albright on the highly successful TV show My Little Margie.

Gaynor remained at Fox until 1936, when she moved to MGM and played the most well-remembered role of her career—as Vickie Lester in the original A Star Is Born (1937). She made a few pictures after that, retiring in 1938 to marry fashion designer Adrian. She reappeared on Broadway in the 1980s and enjoyed a career as a painter and gourmet chef.

Movie magazine polls from 1934 show that Farrell and Gaynor were among the top ten most highly paid and popular stars when they broke up the team to pursue their own goals. They both went on to live happy and fulfilling lives after leaving Hollywood. Perhaps it is because they went out at the top of their game, and went on to live long and prosperous lives, that we hear so little about Farrell and Gaynor today. Perhaps it is that lack of scandal, no tragic ride into the sunset, which keeps them from being recognized today for what they were then—simply the leading romantic team of the 1920s.

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