10 Things You Should Know About Janet Gaynor

Janet Gaynor‘s 112th birthday is timed perfectly, what with the third remake of the film for which she won an Oscar, A Star Is Born (1937), opening this weekend. Here are 10 things you should know about Gaynor, who was a huge star in the late 1920s and into the ’30s.

By the way, Gaynor’s A Star Is Born, in which she stars opposite Fredric March, is available via a number of streaming services: Amazon Prime, FilmStruck, Kanopy, Fandor and (with ads) Tubi TV. You could do much worse in priming yourself for the new remake than to watch the original on Gaynor’s birthday.

Happy 112th Birthday, Constance Bennett!

Actress Constance Bennett was born 112 years ago today in New York City. Here are 10 CB Did-You-Knows:

  • Bennett was born into a theatrical family. Both her parents, Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison, were actors, as was her maternal grandparents, Rose Wood and Lewis Morrison.
  • Bennett’s two sisters, Joan and Barbara, were also actresses (though Barbara’s career was brief), but it was Constance who was the first to enter motion pictures, appearing in silent pictures filmed in and around NYC and making her Hollywood debut in Cytherea (1924).
  • After giving up films upon marrying Philip Plant in 1925, Bennett, after divorcing Plant, returned to her film career just as talking pictures were taking off.
  • Bennett was, for a brief time in the early 1930s, the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
  • Like Kay Francis, Bennett’s ability to wear fine clothes well played a big role in her success.
  • Bennett Was cast in the role of Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night but withdrew when Columbia Pictures declined to allow her to serve as producer of the film. Claudette Colbert, who took over the role, won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the picture.
  • Bennett starred in the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand role in What Price Hollywood (1932), which was a clear inspiration for the A Star Is Born pictures.
  • Less in demand in pictures by the 1940s, Bennett began working in radio and in the theatre. Her stage debut came in 1940 in Noël Coward‘s Easy Virtue.
  • Bennett Was married five times; the final marriage, to US Air Force Colonel (later Brigadier General) John Theron Coulter, lasted by far the longest—from June 1946 until Bennett’s death in July 1965.
  • Because of her marriage to Coulter and in recognition of her efforts in providing relief entertainment to US troops stationed in Europe during and after World War II, Bennett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Happy birthday, Constance Bennett, wherever you may be!

Constance Bennett

Happy 109th Birthday, Fay Wray!

Fay Wray was born Vina Fay Wray 109 years today in Cardston, Alberta. We have a special fondness for Ms. Wray, given that, some years ago, we enjoyed a brief but memorable encounter with her. Here are 10 FW Did-You-Knows:

  • Though born in Canada, Wray grew up in Utah and Southern California and began working as an extra in pictures as a teen. Her first credited roles were in westerns made at Universal.
  • In 1926, The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers chose her as one of thirteen young actresses most likely to be stars in Hollywood (Janet Gaynor and Mary Astor were among the other twelve chosen that year).
  • After early success in westerns, Wray became known as a scream queen, due to a run of horror pictures she made in the early 1930s, among them King Kong, Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat and The Most Dangerous Game.
  • Wray was paid $10,000 for her work in King Kong, a picture that was so successful it is said to have saved RKO Pictures from bankruptcy.
  • Wray valued her writing abilities over her acting career. She published an autobiography—On the Other Hand: A Life Story—and saw one of her plays, The Meadowlark, produced. (She collaborated with Sinclair Lewis on another play, Angela Is Twenty-Two.)
  • She was offered the role of Rose in Titanic (1997), but turned it down, leaving the role open for Gloria Stuart.
  • Though she lived there only a few years, there is a fountain in Cardston that is named after Wray.
  • In the 1950s, Wray worked frequently on television, appearing twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in three episodes of Perry Mason, among many others.
  • Peter Jackson had hoped to have Wray speak the final line in his 2005 remake of King Kong, but she passed away, aged 96, before the picture finished filming.
  • Two days later, the lights on the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes as a tribute to her.

Happy birthday, Fay Wray, wherever you may be!

Fay Wray

Happy 98th Birthday, Anne Shirley!

We’re tardy by a day, but it’s still worth noting that actress Anne Shirley was born Dawn Evelyeen Paris 98 years ago yesterday in Manhattan. Her father died while she was an infant, and her mother, struggling to provide for her family, turned to her photogenic child, then 16 months, to help pay the bills, making young Dawn available as a photographer’s model.

From there, it was on to motion pictures. Dawn made her feature debut at the age of four and was soon showing enough promise in her film work that she and her mother made the move from New York to Hollywood, where she eventually played female stars of the pictures as young girls, among them Janet Gaynor in 4 Devils (1928), Frances Dee in Rich Man’s Folly (1931) and Barbara Stanwyck in So Big! (1932). She also appeared in a series of short subjects for Vitaphone.

As the years passed, she grew into a lovely young teenager and her roles grew in size and importance. Eventually, she emerged from hundreds who were tested to play the role of Anne Shirley in the 1934 film adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables. In the years prior, Dawn had worked primarily under the name of Dawn O’Day, but she now adopted the name of the character that had made her a star, Anne Shirley. (We can think of just one other example of an actor adopting the name of a character he or she played: Byron Barr had been acting for some years under his own name when he was cast in the 1942 film The Gay Sisters as a character named Gig Young; he was known professionally by that name for the rest of his life.)

Anne Shirley

Anne Shirley kept busy throughout her adolescence, but wasn’t given another truly standout role until, at age 19, she was cast as Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter in Stella Dallas (1937). Both Shirley and Stanwyck were nominated for Oscars for their work in that picture (Best Supporting Actress and Best Leading Actress, respectively), though neither would go on to win.

Shirley was now more in demand than ever, though her career has now entered a “one step forward, one step back” phase, with her films—and the roles she played in them—being of uneven quality. Her heart had never really been in her career—she had stuck with it largely to please her mother—and after appearing opposite Dick Powell in the classic film noir Murder, My Sweet (1944), she retired at age 26, never to return to the screen.

Anne Shirley remained in Hollywood for the rest of her life. She was married three times and had two children. She died on July 4, 1993, at 75.

Happy birthday, Ms. Shirley, wherever you may be!

Happy Birthday, Janet Gaynor!

Janet Gaynor, born Laura Gainor 109 years today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is not as well remembered today as she should be. (Yes, we old movie buffs know her and love her, but the general public has largely forgotten her.)

There were few bigger stars in 1920s and early ’30s, and her screen partnership with Charles Farrell had fans dreaming that he’d leave his wife for her.

Janet Gaynor made any number of terrific films, but our two favorites are F. W. Murnau‘s silent masterpiece, Sunrise (1927), and the first A Star Is Born (1937), directed by the great William Wellman (A Star Is Born can be viewed for free by Amazon Prime members).

A few TV appearances aside, Janet Gaynor retired in 1938, but she left an indelible mark on the motion picture industry (she won the very first Best Actress Oscar on May 16, 1929, about which she said, “Naturally, I was thrilled, but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn’t mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I’m sure I’d have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks.”

Here’s wishing you a happy birthday, Ms. Gaynor, wherever you may be.

Janet Gaynor quote