Louis B. Mayer said ‘Let there be gold’ – and there was gold. But little golden, naked statues were actually not an initial part of this new organization called Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which was mostly created to arbitrate with unions and serve as an elite club that would assemble the most important names of the most important branches in the industry. But Louis B. Mayer apparently also saw the weakness of the human spirit and its craving for attention and recognition, sensing that an award that would honor the greatest artistic achievements of the year could also keep a tighter control over filmmakers and studio employees since they would all aim to fulfill the needed tasks and obligations to become a part of the studio system that raises its children by both praising and punishing them whenever necessary and ultimately receive this new but also highest tribute, too. It was an ambitious goal but also one with an open ending – even Janet Gaynor apparently did not know what to think of this new recognition and later openly admitted that meeting matinee idol and the original ‘King of Hollywood’ Douglas Fairbanks during the first awards ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was far more exciting than being announced as the Best Actress of the year for her performances in the three silent movies Sunrise, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. After all, the initial event of a newly planned tradition is always a little bit confusing and nobody can be sure just how this tradition will evolve in the future – or if it even will evolve at all. And furthermore, the excitement of the awards ceremonies as it became known in the later years had also not been established yet – there were no closed envelopes, no speculations and no frontrunners since the Academy had already announced the winners three months before the actual ceremony, giving other contenders an honorary mention for their artistic achievements, and the media also reacted with only little interest in this event that took place one evening in 1929. Therefore it is not surprising that the glamour and the sheer power that was involved in the founding of the Academy created a much stronger impression for many attendees and even winners than the awards themselves – an organization that was founded by names like Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Irving Thalberg and Jack Warner was certainly not to be underestimated among member of the Hollywood community even if the awards that were given out still lacked the prestige, importance and worldwide recognition they would win later and mostly possessed a certain aura of exploring reactions and examining possibilities to guide the further development of these new accolades. But the reputation of the Academy and their awards would grow even faster than expected when the ceremony itself became an annual highlight in the entertainment world that brought together stars and fans and recognized respected actors and pioneers like Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Claudette Colbert, Wallace Berry, Frederic March, Lionel Barrymore and Clark Gable for their work on the screen, giving the expression ‘Academy Award winning actor’ an unexpected level of popularity as the award began to outgrow a mere acknowledgment of excellence and became the definite symbol of achievement that was not only recognized anymore by a small group of experts but audiences worldwide. And Janet Gaynor herself would later also emphasize the importance of the Academy Awards when she became the first actress to be nominated for playing an Oscar winner in 1937’s A Star is Born which maybe showed a crowd of fictitious movie stars but still awarded them a real honor without the need to explain its significance in the life of either Vicki Lester or Norman Maine. And so Janet Gaynor might not have realized the meaning of her victory at the Academy Awards in 1929 but it was a triumph that would forever immortalize her name in movie history because even if artistic achievements stand for themselves, the connection with an award that would later be called Oscar almost immediately creates a certain distinction that is able to raise the profile of an actor or an actress to an undeniable level that seems to stand above the need to justify itself even if the careers of many Oscar winners did not live up to the expectations that are associated with their Oscar wins – and the first two acting winners in 1929 illustrate how different careers could be after the arrival of talking pictures revolutionized movie acting in just a short period of time. The first Best Actor winner Emil Jannings had already left Hollywood for good before the actual award ceremony because his thick German accent prevented him from continuing his career in America and he therefore re-directed his focus on work in German-language movies such as Der blaue Engel with Marlene Dietrich and later appeared in various movies of propagandistic nature during the time of the Third Reich. Janet Gaynor on the other hand understood how to benefit from her critical and commercial accomplishments in 1928 and successfully made the transition to talking pictures, continuing to play leading roles in various romantic comedies during the first half of the decade, even if her status as one of the first ladies of the screen slowly diminished before she finally retired from the screen in 1938, acting only occasionally from then on but still having left a permanent impression in movie history – an impression that was created not only because of her status as the first recipient of the Best Actress award but also because her win is associated with her involvement in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise which stands as one of the undeniable classics from the silent era, an influential and groundbreaking masterpiece that is often referred to as one of the greatest movies of all time and received the kind of iconic reputation that creates a lasting effect for everyone involved. Furthermore, Sunrise also holds the distinction of having won the first and only Academy Award for Best Unique and Artistic Production, an honor often referred to as an alternative choice for the best movie of the year even if the World War I drama Wings is by now considered the only official Best Picture winner from the first year of the Academy’s existence.
Looking back the history of the Academy Awards, the choice of Wings as the Outstanding Production of the year 1928 is neither surprising nor unusual since it demonstrated that Oscar voters tended to circle around certain topics and themes right from the start – the first decade of the Academy was dominated by war, history, music, humor or sheer grandness and all these styles and subjects would continue to be of importance in the following years and Oscar seasons to come. Wings, which focused on the aerial combats during World War I and offered groundbreaking battle sequences in the air and on the ground, immediately appealed the Academy’s preference for stories focused on war and surrounded by grand productions. One year later, talking pictures had already completely conquered the Academy and its members eagerly embraced this new trend, awarding not just any talking pictures but the lavish The Broadway Melody, Hollywood’s first all-talking musical. After this, All Quiet on the Western Front was the next movie that focused on the terror of war and was ultimately named the Best Picture of the year while Cimarron and Cavalcade were two large epics that taught lessons in American and English history, combining their large spectrums of time and place with the personal story of various families that would stand as a reflection for the changes that were happening around them. Between these two movies, the Academy honored a movie that was considerable smaller in scale but Grand Hotel was still an attraction that impressed with the sheer grandness of its cast that included names like Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore or Joan Crawford and was therefore a movie that maybe told small and private stories that offered a look behind the closed doors of an unknown world but realized it with actors that served as almost epic vessels for their characters, giving it therefore a grandness that could easily be compared to the larger spectacles that were honored before and after it, replacing lavish sets or imposing plotlines with personalities and star power. Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld and Gone with the Wind were other winners that combined a grand attainment with different popular themes from history to music to war or maybe all at once, while The Life of Emile Zola was another lesson that told of past times but focused on a smaller scale than Cimarron and Cavalcade, also telling about the life of a specific person, showing that real-life characters and events were another theme that was very popular with Oscar voters right away, ranging from Emile Zola to Florence Ziegfeld or the events on the Bounty. And finally, while Oscar voters might often be hesitant to award comedic performances or movies, they like to laugh from time to time and so the early years of the Academy Awards also saw wins for You can’t take it with You as well as It happened one Night which also turned Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert into prominent Oscar winners. So even if the Academy constantly honors very different stories and styles, the overall themes of their choices often tend to be rather similar and they would remain like this in the future, emphasizing a tendency for specific preferences in the different Oscar categories. And so during its first year of existence, the Academy also selected a field of female performances that would stand for a wide area of womanhood and that also consisted of achievements that would become precursors for many nominated performances to follow. Louise Dresser in A Ship comes in stands for the faithful wife and suffering mother, the woman whose life circles around her family and who quietly hurts whenever she cannot influence a situation according to her own wisdom and judgment. But the Academy has always reacted just as favorable to the other side of that spectrum, to women who not only life by their own rules and independent from men but who also sell their body and refuse any prejudice even if deep down they are just longing for love and marriage and a conventional life like almost everybody else – in this first line-up, this role was fulfilled by Gloria Swanson who had to work hard and risked a lot to bring the story of Sadie Thompson, a ‘fallen woman’ who has to face a fanatical missionary on the island of Tutuila, to the screen. And then there was the woman who received the honor of being named the Best Actress of the year for three different movies which all gave her the opportunity to explore the middle ground between these extremes – in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, Janet Gaynor played a woman who was forced to become a prostitute but who never displayed the same devil-may-care-attitude as Gloria Swanson, focusing more strongly on the personal pain and misery that the circumstances of her life had brought upon her, and for whom prostitution was merely a catalyst to start a tragic romance which highlighted her need for companionship, love and an ordinary life full of quiet happiness. And even if her characters and Sadie Thompson were aiming for the same goals and possessed the same dreams, Janet Gaynor’s performances still displayed a stark contrast to that of Gloria Swanson which was based in the fundamental difference of these specific characters, showing again that the specific stories vary very strongly while the themes tend to display a certain similarity, but also in their screen personalities as fierce recklessness and dominance came just as easily to Gloria Swanson as innocence and reluctance to Janet Gaynor. So the theme of Janet Gaynor’s work might be close to Gloria Swanson but her actual performance sets them strictly apart – something that was also true for her third winning role in Sunrise which maybe resembles the theme of the suffering wife that Louise Dresser also displayed in A Ship comes in since she played a woman who discovers that her husband wants to kill her and learns to love him again but Sunrise added a more active angle to the part as Janet Gaynor’s character does not only quietly accept but later actually influences and changes, too, becoming the person who decides the fate of her marriage, turning into a symbol of loving forgiveness, honest decency and kind womanhood in a picture that celebrates love by praising the strength that is needed to keep it intact and a story that maybe tells ‘A Song of Two Humans’ but goes beyond these two characters to find a broader and more extended meaning for its particular idea of human relationships – and Janet Gaynor’s work, too, turns into a distinct characterization but also stands for a specific idea behind this characterization, unique and universal at the same time and it also exists in ideal harmony with the style and theme of Sunrise, emphasizing both the endless devotion and symbolism as well as the overall strength and individuality of a role that demanded a tangible but also dream-like presence which would substantiate the vague and yet definite notions of the overall story.
In Sunrise, both Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien play characters that are shaped by their individual experiences but that also stand for a greater meaning beyond their personal fates, establishing them almost as unwritten pages on which the viewers can reflect their own observations and like inkblot tests constantly represent a specific pattern and an unknown dimension behind any merely visible layer and the movie also never tries to give them a specific personality beyond their position in the story and their relationship to each other, only telling of one day of their lives, leaving all possible further aspects unanswered and unmentioned, using them to tell the story of their marriage and their love and that way commenting on a whole array of human emotions and relationships. But beyond this observation of the different stages of togetherness and alienation, Sunrise also examines a time that was shaped by the arrival of a new era and a clash of a modern, unknown future with a conventional, familiar past and both characters unknowingly fight for the preservation of traditions and the protection of their definition of values against a harmful outsider and the threat of new ideas and perceptions. It’s a generalization that finds its basis in its two central characters and, just as mentioned before, the looks and charisma of Janet Gaynor help to immediately establish her position as the supportive and loyal wife, as a symbol of traditional womanhood, even further emphasized with her tight and bright hair, and even beyond that natural innocence and honesty that is visible in every moment of her performance – her work exists as a complete opposite from that of Margaret Livingstone as her husband’s mistress who embodies sex appeal and deviousness in every scene while Janet Gaynor brings a sincere love and trust that not only carries the theme of the story but also gives its all the needed credibility since the story of Sunrise completely depends on the ability of Janet Gaynor to give reason and understanding to her character and her actions. Because even if her character exists as a vessel to for the observation of a greater truth, it also stands as a specific example that embraces a broader context and therefore tells both a dreamlike parable but also a particular story of two people – and Janet Gaynor, too, gives a performance that serves these themes, letting her role float with the story and refusing to let it become too detailed beyond its focus on love and marriage but she also plays this general idea with a distinct characterization that rested on her ability to express forgiveness and support without any vanity and therefore tell this fairytale with riveting realism. In the world of Sunrise, Janet Gaynor’s role actually never asks to become a true character and both characters of George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor possess almost nameless names that are used to emphasize their impersonality within the story – George O’Brien is The Man, a name that introduces the universality of his intentions and actions as well as his unlimited standing in an Adam-and-Eve-like scenario, while Janet Gaynor is The Wife who loyally stands by her husband’s side and the fact that she is not called The Woman immediately sets the structure of the central relationship and the role allocation of its male and the female presence, highlighting that this woman only exists in connection to her husband and not as a pure individual. It is certainly an old-fashioned look at marriage and gender relations in which Margaret Livingstone’s Woman from the City embodies a dangerous kind of womanhood, one that freed itself from the dominance of men but it also helps to set the triangle of the presented human relationships and the movie does not need the name of Janet Gaynor’s character to imply specifically that she symbolizes not only the traditional and commendable kind of woman but also one who is pure and loyal, whose love knows no conditions since the sanctity of marriage created a bond that sealed their friendship forever and puts her above The Woman from the City almost by nature. But even if the classification as The Wife mostly underlined her position as a concrete symbol in the predefined structure of the story and her marriage, giving her a limited scope that sees her purpose in fulfilling a specific function, Janet Gaynor’s performance was able to give an inner life to this woman and always support Sunrise’s wider theme without losing the core of her character – The Wife exists as an allegory, shaped and guided by the screenplay and always remaining a construction within the world of Sunrise but Janet Gaynor’s performance was able to preserve these intentions while also giving her role an unexpected individuality, inhabiting the nature of support and forgiveness to the extent that her actions never appear to be a part of the movie’s structure but rather made of her own free will without turning either into a role model or a cautionary tale. And by crafting The Wife as a character independent from the world around her, Janet Gaynor was able to achieve an absorbing display of strength and decisiveness that showed her character as the ultimately stronger part in this relationship even if she at first only exists as a reflection of her husband’s deeds – The Man might appear to take a more active position, turning into a master over life and death but Sunrise shows him to be constantly reacting to the acts of the female characters, may it be by manipulation, begging or forgiving and loving and ultimately Janet Gaynor’s Wife turns into the more decisive power in the story and her willingness to forgive her husband for his sins becomes the turning point of the movie, the marriage and the character and Sunrise could not have succeed without the plausibility and realism, this simple display of utter sincerity that Janet Gaynor brought to a part that often escapes rational logic. Her performance speaks a very precise language, explaining the story at every step and leaving no doubt about the forthrightness of her actions – her quiet and defeated body language as she sits down at the table at the beginning, realizing that her husband has gone off to see his mistress, is able to be both stylized and piteous, setting the situation and the plot while also establishing her role and personality within the context of Sunrise, just as her later scene with her child which she comforts while silently crying over the apparent dissolution of her marriage. Another character states that the man and his wife used to be like children, laughing and enjoying their happiness, and George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor both absorb this statement into their performances – The Man possesses an impatient temper, often reacting with anger and violence or tears and helplessness, begging for his wife’s forgiveness with the same earnest a child would ask an adult to make something bad go away while The Wife lets herself be overwhelmed with emotions very easily, spinning with expressions of joy after her husband asked her to go on a trip with him and both characters together are not afraid to become almost child-like in their interactions, even appear a little bit silly in their humor but Janet Gaynor’s performance never forgets to include a certain wisdom, a simple knowledge that might be based on a purely emotional level but still guides both characters. But beyond this, Janet Gaynor’s work is always the point of reference for the audience and Sunrise itself, emphasizing the sorrow and pain in the beginning, the growing tension and sudden change of tone in the middle as well as the humor and love in the end – while George O’Brien becomes an almost emotionless menace during the boat ride, Janet Gaynor’s slightly confused face as she waits alone for him to came back and her subsequent growing fear that suddenly turns into open panic helps to craft the overall atmosphere during this pivotal scene and even if Sunrise began its story with a marriage on the verge of destruction, Janet Gaynor’s display of her character never leaves any doubt about her loyalty and love, creating the basis for the plausibility of the scenes to come, keeping the plot constantly going and preventing Sunrise from collapsing under its own premise – the tale of a woman learning that her husband wants to kill her and forgiving and loving him again in a couple of a few hours could have easily missed the necessary credibility but Sunrise’s style and the work by Janet Gaynor lets this fantasy not only be strangely intriguing but also plausible. When The Wife forgets her fears and finds the strength to not only forgive her husband for what he wanted to do and what he did but also gives their marriage a new meaning and a new start, Sunrise reaches its decisive point, the one moment all other aspects circles around and to which everything points and everything comes from and all this is due to Janet Gaynor’s simple but understanding display of Sunrise’s message which states that love is always worth fighting for, kissing and comforting him, smiling again and for the first time expressing a truly deep feeling of love and companionship and again avoiding any missteps in such a contrived story by taking a definite lead in this moment without letting it become about her but always keeping the focus on the relationship between both characters. On a first look, The Wife might appear to be the weaker character, accepting all of her husband’s behaviors without questioning his love and their marriage but Sunrise and Janet Gaynor show a woman that actually decides to be forgiving and who reveals more strength and wisdom than her husband ever did and also is the one who saves this relationship, mending what he almost destroyed and therefore turning into the stronger part of this marriage. After this scene, both Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien again find the inner children within their characters, letting them enjoy a day in a world that they don’t understand and the scenes at a barber shop, a photographer and later a dance hall let Janet Gaynor be amusingly relaxed and unconcerned and her child-like behavior helps to reveal the love between these two characters for the first time in the story after their relationship had only been defined by sorrow and lies and both actors share the right chemistry to make these moments both believable and exaggerated, letting it be strangely reasonable that this love should be restored in just a few hours. But Janet Gaynor’s innocence always moves the story along, creating a beautiful moment of youthful wishing when she longingly watches other couples dancing, and finds its highpoint in the final Madonna-like image that brings the character to a full circle even if only a small part of her personality had been discovered during this day.
Overall, the love in Sunrise does never feel perfect – the husband not only almost kills his wife but also tries to murder his mistress and in between threatens a man who gets too close to his wife with a knife and neither the screenplay nor George O’Brien’s performance ever disperse the feeling that he would act the same way again if another woman would ask him to but Sunrise succeeds because Janet Gaynor succeeds and her ability to believe the purity of this love makes it easy for the audience to believe it, too. Of course, the limitations of the part itself that only exists to support the vision of the story are perceptible during many moments of Sunrise – as mentioned before, director Murnau did not attempt to flesh out full characters within this tale but created symbols that needed a certain emptiness to fully internalize the ideas behind them and while the simplicity works beautifully in Janet Gaynor’s creation of the character in the context of Sunrise, it also keeps her performance within a narrow, predefined area that does not allow her to craft a personality beyond the borders of her movie but like a character in a fairy tale, she still exists in her own world and even if she might not feel truly authentic, she still possesses a captivating realism that makes her actions and thoughts constantly believable. Overall, her performance is a strange case of a role that is constantly overshadowed by the movie around it but still carries this movie, too – Sunrise depends on her ability to bring its message to live but simultaneously it also exists without the specific details of her performance, using its technical aspects of storytelling to narrate about two people without really focusing on their personalities. But Janet Gaynor was able to balance the different tasks of the role without forgetting the human being beneath it, adding dignity and warmth to a character that could easily have been portrayed as a wholly passive creation without the strengths that Janet Gaynor found inside of her – more than anything, Sunrise and Janet Gaynor’s performance symbolize the power of silent movies that are able to tell a lot with a just a little and even if the movie might overshadow the performances within it, they are still its basis and fundament without which it would have collapsed immediately.