This month is Women’s History month, so I thought I’d take some time to highlight a woman who was incredibly influential during her time. This is the story of Florence Lawrence, the world’s first movie star.
Born Florence Annie Bridgwood (1886), she acted in her mother’s vaudeville troupe from the age of three. In 1906 she appeared in her first film. Preferring the life of a movie actor over a traveling stage actor, she chose to stop doing roadshows. In 1908 she appeared in 11 films by the Vitagraph Company. However, despite her acting talent, her job consisted primarily of working as a costume seamstress. So when a director of a new company, Biograph Studios, asked her to work as an actress only, she jumped at the chance. By the end of 1908, she had appeared in nearly 60 films by Biograph. Becoming hugely popular, she was known as the “Biograph Girl”.
At the time, movie actors and actresses went largely uncredited. This was largely due to the influence of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), also known as the Edison Trust. Through this company, Thomas Edison held the patents for the majority of film technology – cameras, projectors, and film. This near-monopoly allowed them to tightly control the way their films were produced and distributed (a federal court eventually broke them up in 1918). As part of their standard operations, they did not give credits to actors and actresses. After all, if the people who acted in their films became more famous, they could demand higher wages. Florence Lawrence’s work at Biograph earned her $25/week (~$600 today).
Working for Biograph, she also met and married another actor, Harry Solter. Together they began looking for other studios to work for. However, when the head of Biograph found out about this, they were fired. Carl Laemmle, the future head of Universal Pictures, convinced them to join the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America (IMP). Recognizing the immense fame Lawrence had gathered, he came up with a publicity stunt. First, he spread rumors that Lawrence had been killed in a street car accident. After this story made the circuit, he announced that everyone was mistaken, and that Lawrence would soon appear in a new film made by the IMP.
This was the first time she, or any movie star, had been named. As part of this announcement, Lawrence made a personal appearance in St. Louis, MO, in March of 1910. The fans who gatheredwere in such a frenzy that they shoved through crowds to get to her, ripping buttons off her clothes to take as souvenirs. The rise of her star changed the way films treated actors. By 1912, Lawrence was making $500/week ($12,000 today). Directors began doing close-ups of their stars so that the audience could see them better.
Over the course of her career, Lawrence appeared in over 250 films. When the MPPC refused to sell films to theaters showing IMP films, the IMP was able to leverage Lawrence’s fame to convince theaters to keep working with them.
In addition to acting, Lawrence loved automobiles. Not content to merely drive, however, she also tinkered with her car. In 1914, she invented a turn and brake signal.
“I have invented an ‘auto-signaling arm,’ which, when placed on the back of the fender, can be raised or lowered by electrical push buttons,” she told The Green Book Magazine. “The one indicating ‘stop’ works automatically whenever the foot brake is pressed.”
Unfortunately, although Lawrence was able to earn lots of money through her acting, she lost most of it due to a few poor business decisions and the stock market crash of 1929. In 1936, she began to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as an extra. MGM’s co-founder, Louis B. Mayer, hired many stars from the silent film era for such parts. However, in 1937 she was developed myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disease. In 1938, she committed suicide with ant poison. Her funeral was paid for by the Motion Picture & Television Fund. However, her grave in the Hollywood Cemetery was unmarked until 1991 when an anonymous British actor paid for a tombstone.
Florence Lawrence’s popularity revolutionized the way the film industry treated its actors. At the height of her fame, she was a household name. Despite dying in obscurity, her legacy lives on in the credits of every film you’ve seen.
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GNU Florence Lawrence