Canadian-born American actress Florence Lawrence (1886-1938) was a familiar face in the early years of motion pictures, even though most viewers had no way of putting a name to the face because few of her several hundred films credited her or any of the other actors involved.
Sometimes Lawrence was known simply as the “Biograph Girl,” after the company for which she did much of her onscreen work. Audiences were sure to recognize her, for her face was everywhere motion pictures were shown. At the peak of her career around 1910, she was featured in several dozen films each year. Lawrence was the subject of perhaps the first major publicity stunt associated with an onscreen personality, and she was the first to be courted with a bidding war between rival studios. In other ways, too, Lawrence anticipated the lives of numerous future stars: her later life was unhappy, her marriages were unsuccessful, she burned through a large fortune she had accumulated, and she came to a terrible end.
Perfected Whistling Act at Four
Lawrence was born Florence Annie Bridgwood on January 2, 1886. She was one of a group of early Canadianborn movie stars, including Mary Pickford and Marie Dressler. She was part of a family that made a living in traveling vaudeville; her mother, Charlotte, used the name Lotta Lawrence (and billed the troupe as the Lawrence Dramatic Company). Florence took that surname as well. Her performing career began at age four, when she took the stage as Baby Flo, the Child Wonder Whistler. While she was still a child, the family emigrated from Hamilton to nearby Buffalo, New York. Lawrence attended school there and perfected a variety of other skills that might help her in the theatrical business, such as ice skating and, with Wild West shows on the rise, horseback riding.
Continuing to appear in stage productions throughout her teens, Lawrence found herself in New York City in 1906 after the Lawrence Dramatic Company disbanded. She had no luck finding work on Broadway, but her timing was fortunate. Film production was expanding in New York as the art of cinema advanced beyond the status of novelty and began to tell stories aimed at creating an ongoing audience. Thanks to her horseback riding skills, Lawrence won a part in Daniel Boone, one of cinema's early adventure landmarks. The single-reel film, which simply depicted Boone's capture by Indians after an ill-fated attempt to rescue his daughter (played by Lawrence), was released by Thomas Edison's Edison Manufacturing Company. She soon found additional work with Vitagraph, a rival New York studio that was attempting to capitalize on Edison's improvements to the movie camera. She had to do costume-sewing work in addition to appearing on screen, but she preferred that to the grind of touring in an unheated carriage with a theatrical troupe.
In 1908 Lawrence made 38 films for Vitagraph. Most of these were so-called “one-reelers,” about ten minutes in length, and were melodramas featuring a single dramatic plot twist. Some had Western or other exotic settings (location filming was out of the question, but Lawrence sometimes had to work outdoors), and her skill on horseback again set her apart from the crowd. That same year Lawrence married fellow Vitagraph actor Harry Solter, who also directed some of her films. The pair set out to give Lawrence a higher profile than the other young actresses who labored anonymously in the growing industry.
They got a major break when the pioneering director D.W. Griffith spotted Lawrence in one of her Vitagraph films and decided to cast her in The Girl and the Outlaw, filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, from August 2 through August 4, 1908. This time Lawrence portrayed a Native American princess who is beaten and left for dead but is rescued by a white rancher and his daughter. The entire group is attacked by Indians, and Lawrence's character is killed as she tries to help her rescuers escape. Griffith signed Lawrence to a $25-aweek contract with his Biograph studio, and she appeared in his increasingly ambitious productions such as Outpost in Malaya and the tearjerker Romance of a Jewess.
In terms of the sheer number of her performances shown on screen, the year 1909 marked the high point of Lawrence's career. She starred in 65 films, including such pathbreaking Griffith releases as Resurrection, a 12-minute adaptation of an entire novel by Leo Tolstoy in which she plays a girl on trial in court who inspires a jury member, who had seduced and abandoned her years earlier, to reform his ways. She was also the cinema's first Juliet, appearing in the female lead role in the first of many films of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It was in 1909 that Mary Pickford, following Lawrence's example, decided to emigrate to the United States. Lawrence was still an unknown name to moviegoers, but it was around this time that they dubbed her the “Biograph Girl” or “The Girl of a Thousand Faces.”
In 1910 Lawrence was lured to yet another new studio, the IMP Company of executive Carl Laemmle, who later founded Universal Studios. Laemmle not only offered Lawrence a raise but also raised her profile with a publicity stunt of nationwide scope: he planted rumors that she had been killed in a St. Louis trolley accident but then ran full-page newspaper advertisements, headed “We Nail a Lie,” debunking his own rumors and announcing her signing to IMP. Lawrence was unveiled in a St. Louis ceremony that outdrew an appearance by U.S. President William Howard Taft. The moviegoing public continued to refer to Lawrence with the anonymous “Imp Girl” title, but she was also known by her actual name. She is often regarded as the first true movie star.
In her first IMP film, 1910's The Broken Oath, Lawrence's name was featured in the credits and publicity. Executives who had previously resisted this practice now embraced it, realizing that a star's name on a marquee could build business. Lawrence continued to try to convert her fame into a better financial deal, moving to the Lubin studio and then, with support from Laemmle, establishing her own studio, Victor, in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Solter, still her husband and director, was her partner in the enterprise as well. Between 1910 and 1914 Lawrence made about 140 films. All were oneor two-reelers, and many of them, capitalizing on her new fame, featured a character named Florence or Flo.
Lawrence bought a New Jersey home with a formal garden, and she had disposable income left over to buy the new rich person's toys of the moment: automobiles. “A car to me is something that is almost human,” she said in an interview quoted in Technology Review, “something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.” She even invented an early turn signal—an arm and flag, attached to the back bumper, that could be raised by pressing a button inside the passenger compartment. A similar brake warning button raised an arm with a stop sign. Unfortunately Lawrence failed to patent these inventions and received no credit for them when similar devices became standard equipment. Lawrence's mother, however, received a patent for a primitive type of electric windshield wiper.
Work Related Injury
Lawrence's period of stardom came to an end with a horrific accident in 1914: during the filming of a stunt scene in Pawns of Destiny, a fire broke out on the set. Lawrence's hair ignited and she fell, injuring her back and going into shock. Lawrence's recovery was slow, and the implosion of her career coincided with the dissolution of her marriage to Solter. She tried to make a comeback with the feature-length Elusive Isabel in 1916, in which she played a secret agent from an unnamed Latin American country who is sent to destabilize the U.S. government. The film, competing with Griffith's mammoth three-hour epic Intolerance, was unsuccessful, and Lawrence continued to battle poor health.
Nor was her marital life happy. She married car salesman Charles Woodring, but that married ended with her husband's death. A third marriage, to Henry Bolton, lasted for only a few months in 1932. Lawrence moved to Hollywood and tried out several new enterprises, including a line of cosmetics and a second abortive comeback, but she had little success; the public had forgotten her. Financial losses during the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out much of her fortune.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, screen personalities from the early days of film were often given bit parts in new films as a form of tribute and that often providing financial support in the pre-Social Security days. She appeared in the 1936 screwball comedy One Rainy Afternoon but, as in the beginning of her career, was not credited. Suffering chronic pain, she committed suicide on December 28, 1938, by eating ant poison. The total number of films in which she appeared is difficult to estimate, for some have been lost, but estimates range between 250 and 300. Lawrence was buried at Hollywood Cemetery, in a grave that remained unmarked until 1991. That year, actor and film preservation activist Roddy McDowall funded the placement of a gravestone that, although it mistakenly listed her birth year as 1890, correctly identified her as “The Biograph Girl” and “The First Movie Star.”
Brown, Kelly R., Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star, McFarland, 1999.
Technology Review, July-August 2002.
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“Florence Lawrence: The Biograph Girl,” Biograph Company, http://www.biographcompany.com/celebrity/lawrence.html (January 28, 2008).
“Florence Lawrence,” Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (January 28, 2008).
“Florence Lawrence,” Northern Stars, http://www.northernstars.ca/actorsjkl/lawrencebio.html (January 28, 2008).