Turner, Florence E. (c. 1888–1946)

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Turner, Florence E. (c. 1888–1946)

American actress, producer, and director. Born on January 6, around 1888, in New York City; died of cancer on August 28, 1946, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of William Clifton Turner (an artist) and Frances Louise (Bowles) Turner (an actress).

Selected filmography:

How to Cure a Cold (1907); Francesca da Rimini (1910); Launcelot and

Elaine (1911); Jealousy (1911); A Tale of Two Cities (1911); Aunty's Romance (1912); How Mr. Bullington Ran the Home (1912); (producer) Through the Valley of the Shadows (1914); (producer) A Welsh Singer (1915); (producer) My Old Dutch (1915); (producer) Film Favourites (1924).

Florence E. Turner was born around 1888 in New York City. Her father died a year later, and she was raised in Brooklyn by her mother Frances Bowles Turner and grandmother, both actresses in local theaters there. When she was three, a stage manager convinced Frances Turner to allow her daughter a walk-on role in a production of The Romany Rye. Other roles followed until she enrolled at school at age 11. Four years later, without her mother's consent, Turner signed on as an extra in a Brooklyn theater, after which she ventured into musical comedy and a tour in vaudeville.

Unable to find stage work, Turner followed a friend's suggestion in May 1907 and turned her attention to motion pictures. She applied at the Vitagraph studios nearby and secured the lead in a short comedy, How to Cure a Cold. Turner was immediately popular with audiences, and when the Vitagraph Players were organized in October 1907, she became the first American film actor to receive a contract. At the time, the people they saw on screen were not known by name, so she was called "The Vitagraph Girl." By 1910, the public was becoming increasingly fascinated with film actors, and in May she was billed under her own name. Soon she was making personal appearances throughout New York City.

A skilled mime, "dark and magnetic" with "expressive eyes," Turner preferred comedy over romantic parts, and was often paired with Maurice Costello and Wallace Reid. After several successful films, she left Vitagraph in 1913 to form her own company, Turner Films, Ltd., in England, where she had long enjoyed acclaim. In 1915, a magazine poll determined that she was the most popular actress in England. Using the facilities of the Hepworth Company at Walton-on-Thames, she produced a small but well-received collection of films.

At the outset of World War I, inflation and other troubles associated with the war led her to close her company. Turner lost all her money in this venture, and by the time she returned to the United States, audiences there had forgotten her. Nevertheless, she worked regularly as an actor, writer, and director for Universal and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1920, she returned to England and appeared as the lead in several comedies produced by W.W. Jacobs before working a final time with the Hepworth Company to produce a two-reel comedy, Film Favorites, in 1924. In this film, she burlesqued dozens of famous actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Mae Murray , and Lillian Gish ; however, she was unable to secure distribution and her financial problems worsened. In 1925 her friend, actress Marion Davies , who had her own company, offered her work back in the States. For the next two decades, Turner played character parts and comedy roles, and during the last ten years before her death she was a member of the MGM stock company.

Turner lived for most of her life with her mother and grandmother, and did not marry. She died of cancer at the Motion Picture Country House, an actors' home in Los Angeles, in 1946.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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