Florence Lawrence (January 2, 1890 – December 28, 1938) was a Canadian inventor and silent film actress, who is often referred to as "The First Movie Star". She was also known as "The Biograph Girl", "The Imp Girl" and "The Girl of a Thousand Faces". During her lifetime, Lawrence appeared in more than 270 films for various motion picture companies.
After graduating from school, Lawrence joined her mother's dramatic company. However, the company soon disbanded after a series of disputes had made it impossible for the members to continue working together. Lawrence and her mother moved to New York City around 1906.
She was one of several Canadian pioneers in the film industry who were attracted by the rapid growth of the fledgling motion picture business. In 1906, at twenty years of age, she made her first motion picture. The next year, she appeared in 38 movies for the Vitagraph film company.
During the spring and summer of 1906, Lawrence auditioned for a number of Broadway productions, with no success. However, on 27 December 1906, she was hired by the Edison Manufacturing Company to play Daniel Boone's daughter in Daniel Boone; or, Pioneer days in America. She got the part when she was able to answer 'yes' when asked if she could ride a horse. Both she and her mother received parts, and were paid five dollars a day for two weeks of outdoor filming in freezing weather.
She returned briefly to stage acting, playing the leading role in a road show production of Melville B. Raymond's Seminary Girls. Her mother played her last role in this production. After touring with the road show for a year, Lawrence resolved that she would 'never again lead that gypsy life.'
In the spring of 1908 she returned to Vitagraph where she played the lead role in The Dispatch Beare. Largely as a result of her equestrian skills, she received parts in eleven films in the next five months.
Griffith had intended to give the part to Biograph's leading lady, Florence Turner, but Lawrence managed to convince Solter and Griffith that she was the best suited for the starring role in The Girl and the Outlaw. With the Vitagraph Company, she had been earning $20 a week, working also as a costume seamstress over and above acting. Griffith offered her a job, acting only, for $25 a week. Lawrence jumped at it.
After her success in this role, she appeared as a society belle in Betrayed by a Handprint and as an Indian in The Red Girl. In total, she had parts in most of the 60 films directed by Griffith in 1908. Toward the end of 1908 Lawrence married Harry Solter.
Lawrence quickly gained much popularity, but because her name was never publicized, fans began writing the studio asking for it. Even when her face had gained wide recognition, particularly after starring in the highly successful Resurrection, Biograph Studios simply labeled her as "The Biograph Girl". During cinema's formative years, silent screen actors were not named, because studio owners feared that fame might lead to demands for higher wages.
She continued to work for Biograph in 1909. Her demand to be paid by the week rather than daily was met, and she received double the normal rate. She achieved great popularity in the Jones series, film's first comedy series. She played Mrs. Jones in about twelve films. Even more popular than the Jones series were the dramatic love stories in which she co-starred with Arthur Johnson. The two played husband and wife in The Ingrate, and the adulterous lovers in Resurrection.
Lawrence and Solter began to look elsewhere for work, writing to the Essanay Company to offer their services as leading lady and director. Rather than accepting this offer, however, Essanay reported the offer to Biograph's head office, and they were promptly fired.
Finding themselves 'at liberty,' Lawrence and Solter in 1910 were able to join the Independent Motion Picture Company of America (IMP). The company, founded by Carl Laemmle, the owner of a film exchange (who later founded Universal Pictures, started his own motion picture company), was looking for experienced filmmakers and actors. Needing a star, he lured Lawrence away from Biograph by promising to give her a marquee, making her the first performer to be identified by name on screen and in film advertising. First though, Carl Laemmle organized a publicity stunt by starting a rumor that Lawrence had been killed by a street car in New York City.
Then, after gaining much media attention, he placed ads in the newspapers that announced, "We nail a lie," and included a photo of Lawrence. The ad declared she is alive and well and making The Broken Oath, a new movie for his IMP Film Company to be directed by Harry Solter.
Laemmle then had Lawrence make a personal appearance in St. Louis, Missouri with her leading man to show her fans that she was very much alive. Partially as a result of Laemmle's ingenuity, the "star system" was born and before long, Florence Lawrence became a household name. However, her fame was such that the studio executives who had concerns over wage demands soon had their fears proved correct.
Laemmle managed to lure William Ranous (William H. Ranous), one of Vitagraph's best directors, over to IMP. Ranous introduced Laemmle to Lawrence and Solter, and they began to work together. Lawrence and Solter worked for IMP for eleven months, making fifty films. After this, they went on vacation in Europe. When they returned to the United States, they joined a film company headed by Siegmund Lubin (Siegmund "Pop" Lubin), described as the 'wisest and most democratic film producer in history.' Lawrence was once again teamed with Arthur Johnson, and the pair made 48 films together under Lubin's direction.
At the time, the film industry was controlled by a powerful Patent Group, which had the sole legal authority to make and distribute films. IMP, whose trademark was a little red devil, was not a member of the Patent Group, and hence operated outside the law. Cinemas found showing IMP films lost the right to screen Patent Group films. IMP, therefore, had powerful enemies in the film industry. It managed to survive, however, largely because of the popularity of Lawrence. She appeared in a film called Love's Stratagem. IMP tried to revive the Jones series, starring Lawrence and John Compson (instead of Arthur Johnson).
However, she was induced to return to work in 1915 for her company (Victor Film Company), which was later acquired by Universal Studios. During one of the films, Pawns of Destiny, a staged fire got out of control. Lawrence was burned, her hair singed, and she suffered a serious fall. She went into shock for months. She returned to work, but collapsed after its completion. Blaming Solter for making her do the stunt in which she was injured, the two were divorced. To add to her problems, Universal refused to pay her medical expenses. Lawrence felt betrayed.
In the spring of 1916, she returned to work for Universal and completed her first long feature film. However, the strain of working took its toll on her and she suffered a serious relapse. She was completely paralyzed for four months. By the time she returned to the screen in 1921, few people remembered her.
In 1921 she traveled to Hollywood to attempt a comeback. However, she had little success, and received only small parts, mostly from sympathetic directors who remembered her early films. During the 1920s she began to manufacture a line of cosmetics, but the venture soon failed.
When Lawrence's mother died in 1929, she had an expensive bust sculpted for her mother's tomb. By then, in her mid-forties, demand for her in films had long since disappeared and the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression saw Lawrence's fortune decline.
Lawrence returned to the screen in 1936, when MGM began giving small parts to old stars for seventy-five dollars a week.
Alone, discouraged, and suffering with chronic pain from myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow disease, she was found unconscious in bed in her West Hollywood apartment on 27 December 1938 after she had attempted suicide by eating ant paste. She was rushed to a hospital but died a few hours later.
Just nine years after she had paid for an expensive memorial for her mother, Lawrence was interred in an unmarked grave not far from her mother in the Hollywood Cemetery, which is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Hollywood, California.
In William J. Mann's novel The Biograph Girl (2000), Mann asks the question "What if Lawrence didn't die in 1939 from eating ant poison, but is 106 and living in a nursing home in Buffalo, New York?". The novel faithfully covers Lawrence's life up to 1939 and takes it beyond, after her "supposed" suicide.
A biography by Kelly R. Brown, Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star, was published in 1999.
Florence Lawrence, the Biograph girl; America's first movie star. (reprint, 1999).(Brief Article)(Book Review)
Aug 01, 2007; 9780786430895 Florence Lawrence, the Biograph girl; America's first movie star. (reprint, 1999) Brown, Kelly R. McFarland & Co....