Monday, February 23, 2015

America's First Movie Star

Until 1991 America's first movie star rested under an unmarked grave in Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard. Over 50 years after her death an anonymous British actor memorialized her grave marker with the words, "The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star".

Florence Lawrence's story is the template for Hollywood celebrity. Her grandparents escaped Ireland's Potato Famine to Canada where her mother became a vaudeville entertainer known as Lotta Lawrence. Her father, a carriage builder from England, would die in a tragic coal mining explosion when Florence was between 2 and 8 years-old (the exact date of her birth is a mystery). Upon her father's death she and her mother emigrated from Ontario, Canada to Buffalo, New York, and eventually to New York City.

When Florence and her mother moved to New York City in 1906, New York and New Jersey were the center of American motion picture making. It was that year that audiences saw the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire; history written in light, as well as the gangster film The Black Hand. Growing up on the vaudeville stage, Lawrence immediately found work as a silent motion picture actress, appearing in 38 Vitagraph Film Company films by 1908. In 1906 she and her mother were both hired to appear in Thomas Edison's production of Daniel Boone. Lotta and Florence were paid five dollars a  day to film in the freezing cold in Bronx Park in the Bronx.


In two years Edison would establish The Motion Pictures Patents Company, an organization that would enforce Edison's patent use fees on any filmmaker using his technology to produce motion pictures. Known as The Trust, filmmakers were eventually forced to leave the oppressive climate of New York and New Jersey for the freedom of the West Coast -the birth of Hollywood.

In 1908 Florence Lawrence appeared in 60 films directed by D.W. Griffith for Biograph Studios, which filmed in a brownstone studio near Union Square in Manhattan. At the time, motion picture studios did not credit the actors, fearful that doing so would increase the actor's bargaining power for pay. When Biograph Studios began receiving letters inquiring into the name of the beautiful actress, the simply called her The Biograph girl. In a curious move, Biograph eventually fired Lawrence for courting other film companies.

A German immigrant named Carl Laemmle saw profit where Biography Studios saw control. Laemmle, who ran Independent Moving Pictures (IMP) in Manhattan, signed Lawrence on as an actor in 1909. But before she appeared in an IMP film, Laemmle pulled on the most successful publicity stunts in motion picture history, a antic that would launch Lawrence into being the first movie star.

Laemmle put out a rumor that The Biography Girl, Florence Lawrence, had been tragically killed in a street car accident in New York City. After newspapers reported the story, and the shocking news was on the public's lips, Laemmle ran a strategically placed newspaper ad that simply said, "We Nail a Lie". The ad identified Lawrence with a headshot and announced that she was alive and well, and that she would be appearing in the IMP film, The Broken Oath.

Laemmle's plan to manufacture Lawrence as The Imp Girl,  came to a climax when he fabricated a press story that Lawrence had been stripped of her clothes by a frenzy of St. Louis fans upon her first public appearance after the false report of her death. America's first movie star was born.

An 18 year-old Mary Pickford would take Lawrence's place after she left IMP for Lubin Films of Philadelphia. Lawrence went on to appear in hundreds of films for production companies in New York and New Jersey.

In just under ten years, Lawrence not only acquired fame but also fortune. In 1915 she began shooting a picture for Victor Film Company called Pawns of Destiny; a filming that would result in the ending of her stardom.

While filming, a staged fire erupted and Lawrence was severely burned leaving her with facial scars and a fractured spine. At the time D.W. Griffith had introduced the close up shot into filmmaking; a technique that conjured an intimacy between audience and actor like never before. Left with facial scars Lawrence starred in one last feature for Universal Films, Elusive Isabel

In 1927 The Jazz Singer ushered in the world of talkies to cinema. Like most of actors of the silent movie era, Lawrence's career was over. In 1929 the stock market crash and sudden death of her mother plummeted Lawrence into emotional and financial depression.

For eight years she survived on bit parts and finally moved to Hollywood where MGM gave her small rolls. She was living at the home of her friend Bob Brinlow in West Hollywood when she received a diagnosis for an incurable bone disease. On December 28th, 1938, Lawrence drank a mixture of cough syrup and ant poison. She left this note.
"Dear Bob, Call Dr. Wilson. I am tired. Hope this works. Good bye, my darling. They can't cure me, so let it go at that. Lovingly, Florence -P.S. You've all been swell guys. Everything is yours."