florence_lawrenceA hundred years ago cinema was in its infancy, neither the studio system nor the concept of movie stars had yet been conceived. Christopher Raymond Brocklebank takes a look back at a young actress named Florence Lawrence who, a century ago,  would become Hollywood’s first ever star.

Today, there are few movie stars worthy of the title. Angelina Jolie springs to mind; a woman who, for all her dire career choices is as luminous a being as you’re likely to see on the modern screen. But she has no mystery: her private live, fondness for the offbeat and slightly aggrandised humanitarian efforts are all public knowledge.

Go back to Hollywood’s golden era, and the extent of information a fan magazine provided on a star would be some idealised guff about their home life plus a fake date of birth and backstory (though at least by by then they’d moved on from the outré Theda Bara era of Arabian Knights-style fake childhoods). Go back further to cinema’s infancy and viewers knew even less of the mute shadows flitting across the makeshift screens: they had faces but no names. But one hundred years ago, a euphoniously named jobbing actress named Florence Lawrence put paid to all that, and the star system was born.

Born Florence Bridgwood in Ontario in 1886 (not 1890 as some sources say) to Vaudevillian parents, she moved to New York City in 1906, unsuccessfully auditioning for various Broadway roles. The ‘flickers’ were then in their very infancy. One or two reel melodramas and slapstick scenarios were the order of the day, and performers were anonymous. Late that year, owing to her skills as an equestrian (she was a keen bareback rider) she got a part in a Edison Company film about pioneers.

In 1907, she went to work for Vitagraph Films in Brooklyn, making 38 features for them in one year. Over at rival producers Biograph, DW Griffith was looking for a pretty young girl with equestrian abilities. Having seen Lawrence in a rival production, he made discreet enquires as to who she was, arranged a meeting and offered her a raise of $5 a week to work for him. At $25 a week, she signed up.

She made 60 films for Griffith in 1908, mainly co-starring with one Harry Solter who she married that same year. Regular film appearances soon gained her fans, who’d write to Biograph demanding to know who their favourite thesp was. Her bosses responded by billing her as ‘The Biograph Girl’, fearing that if her name was revealed, Ms Lawrence might get uppity and demand surplus dollars for her work.

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4 Responses

  1. Catwalk Creative Vintage

    Thank you for this informative and interesting post. I’d never heard of Florence Lawrence but I’m intrigued by her. I must go and check out the book as I’d love to see that photograph of her.

    Thanks again!

  2. Hala Pickford

    I’d agree its hard for modern viewers to get into ‘flickers’ (those pre 1920 films). Biograph could make some solid product, though I cant lie and say I’d sit down some night to watch them for pure entertainment. Every now and then one will be shown before a feature and I’ll enjoy it, but I dont seek them out.

    I’ve seen a handful of Florence’s Biographs. She was very modern, and very sexy on screen (the literal pre Mary Pickford). Hair down she was all sexiness! But I agree the few stills available don’t do much justice. Its like the mystery of Eva Tanguay or Valeska Suratt…not enough in the collective memory to appreciate.

    I read both the novel and the bio (with its scary Christian undertones). I wish a new filmography would be done as Im sure more of Florence’s films exist than we realize. Look at Olive Thomas: in 1999 they thought ONE film of hers existed. 12 were found when a comprehensive search was done in 2005. Florence’s story is very sad, but without access to her flickers its even harder to fully grasp.

  3. Sandy Simmons

    To whom it may concern,
    I have a beautiful autographed photo of Florence Lawrence dated February 17, 1928. This picture is not posted anywhere on the web and I wonder if it has value. It is signed by her and is to “To my dear friends Thelma and Leonard from Florence Lawrence.
    Found with the picture is a brochure “Interpreter of Current Plays” with a picture of Thelma Laird Schultheis.
    Sandy Simmons

  4. Sherry

    Thanks for this article. The hubby and I are watching TCM and they showed Florence Lawrence’s grave headstone. We had never heard of her. We looked and found this article. Thanks again.