Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Born Today January 2: Florence Lawrence


The woman who would be called "The First Movie Star" Florence Lawrence was born Florence Annie Bridgewood in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on January 2nd to a family that included her carriage builder father, two other siblings and her mother, a vaudeville actress.  Florence's mother, Charlotte Bridgewood, went by the professional stage name of Lotta Lawrence (name taken from the dramatic company she worked for); she brought young Florence, called "Baby Flo" onto the stage at the age of 3 (her mother was actually quite the ground breaker with the acting company that she worked for; she was not just a leading lady, but also a director). At the age of 12, her mother moved the family to Buffalo, New York, where her own mother resided (this was following the death of her husband--Florence's father, who had been separated from the family for many years--the death allowed Charlotte the chance to legally immigrate with her children).  After the move, she was taken off the stage and enrolled in school instead. After graduation, she returned to the stage with her mother; and upon the dissolving of the Lawrence Acting Company, the two of them moved to New York City sometime around 1905/1906.  This was expressly done because of the film industry's presence in the area--young Florence had film aspirations and also had her eyes set on Broadway.  It was not long before she did indeed appear in a film, though the Broadway auditions came to nothing. She made her film debut in the Vitagraph crime short The Automobile Thieves, which was released in the fall of 1906.  The film can be regarded, in a way, as a screen test--it was the project of Vitagraph director and executive J. Stuart Blackton (more on him on the 5th!). Her appearance in the Edison film Daniel Boone in the following year is much more widely known; it is the film that most often cited as her film debut.  Keep in mind that in these days actors were not only anonymous, they were expected to do their own stunts as well.  Her ability to ride a horse, and her willingness to shoot in very bad weather earned her the Edison part, but it was her debut appearance in the Vitagraph short that earned her a contract.  She worked for the studio until she was poached by Biograph in 1908 (D. W. Griffith reportedly did this himself on the sly, as he had to quietly figure out who she was due to lack of acting credit--an irony in her case!).  The first film that she made at Biograph was a little known Griffith short The Bandit's Waterloo 1908.  During that year, she would appear in more than 50 Griffith directed shorts for the company; she became a success and was a serious selling point for the company despite her anonymity.  Fans, lacking a actual name, simply called her "The Biograph Girl."  It was a moniker that the company would attempt to keep and cultivate even after Lawrence's departure, but due to Lawrence herself, such "cutesy" anonymous marketing titles would soon be obsolete.  By 1909, "the Biorgraph Girl" had her own franchise in what has been called "the Jone series," (the first of which was Mrs. Jones At The Ball) and was receiving handsome payment for her work.  But, when her and her 1st husband, Harry Solter, who also worked under contract for Biograph, were caught trying to sell their talent to rival Essanay, they both found themselves out of work.  This is how Lawrence came to work for the Independent Moving Pictures Company, or IMP for short; and how she came by her second nickname "The Imp Girl."  At that time, the studio was not a member of the consortium that was later busted as a monopoly (with some very bad "business" tactics) known as the MPPC (read more about it's history here).  The company was owned and run by Carl Laemmle, and he had a head for promotion.  Not long after Lawrence came to work for him, he decided that giving a credit, hell, even a marquee headliner, would be a great way to interest theaters in showing IMP films, since they could be cut from MPPC distribution circles for showing films not made by member companies.  The scheme worked--and it was not long before Lawrence was a household name.  Laemmle even went so far as to put out that Lawrence had be killed, only to reveal her to be alive and unscathed by any accident.  Not wanting to miss out on the back end of such a stunt, he then claimed that a wildly relieved crowd of fans had literally torn her clothes off when seeing her alive and well.  There is zero evidence that anything of the sort occurred, but it was great press.  Her headlining for the company is where she got the nickname--well earned actually--of "The First Movie Star" (Laemmle would later be "credited" with creating what came to be called the "star system," and his company would go into creating the powerhouse studio Universal, where he would basically become a household name himself as a powerful executive).  

Advert in Moving Picture World 1912 proving Lawrence's star power through her name.

The first film that she made at IMP appears to be The Forest Ranger's Daughter in late 1909.  Laemmle gave her husband the director's chair for films featuring his wife, something he could never have had at Biograph because of Griffith.  The couple, though, would not stay there long.   By the end of 1910 they left for Lubin, with His Bogus Uncle being the first film that they made at the house in early 1911 (Solter, again, directed).  Feeling the lose, despite Lawrence's urging of Mary Pickford to take her place at IMP, Laemmle promised Lawrence and Solter that he would bankroll their own studio, which he did in 1912, creating Victor Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ.  The couple (in what could only be an attempt to copy the founding of Solax studio by the uber talented Alice Guy and her rather ne're-do-well husband) was given complete artistic control.  They did manage to lure in some real talent in Owen Moore (one of the talented Moore Bros.), and he appeared in the their first film In Swift Waters opposite Lawrence in 1912.  The company would not remain independent for a long; in 1913 it was folded into the conglomerate that would become Universal.  In 1914 Lawrence was working on a Victor/Universal film The Pawns of Destiny when a staged fire set for a dangerous stunt went wrong and got out of control.  Another Moore brother, Matt (more about him on the 8th), was on the set that day.  Lawrence was seriously wounded and was laid up for months with what was essentially a broken back (and possibly a case of PTSD as well).  It was put out that she had miraculously saved Moore from the fire; we are talking about a woman who stood no taller than 5'3"--and Moore was a stocky man.  I don't know if Laemmle had a hand in that extreme exaggeration (um...er...lie), but it certainly has his M.O. all over it!  Lawrence returned to work that same year, but collapsed on set.  This was really the end for her career.  Things would only get worse from there, though she tried and tried again to make a comeback to the industry.

Another ad in Moving Picture World, this time placed directly by Laemmle in 1916 attempting to make a big deal out of comeback that wasn't really happening.

She appeared in just three films between 1916 ad 1918, one for each year.  In the meantime, Universal had pulled paying for her medical expenses and she and Solter divorced.  She wouldn't appear in another film until 1922.  By then, the film industry had dried up on the east coast almost completely; so in order to attempt a comeback, she had to relocate to Hollywood.  She was given a starring role in The Unfoldment the 1922 "independent" drama produced by minor company Producers Pictures; though after this, her roles became smaller and smaller, until, eventually she was consigned to uncredited roles.  Her last appearance in a silent film came in an uncredited part as "woman" in the World War I drama The Greater Glory in 1926.  She next showed up in a bit part in the late partial silent Sweeping Against the Winds in 1930.  The first full sound picture that she was filmed for came in an uncredited role Homicide Squad in 1931, a lesser crime drama produced by Universal (that must have stung, given her history with essentially fonding a portion of the studio in the teens!). She would have just one more credited role in her lifetime and that came in the 1931 romantic drama Pleasure.  She managed to get very, very small roles in nine more films, with the last being the 1937 MGM mystery thriller Night Must Fall (it is possible that she was in other films after this, as MGM hired her and other silent actors to work in bit parts for a salary).  Lawrence through her hard times was a survivor, but she just couldn't seem to catch a break.  She lost most of the money that she had made in films in the stock market crash in 1929 and the upscale cosmetic company that she started in Hollywood with her second husband fell victim to the depression.  She was obviously possessed engineering skills naturally and is credited with the invention of the precursor to the turn signal and braking lights on automobiles; but she failed to patent the invention and the inventions were stolen, leaving her no profit and no credit [she must have gotten her "inventors brain" from her mother who was also possessed of this talent and used it to start her own business in California].  She lost her mother, with whom she was very close, suddenly in 1929--an emotional blow that never fully recovered from.  And, she had recurring problems from the fire accident that she was in, that also included scaring (at some point she apparently had plastic surgery).  The end of the end came in 1937 when she was diagnosed with some type of bone disease that is thought to be a type of bone marrow cancer, or maybe a type of auto-immune "anemia." Lawrence took her own life on the 28th of December 1938 by ingesting cough syrup mixed with "ant paste"--or ant poison, leaving behind a very pragmatic suicide note that is just heartbreaking. In it she acknowledges that she had been told that her condition was incurable.  She was buried in an out of the way corner Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever) where she had laid her mother to rest nearly ten years earlier.  For a decades, her grave laid unmarked; but in 1991 an "anonymous" British actor (re: Roddy McDowell who was a film preservationist and historian, in addition to being a great actor) paid to have a marker placed listing her both "The Biograph Girl;" and indeed, The First Movie Star.  

Lotta Bridgewood's urn at Hollywood Forever

Leave Virtual Remembrances @ Find A Grave (note the marker has her birth year off by 4 years)

Find A Grave for her mother's information

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