The First Movie Star
Florence Lawrence, who was born on this day in 1890 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, was a professional performer from the age of 4, traveling the vaudeville circuit as "Baby Flo, the Child Wonder Whistler." She began appearing in films when they were still in their infancy, landing at Vitagraph Studios for $15 a week, where she made costumes while starring in an abridged film version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1908).
D.W. Griffith, who thought Lawrence was a "vivid, gallant little person" (in a vein similar to Griffith's later find, Dorothy Gish), lured her to Biograph Studios for $25 a week (no sewing required), and she became a fixture in Griffith's earliest films. At that time, however, film studios kept the identities of their players a secret, in part because the actors were sometimes embarrassed to be identified with the bastard stepchild of the legitimate theater, and in part because name recognition would ultimately command higher salaries. One movie periodical reported that "there is a legend to the effect that Biograph players have their names locked in a big safe and only get them back when they leave the company."
Lawrence quickly became known as "The Biograph Girl" to appreciative fans, and all was well at Biograph until 1910, when Carl Laemmle lured the fickle Lawrence to star in pictures for IMP (the Independent Motion Picture Company) for $1,000 a week. A master manipulator, Laemmle fabricated a newpaper story that Lawrence, the former Biograph Girl, was killed in a streetcar accident, and then ran an ad denouncing "enemies" for circulating a lie about Florence Lawrence, announcing that Miss Lawrence, now the "Imp Girl," would be starring in IMP's next film, The Broken Oath.
Lawrence continued to star in films until 1915, when she injured her back while rescuing her colleagues during a studio fire. Paralyzed for a time, she returned to films without much success in the 1920s. In the early 1930s, MGM hired her as an act of charity, giving her a steady but small paycheck to appear occasionally as an extra. It wasn't enough for Lawrence's self-esteem, however: on December 28, 1938 in Beverly Hills, California, Florence Lawrence committed suicide by ingesting ant paste.
The fact that Florence was from Canada, incidentally, just goes to show that the massive Canadian conspiracy to conquer the American media was fully formed from the beginning.
Categories: Silent-Film, Trailblazing-Women