Silent movie actress Florence Lawrence became known as 'The First Movie Star'. However, as it did for many of the film stars who followed her, fame brought both adulation and tribulation.
The Biograph Girl
Florence was born Florence Bridgwood on 2 January, 1886, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She was destined to take to the stage, as her mother Charlotte Bridgwood was an actress with the Lawrence Dramatic Company - 'Baby Flo' was useful in plays even before she could talk. Charlotte's stage name was Lotta Lawrence, so her daughter became Florence Lawrence on her formal theatrical debut at the age of three.
In 1906 Florence made her movie debut, gaining a small part in a one-reel film. She got her big break in 1907 when she secured the leading female role in the one-reel film Daniel Boone1. In the Photoplay Magazine biography of her from November 1914, it indicates she was 17 when she won the part of Daniel Boone's daughter, so she appears to have deducted four years from her age to make her seem more suitable for the role.
After completing Daniel Boone for the Edison Studio, she went to work for the Vitagraph Company, and appeared in several more one-reel films. She then moved to the Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1908 to make more one-reel films. She married fellow actor Harry Solter in the same year. Her popularity with moviegoers increased even further when they saw her performances in Biograph films. The Company received hundreds of letters from fans wanting to know her name and details of her life, but Biograph didn't reveal it because early films didn't have credits at the beginning or end. This was partly because studios worried that if the actors were named and gained fame, they might demand more money to appear on film. However, even as an anonymous actress known as 'The Biograph Girl', Florence knew that she could make at least some demands because films with her in them did especially well at the box office. For a time, she was paid twice the standard salary, but then in 1910 the Company fired her.
From there, she went to the Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP). IMP recognised the benefits for themselves to advertise their star, and so they published her name2. IMP was an impish company indeed when they staged a publicity stunt involving Florence - an announcement in newspapers reported her death in a streetcar accident, and then IMP took out an advert in the magazine Moving Picture World entitled 'We Nail a Lie'. The advert blamed the false reports on their rival studios and confirmed that Miss Lawrence was alive and well (not to mention starring in IMP's next film).
At the end of 1910, Florence moved to the Lubin Studio, where she worked with their star Arthur Johnson in several romantic comedy one-reel films. Together, they were 'a box office magnet'.
In 1912, Florence moved again, and established her own film company, Victor. She was the star, on a salary of $500 per week, and Harry Solter was the director on $200 per week. They worked with Carl Laemmle, who had been the founder of IMP - his new venture Universal Film Manufacturing Company3 distributed their films. At the start of 1912, the Victor Company made a new one-reel film every week, but in August that year, Harry and Florence split up under the pressure of work, and Florence had a nervous breakdown. She spent some time on her farm in New Jersey, but when she recovered she was enticed back into films again after receiving thousands of items of fan mail. She returned to Victor and took on dramas and tragic tales in two-reel feature films to expand her repertoire beyond comedy.
Florence also became involved with her mother's business ventures. Charlotte Ringwood patented a new design for a windscreen wiper in 1917. Florence invented a mechanical stop signal for drivers to use when they applied the brakes, and an 'auto-signalling arm' enabling drivers to indicate before making a turn. Strangely, neither of these inventions were patented even though her mother's invention was, so Florence did not make any money from them.
In 1915, Florence had an accident during filming, which left her with a scar under her chin, and chronic pain. She filed for divorce in 1916. After that, Florence contemplated becoming a producer, and appeared in a few films, but was mostly unwell until 1921 when she tried to make a comeback. She had married salesman Charles Woodring in that year. She gained a few more roles in films, but not as much success as had been hoped, so the pair also set up Hollywood Cosmetics, a shop selling stage makeup and related products.
She had cosmetic surgery on her nose in 1924 to try to improve her prospects as an actress, but even so, the advent of close-ups in films meant she was no longer first choice for lead roles. Her movie career ended as it had began, with her name not being attached to her performances - the final roles she played were uncredited minor parts.
Florence divorced Charles in 1931 because 'He said I didn’t keep myself looking as pretty as I used to', and married Harry Bolton in 1933. Her third marriage lasted just five months before she was granted a divorce on the grounds of his violence towards her. Her health worsened in 1936 when she developed a bone marrow disease that caused anaemia. In 1938, she wrote a note saying that she was tired, and 'They can't cure me, so let it go at that'. She drank cough syrup mixed with ant poison and died on 28 December, 1938 - she was 52 years old.
Although the movies she starred in are no longer popular, being silent films, Florence Lawrence has an important place in cinematic history. Excerpts from her performances are available on the Archive.org website. Clips from these movies also feature in documentaries about the history of film, including Hollywood: The Golden Years, Star Power: The Creation of United Artists and BBC Arena's Screen Goddesses.