Florence Lawrence (Florence Annie Bridgwood, 1890-1938) was born on this day. Today she is best remembered as “The First Movie Star”, both because of her success as “The Biograph Girl” (back when studios did not yet divulge the names of the actors in their films) and because her popularity resulted in her being the first star whose name was given out to the public.
She was the daughter of Ontario-based female actor/manager Lotta Lawrence, an Irish immigrant whose Lawrence Dramatic Company toured the provinces. Florence’s father George Bridgwood, a carriage maker, separated from his wife when Florence was young and died when she was eight. By then the family had moved the Buffalo and “Baby Flo, the Child Wonder” had been performing in melodramas with her mother’s company for several years.
Circa 1906 she moved to New York, and having scant luck getting parts in Broadway plays, she began to work for Stuart Blackton’s Vitagraph Company. Notable films from her first year or so in the business include an adaptation of Bouicaults The Shaughraun and Daniel Boone, or Pioneer Days in America (for Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon). In 1908, she went over to Biograph, just as D.W. Griffith was getting started, becoming the first star associated with the director, through dozens of films. During this year she also became the romantic and artistic partner of actor, screenwriter and director Harry Solter, marrying him that same year. The following year (1909) the two moved to IMP (Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, precursor to Universal), and it was that studio’s head Carl Laemmle who first publicized her name in 1910. The pair worked for Universal for about a year, and then worked for most of 1911 for Sig Lubin. In 1912, they formed their own production studio, the Victor Film Company. In 1913, they sold the company to the newly-formed Universal for a large sum.
At this stage, Lawrence was beset by a number of setbacks. She was estranged from Solter in late 1912. She was badly burned while performing a stunt during the filming of Pawns of Destiny in 1915. Her output for the rest of the decade was sporadic, troubled by psychological insecurities sustained as a result of the accident. Solter died in 1920. Lawrence remarried and attempted a comeback in 1921, while simultaneously opening and operating a cosmetics store. Most of her roles throughout the 20s were supporting parts. She lost most of her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. In 1931, she divorced her second husband and closed the store. In 1933, she married her third husband, who reportedly beat her. They were divorced within months. Her career in the sound era consisted mostly of bit parts and walk-ons. W.C. Fields, who had a soft-spot for old veterans and often gave them work in his films, gave her spots in The Old Fashioned Way (1934) and Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935). Then in 1937, she became sick with a disease that caused “anemia and depression”. She took her own life the following year.
For more on early film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.