A Flurry of Florence Lees

Back in the day, there were at least four or five actresses running around calling themselves “Florence Lee”. Their credits are all run together on the major databases. Someone ought to take on the job of sorting them out properly, but it won’t be me!

The first (pictured above) played biddy characters and was best known for her role as the kindly grandmother of the Blind Flower Girl in Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). Lee was her married name; she was born Florence Dawson (1864-1933). The Broncho Billy western Red Blood and Yellow (1919), although the rest of her 31 screen credits begin in 1921. After City Lights, her best known film is Harry Langdon’s Feet of Mud (1924), in which she plays Harry’s mother. She was also in some features and several Our Gang shorts, almost always as Grannies. City Lights was her last movie. Prior to moving to Hollywood she had lived in South Carolina and Virginia.

Then we have Florence Lee (1888-1962) of Jamica, Vermont. This is the one who started out at Biograph in 1911, where she met Dell Henderson, who was to become her husband. (amusingly, if she had taken his surname, there still would have been name confusion, as she would have become Florence Henderson). This Florence Lee naturally went with Henderson to Keystone when it was established. This Florence Lee appeared in dozens of films through 1916 as a supporting player. The picture above may be from The Gypsy Talisman (1914). She was also in The Diving Girl (1911) with Mabel Normand, and Enoch Arden (1911). She was often cast as the wife or girlfriend in Keystone comedies, and was frequently paired with a comedian named Dave Morris, who was billed as “The Boob” and was almost certainly a different guy from the British music hall comedian. Lee also wrote scenarios for a half dozen Keystone comedies.

IMDB attributes an additional half dozen films for the previous Florence Lee in the ’20s, but I strongly suspect that they belong to yet a third actress by that name. The third Florence Lee was Florence Catherline Lee (1902-1993). This one appeared in nearly two dozen films for Universal, Fox, et al between 1921 and 1926. Initially she was in comedy shorts with Baby Peggy, Brownie the Wonder Dog, Billy Armstrong, Billy Franey, Zip Monberg and others. In 1922 she married Teddy Hayes, Jack Dempsey’s ex-trainer and manager; she would later appear in some of Dempsey’s films. Her first feature Blood Test (1923), was a western, leading to several other films in that genre. Man Rustlin’ (1926) was her last film; she also divorced Hays that same year. There were some press items in 1925 to the affect that Hayes had married Dorothy Appleby, which the latter subsequently disclaimed. However the subsequent divorce from Lee suggests there may have been a relationship. In 1931 Hayes married Lina Basquette, widow of Sam Warner. Lee later worked as a model and hostess in clothing boutiques.

But wait! Did you think we were done? IBDB also has a listing for a Florence Lee. Though it gives the birth and death dates for our second Florence Lee (the one who was married to Dell Henderson), I strongly suspect that it refers nether to her nor the two others (she is too young to be the first and too old to be the last), and additionally, may actually be two different people (in other words, a fourth and a fifth Florence Lee). I say this because of the timing and the sort of credits they are. Her initial credits, starting in 1913 has her in the choruses of shows like High Jinks (1913), Rambler Rose (1917) and Oh, Look (1918). I think the picture above may be of her (although it’s possible it’s also Florence Lee #3, who is described in some press accounts as blonde, and there is a resemblance. In any case, the stage Lee is different from the screen one. The latter was 11 years old in 1913).

To confuse matters, the later credits for the Broadway Florence Lee suggest (almost to a certainty) that they are for a black actress. This is what makes me think she is different from the woman of the earlier stage credits, as chorus lines were not integrated back then. The credits of the later years include Mae West’s miscegenation drama The Constant Sinner (1931), Ol’ Man Satan (1932) with Georgette Harvey, the famously all-black The Green Pastures (1935), and Sailor Beware! (1935) at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. Seems pretty conclusive, eh?

As I say, this comes under the heading of preliminary work for whoever chooses to take it on for whatever reason. For my own purposes, it’s enough to give you the head’s up that these aren’t all the same woman; it’s likely as many as five.

For more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube and to learn more about show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.