Posted on: May 26, 2015

Early cinema is fascinating.  Watching a short film from over a 100 years ago can feel like you’re looking through a window at a long-lost world.  Plus the Silent Era was a time when movie-making was immersed in an opulence and a decadence that has rarely been seen since.  As Norma Desmond famously put it in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, when told she used to be big: “I AM big, it was the pictures that got small”.  But early 20th century Hollywood was a place of astonishing extremes.  Whilst it’s movie stars could live like Roman emperors, and enjoy a stardom that even modern celebrities might be awed by, they could also suffer appalling reversals.  The slightest scandal could finish someone for good.  To coin a modern phrase, they could go from “hero to zero” virtually overnight.

And sometimes it wasn’t just a whiff of scandal that could be a celebrity’s undoing, sometimes they just went past their shelf life, and then they could suffer possibly the biggest ignominy of them all … they could be completely forgotten.  You could be a major star one year, and then a few years later, hardly anyone could recall who you were. We might get sick of hearing about celebrities these days, but I do think the modern era is a lot kinder to them, generally (as long as they haven’t done something completely beyond-the-pale).  A once-famous person can pen their memoirs, crop up on a chat show, in panto (here in Blighty), or Reality TV, and be greeted by the public like an old friend.  Whereas I think back in the early days of Hollywood, it would be a more a case of “WHO?? Gee, that old has-been, no one wants to hear about him/her anymore! Get outa here!!”

Such was the fate of Florence Lawrence, the world’s first movie-star, a name that is usually recognised these days by only the most ardent film-buff.

Florence was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1886.  Her mother, Lotta Lawrence, was a vaudeville actress, so it’s fair to say acting was in Florence’s blood.  She made her first stage debut at the tender age of 3-years-old, and toured with her mother throughout her formative years.  Florence hated theatrical touring though, calling it “a gypsy life”, so a chance to act in the new film industry must have seemed like a godsend.  At the turn of the 20th century movies were a whole different ball-game to now.  Each film often only ran at a few minutes long, and were shot on a shoestring budget.  Actors were unknown faces, appearing uncredited, largely because the fledgling studios thought that if they were named they might start getting delusions of grandeur and demanding more money.

In 1906 Florence got her first movie role, playing Daniel Boone’s daughter, in a film by D W Griffith.  She got the role mainly because she was a skilled horsewoman.  It wasn’t an easy shoot, involving filming outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, and earning the princely sum of $5 a day, but it didn’t kill Florence’s enthusiasm for this new industry.   Griffith put her to work, and in 1908 alone she appeared in dozens of films made by him.  Naturally, she began to be noticed.  Cinema-goers were starting to be fascinated by the actors they saw on screen, and fans began to ask who “The Biograph Girl” was, as they called Florence.  She also became known as The Imp Girl, and The Girl Of A 1000 Faces.

Florence had married a fellow actor Harry Solter, and both were starting to realise their own value.  In 1909 they took their services to Independent Moving Pictures Co.  The founder, Carl Laemmle, organised possibly the world’s first ever cinema publicity stunt.  He put out publicly that Florence had been killed by a streetcar in New York City.  Then, when distraught fans besieged the studio for news of their beloved Biograph Girl, it was glibly announced that she was alive after all.  Nowadays such a crass stunt would be cause for tabloid disgust, but it doesn’t seem to have done Florence any harm.  Laemmle started to hype his new star even further.  In March 1910 he put out a story that she had been so mobbed by adoring fans in St Louis that she had had her clothes torn off her.  It was probably untrue.

It wasn’t just movie-making that occupied Florence’s time.  She was also passionate about the equally fledgling industry of automobiles.  She adored cars.  “A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do”, she said.  She is credited with having invented the mechanical turn signal.  Florence never got around to patenting her idea though, and so never received any money or credit for it.

For the next few years Florence continued to work hard.  But cinema was growing fast, and would soon be leaving the Biograph Girl behind.  Not only that, but her hectic lifestyle was starting to take it’s toll.  In 1915, during the filming of ‘Pawns of Destiny’, a staged fire on set ran out of control.  Florence got burned, singeing her hair.  During the course of the incident she also suffered a fall which fractured her spine.  The horrifying incident caused her to have a nervous breakdown, and she was incapacitated for months.

Troubles then began to pile on her.  Florence blamed her husband for the fire, and the pair divorced.  Universal studio’s also dismayed her by refusing to pay her medical bills.  Florence suffered another nervous breakdown, and ended up suffering paralysis for several months.  In 1921 she returned to movie-making, but cinema had moved on drastically in just a few short years.  Cinema was moving into an era of extravagant epics, and mega-stars like Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson had left The Biograph Girl behind.  At the tender age of 29, her movie-career was over.

She opened a cosmetics store in Hollywood, but was hit by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.  That, combined with two more failed marriages and the death of her beloved mother, hit Florence very hard. During the 1930s she was reduced to taking bit parts and extra work.  On top of that she was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disease, which led to depression.

On 28 December 1938 she lay down amongst her old movie memorabilia on her bed, and then ingested syrup and ant paste.  Her suicide note, addressed to her housemate, Bob Brinlow, read: “Dear Bob, call Dr Wilson.  I am tired.  Hope this works.  Goodbye, my darling.  They can’t cure me, so let it go at that.  Lovingly, Florence.  PS you’ve all been swell guys.  Everything is yours”.  She was 52.

She lay completely forgotten in an unmarked grave in a Hollywood cemetery for decades, until 1991, when Roddy McDowell arranged for her grave to have a marker.  Quite right too.  The World’s First Ever Movie Star has her rightful place in cinema history.



A fascinating and very sad story. Roddy McDowell deserves some congratulations as well for giving Florence a proper grave so that she will be remembered into the future.

I love Roddy McDowell, one of my favourite actors.

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