Florence Lawrence was one of the most recognizable women in America in the early 1900s—although nobody knew her name. A leading lady in nearly 250 silent films at the dawn of American cinema, Lawrence remained un-credited on screen until a maverick studio owner used her name to promote his films and turn her into the first movie star.
The first movie star was born into the acting business. The daughter of a vaudeville actress known professionally as Lotta Lawrence, young Florence Bridgwood toured with her mother, made her stage debut at age three as part of a song-and-dance routine and soon gained billing as “Baby Flo, The Child Wonder Whistler.”
Adopting her mother’s stage surname, Florence Lawrence got her big break in the film industry after being hired in 1906 by Thomas Edison’s movie studio to play Daniel Boone’s daughter in a biopic of the frontiersman. The following year she appeared in nearly 40 movies for the prolific Vitagraph Studios before she was lured away to Biograph Studios in 1908 by the prospect of a $25-per-week salary. Directed by pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffith, the statuesque leading lady captured the public’s attention in a range of roles from Cleopatra to a cowgirl to Juliet. Nobody, however, knew her name.
As Ty Burr detailed in his book “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” no actors, directors, producers or screenwriters were credited on screen in cinema’s first 15 years. Even though eager fans inundated movie studios with letters asking for the names behind the familiar faces they saw on the silver screen, the Edison Trust cartel that controlled the film industry feared that actors would demand more money if their identities were revealed.
“We do not know the lady’s name, but certainly she seems to us to have a very fine command of her emotions,” wrote one reviewer of Lawrence’s performance in the 1909 Biograph film “Resurrection.” With Lawrence’s identity kept secret, her legions of fans took to calling her the “Biograph Girl.” After Lawrence appeared in more than 100 one-reelers for Biograph in 1908 and 1909, the studio fired the actress when it learned she approached other film companies offering her services.
She wasn’t out of work for long, however. Maverick movie executive Carl Laemmle, who sought to shake up the film industry by taking on the Edison Trust, signed Lawrence to his new studio—Independent Moving Pictures (IMP), which featured a suitably impish logo of a grinning devil wielding a pitchfork. Laemmle recognized the untapped star power in the movie business, and he staged an elaborate ruse to promote his new leading lady.
Laemmle planted a newspaper story in February 1910 that the “Biograph Girl” had been struck and killed by a streetcar, and then took out an advertisement in an industry newspaper to debunk the story. “We Nail a Lie” declared the IMP advertisement, which blamed rival studios for the deception of its own creation and announced that not only was Lawrence alive, but that she would star in its next film.
Audiences could now put a name to that familiar face, and to let fans see for themselves that Lawrence was indeed still breathing, Laemmle scheduled a public appearance in St. Louis to promote her upcoming movie. The St. Louis Times reported that the crowd awaiting her train was as large as the one that greeted President William Howard Taft on his last visit to the city. The hundreds of fans who packed the train platform to get a glimpse of their screen idol mobbed Lawrence, and the actress nearly fainted in the crush. “I had no idea that so many people were interested in me,” the shocked actress told the St. Louis Times. “It seems so strange that so many people would gather at the train to welcome one they had never seen, only in pictures.”
A star was born.
Lawrence became the first actor to be credited by name on a motion picture. She made approximately 50 films for IMP in 1910 but left for the Lubin Manufacturing Company before the end of the year. In 1912 she launched the independent Victor Company, which was eventually brought under the umbrella of Laemmle’s new venture, Universal Pictures.
More than just a pretty face, Lawrence in 1914 invented an “auto signaling arm,” a mechanical turn signal that raised or lowered a flag on a car’s rear bumper with the push of an electrical button. She also developed a mechanical signal that flipped a stop sign from the back bumper whenever a driver hit the brakes. Lawrence never patented her inventions, however, and never realized any money for her ideas.
While other silent movie stars such as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin began to eclipse her fame, Lawrence suffered serious injuries while filming a fire stunt in 1915. The accident derailed her career. She was racked with pain and bed-ridden for months at a time. Her marriage fell apart.
The first movie star also became the first screen idol to learn how quickly the bright spotlight of fame can be extinguished. By the time she attempted a comeback in 1921, studio gatekeepers no longer recognized her name. The psychological wounds were as deep as the long scar under her chin that she sustained in the filming accident. “I cannot tell you why she struck me instantly as being such a sad figure,” Photoplay magazine reporter Adela Rogers St. John wrote in 1921 after meeting Lawrence in a shabby Hollywood hotel. St. John noted the actress had “the look of a woman who knows what it is to fight a losing fight.”
The comeback fizzled. By 1927, Lawrence’s film career had come full circle with her once again appearing anonymously on screen in un-credited roles, only this time as an extra. Her second husband left her for another woman. “He said I didn’t keep myself looking as pretty as I used to,” she explained to a judge in 1931. Her next marriage lasted just five months after her alcoholic husband turned abusive.
Her last screen role came in a small part in the 1936 romantic comedy “One Rainy Afternoon.” While playing bit parts with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $75 a week, she began to suffer from an incurable rare bone marrow disease that left her anemic and depressed.
Like those of too many Hollywood stars to come, Lawrence’s life came to a sad conclusion. Three days after Christmas in 1938, she downed a lethal cocktail of cough syrup and poisonous ant paste. “I am tired. Hope this works,” read her suicide note. Lawrence was buried in a grave at a Hollywood cemetery that remained unmarked until an anonymous British actor in 1991 arranged for the placement of a memorial stone that declared her “The First Movie Star.”