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Florence Lawrence




1886 - 1938

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03 Life Stories

Lifestory:
Florence Lawrence
1886 - 1938

Biography
Only a handful of people can attest to being The First. Without question, the first of anything should be heartily remembered, and given due credit. However, the universally recognized First Movie Star, Florence Lawrence, has, for too long, languished as a mere name in the history books. However, it is her influence that forged an industry, and defined the star system in the process.

She was born Florence Annie Bridgwood in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, on January 2, 1886. Her father, George Bridgwood, was a carriage builder by trade. Her mother, Charlotte Dunn Bridgwood (whose stage name was Lotta Lawrence), is also at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, resting on the second level of the Columbarium. The influence of her mother was quick on young Flo, whose career in show business started at the age of three when she traveled the vaudeville circuit billed as "Baby Flo - The Child Wonder Whistler," doing musicals and plays, whistling and playing the violin, all under the management of her mother. The company disbanded in 1907. This marked the beginning of what would be a most astonishing career.

At twenty she was cast in the Edison production of Daniel Boone (1907), which led to work at Vitagraph Studios. She starred in many of Vitagraph's one-reel Shakespeare films like Macbeth, The Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, and the popular production of Romeo and Juliet (all 1908). Lawrence made $15 per week at Vitagraph, where she also sewed costumes and worked on canvas scenery. From there she was hired by Biograph, for the princely sum of $25 per week, where she refined and perfected her craft under the direction of D.W. Griffith. While under Griffith's tutelege, she first became known as "The Biograph Girl" (a moniker that, some years later, Mary Pickford would, too, adopt). Lawrence starred in many comedies at Biograph, including nearly a dozen starring the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Jones in a series of five-minute short films, costarring Arthur V. Johnson. In 1909, Lawrence left Biograph to seek more recognizable employment at another film company. As a result she was blacklisted by the Trust studios (i.e., all non-independent production houses). When Carl Laemmle started the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) in late 1909, Florence and her husband, director Harry Solter, signed on as one of the IMP's first featured players: she signed an exclusive $1,000 per week contract with IMP (the studio publicity department reported this as a $15,000 per year life contract). In 1910, Laemmle apparently found the added expense of creating a star, and the accompanying increase in Lawrence's salary, worth the investment and found a unique way to capitalize on Lawrence's newly increased visibility. The New York press carried tragic reports of Lawrence's untimely demise when a streetcar in St. Louis ran over her. The story was untrue, but Laemmle realized that the rumored death and the clamor surrounding it was a good opportunity to publicize his leading lady. He moved swiftly to purchase a series of ads telling Miss Lawrence's adoring public that she was still very much alive and would be making a personal appearance in St. Louis to publicize her latest films. Hundreds of frenzied fans mobbed Lawrence when she appeared in St. Louis with co-star King Baggot, ripping the buttons from her coat and taking her hat and its trimmings. The more cynical observers speculated that Laemmle himself planted the rumors of Lawrence's death knowing that the creation of stars and promotion showmanship was necessary for the growth of the motion picture business. Other film companies followed suit, and film star names began to appear in all aspects of press. Herein lies her claim to the titular The First Movie Star: Florence Lawrence was the first film player to use her name to advertise the film company (IMP) that she worked for. Before this, actors and actresses worked anonymously, partly in fear that stage managers would refuse to hire them if they were found to be working on films and partly because the film company management did not want to put much expense into making these short, practically disposable films. It should be remembered that, in the early days of cinema, the genre of film was looked upon as a pale imitation of art, a fly-by-night newcomer that wouldn't last long: the live stage, popularly known as "The Legitimate Stage," held the chief fascination of both the professionals and the public. The initial popularity of Florence -- her vivacious screen presence, her expressiveness, and her powerful stories -- made her the first of the early band of "unknown" film performers for whom the public insisted to know the name behind the face. It was the first time that the performer took precedence, for all intents and purposes, over the story, and this was the dawn of what would become The Star System.

Florence worked for IMP for a year, then at Lubin for a year, then created her own film company Victor (a part of the Universal Film Corporation), where whe worked on and off until 1914. The frenzied pace of her career, and a rapidly changing film industry, began to wear on Lawrence mentally and physically. In 1915, she injured her back badly in an on-set accident. The most popularly repeated accounts of the accident said Lawrence suffered severe burns after becoming trapped in a burning building and trying to help another actor during the filming of a scene. While there isn't a lot of evidence to support the idea that Lawrence experienced severe burns, the accident affected her health to the extent that she announced her retirement from films. After some time off, Lawrence returned to the screen for a feature film, Elusive Isabel (1916), and attempted another unsuccessful career comeback in the early 1920s. The woman who was once the toast of the film industry, was now relegated to occasional onscreen appearances, often in uncredited bit parts, throughout the 1920s and 1930s: MGM director Louis B. Mayer signed former silent film stars like Florence as members of a stock company of bit players, extras, walk-ons, and actors for other small parts. Working at MGM gave Lawrence a regular salary, but her days of star billing were over.

Three marriages added to glimmers of happiness, with larger doses of disappointment: Her first union, to actor/director Harry Solter, lasted from August 30, 1908 until their 1914 separation (Solter died in 1920). On May 12, 1921, Florence married automobile salesman Charles Byrne Woodring; they were divorced in 1930. In November 1933, she wed Henry Bolton. Five months later, Lawrence obtained a divorce from Bolton, after testifying that he beat her. As illness and unhappiness took their toll on the former star, she finally committed suicide by taking a lethal dose of ant paste combined with cough syrup, in her Beverly Hills home, on December 28, 1938. Florence Lawrence was only 52 years old. Without any funds set aside for final expenses, Pierce Brothers Funeral Home donated a service, and Hollywood Cemetery donated a plot, in Section 2W. For years, however, the plot remained unmarked: in 1991, a proper grave marker was donated by Roddy McDowell, touting the spot as the resting place of Florence Lawrence, "The Biograph Girl," The First Movie Star. A fitting and appropriate honor for a woman who should be better remembered than she is, in contemporary terms. Hers was a stardom that was so frenetic as to be pioneering; hers was a name that was the first to be demanded by movie patrons; hers was a legacy that paved the way for the visibility and name recognition of performers today; hers remains a body of work that deserves to be remembered, forever.