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|Born||Florence Annie Bridgwood
January 2, 1886
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
|Died||December 28, 1938
West Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood|
|Other names||The First Movie Star, Biograph Girl, The Imp Girl|
|Spouse(s)||Harry Solter (1908–1920)
Charles Woodring (1921–1932)
Henry Bolton (1933–1934)
|Parents||George and Charlotte A. Bridgwood|
Florence Lawrence (January 2, 1886 – December 28, 1938) was a Canadian silent film actress. She is often referred to as "The First Movie Star." When she was popular, she was known as "The Biograph Girl", "The Imp Girl", and "The Girl of a Thousand Faces". She appeared in almost 300 films for various motion picture companies.
Born Florence Annie Bridgwood in Hamilton, Ontario, she was the child of Charlotte A. Bridgwood, a vaudeville actress known professionally as Lotta Lawrence, who was the leading lady and director of the Lawrence Dramatic Company. Her father was the English-born George Bridgwood (died 1898, Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario, Canada). Her surname was changed at age four to her mother's stage name. After her father's death, Florence, her mother and two older brothers moved from Hamilton, Ontario to Buffalo, New York. After graduating from school, she joined her mother's dramatic company. However, the company disbanded after a series of disputes made it impossible for the members to continue working together. She and her mother moved to New York City around 1906.
Early Career: Film and Broadway
She was one of several Canadian pioneers in the film industry who were attracted by the rapid growth of the fledgling motion picture business. In 1906, she appeared in her first motion picture. The next year, she appeared in 38 movies for the Vitagraph film company. During the spring and summer of 1906, Lawrence auditioned for a number of Broadway productions, with no success. However, on December 27, 1906, she was hired by the Edison Manufacturing Company to play Daniel Boone's daughter in Daniel Boone; or, Pioneer days in America. She got the part because she knew how to ride a horse. Both she and her mother received parts, and were paid five dollars a day for two weeks of outdoor filming in freezing weather.
In 1907 she went to work for the Vitagraph Company in Brooklyn, New York acting as Moya, an Irish peasant girl in a one-reel version of Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun. She returned briefly to stage acting, playing the leading role in a road show production of Melville B. Raymond's Seminary Girls. Her mother played her last role in this production. After touring with the road show for a year, Lawrence resolved that she would "never again lead that gypsy life". In 1908 she returned to Vitagraph where she played the lead role in The Dispatch Beare. Largely as a result of her equestrian skills, she received parts in eleven films in the next five months.
Also at Vitagraph was a young actor, Harry Solter, who was looking for 'a young, beautiful equestrian girl' to star in a film to be produced by the Biograph Studios under the direction of D.W. Griffith. Griffith, the head of Biograph Studios, had noticed the beautiful blonde-haired woman in one of Vitagraph's films. Because the film's actors received no mention, Griffith had to make discreet enquiries to learn she was Florence Lawrence and to arrange a meeting. Griffith had intended to give the part to Biograph's leading lady, Florence Turner, but Lawrence managed to convince Solter and Griffith that she was the best suited for the starring role in The Girl and the Outlaw. With the Vitagraph Company, she had been earning $20 a week, working also as a costume seamstress over and above acting. Griffith offered her a job, acting only, for $25 a week.
After her success in this role, she appeared as a society belle in Betrayed by a Handprint and as an Indian in The Red Girl. In total, she had parts in most of the 60 films directed by Griffith in 1908. Toward the end of 1908 Lawrence married Harry Solter. Lawrence gained much popularity, but because her name was never publicized, fans began writing the studio asking for it. Even when her face had gained wide recognition, particularly after starring in the highly successful Resurrection, Biograph Studios simply labeled her as "The Biograph Girl". During cinema's formative years, silent screen actors were not named, because studio owners feared that fame might lead to demands for higher wages. She continued to work for Biograph in 1909. Her demand to be paid by the week rather than daily was met, and she received double the normal rate.
She achieved great popularity in the "Jones" series, filmdom's first comedy series, in which she played Mrs. Jones in around a dozen films. More popular still were the dramatic love stories in which she co-starred with Arthur Johnson. The two played husband and wife in The Ingrate, and the adulterous lovers in Resurrection. Lawrence and Solter began to look elsewhere for work, writing to the Essanay Company to offer their services as leading lady and director. Rather than accepting this offer, however, Essanay reported the offer to Biograph's head office, and they were promptly fired.
Independent Moving Pictures Company
Finding themselves "at liberty," Lawrence and Solter in 1909 were able to join the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America (IMP). The company, founded by Carl Laemmle, the owner of a film exchange (who later absorbed IMP into Universal Pictures, which he also founded and was president of), was looking for experienced filmmakers and actors. Needing a star, he lured Lawrence away from Biograph by promising to give her a marquee. First, Laemmle organized a publicity stunt by starting a rumor that Lawrence had been killed by a street car in New York City. Then, after gaining much media attention, he placed ads in the newspapers that announced, "We nail a lie", and included a photo of Lawrence. The ad declared she is alive and well and making The Broken Oath, a new movie for his IMP Film Company to be directed by Solter.
Laemmle had Lawrence make a personal appearance in St. Louis, Missouri in March 1910 with her leading man to show her fans that she was very much alive, making her one of the first performers not already famous in another medium to be identified by name by her studio.
Laemmle whipped up attention by falsely claiming that Lawrence's St. Louis fans were so excited to learn that she had not died that they rushed her in a frenzy and tore her clothes off. Partially due to Laemmle's ingenuity, the "star system" was born and before long, Florence Lawrence became a household name. However, her fame also proved that the studio executives who had concerns over wage demands soon had their fears proved correct. Laemmle managed to lure William Ranous, one of Vitagraph's best directors, over to IMP. Ranous introduced Laemmle to Lawrence and Solter, and they began to work together. Lawrence and Solter worked for IMP for eleven months, making fifty films. After this, they went on vacation in Europe.
When they returned to the United States, they joined a film company headed by Siegmund Lubin, described as the "wisest and most democratic film producer in history". She once again teamed with Arthur Johnson, and the pair made 48 films together under Lubin's direction. At the time, the film industry was controlled by the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), a trust formed by the major film companies. IMP was not a member of the MPPC, and hence operated outside its distribution system. Theaters found showing IMP films lost the right to screen MPPC films. IMP, therefore, had powerful enemies in the film industry. It managed to survive largely due to Lawrence's popularity.
Victor Film Company
In 1912, Lawrence and Solter made a deal with Carl Laemmle, forming their own company. Laemmle gave them complete artistic freedom in the company, called Victor Film Company, and paid Lawrence five hundred dollars a week as the leading lady, and Solter two hundred dollars a week as director. They established a film studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and made a number of films starring Lawrence and Owen Moore before selling out to the new Universal Pictures in 1913. With this new prosperity, Florence was able to realize a 'lifelong dream,' buying a 50-acre (20 ha) estate in River Vale, New Jersey. In August 1912, she had a fight with her husband, in which he "made cruel remarks about his mother-in-law". He left and went to Europe. However, he wrote "sad" letters to her every day, telling her of his plans to commit suicide. His letters "softened her feelings" and they were re-united in November 1912. Lawrence announced her intention to retire.
She was persuaded to return to work in 1914 for her company (Victor Film Company), which had been acquired by Universal Studios. During the filming of Pawns of Destiny, a staged fire got out of control. Lawrence was burned, her hair singed, and suffered a serious fall. She went into shock for months. She returned to work, but collapsed after the film was completed. Blaming Solter for making her do the stunt in which she was injured, the two divorced. To add to her problems, Universal refused to pay her medical expenses, leaving Lawrence feeling betrayed. In mid-1916, she returned to work for Universal and completed another feature film, Elusive Isabel. However, the strain of working took its toll on her and she suffered a serious relapse. She was completely paralyzed for four months. In 1921, she traveled to Hollywood to attempt a comeback, but had little success. She received a leading role in a minor melodrama (The Unfoldment), and then two supporting roles. All her film work after 1924 would be in uncredited bit parts.
She married automobile salesman Charles Byrne Woodring, but they divorced in 1931. During the 1920s Florence and Charles Woodring began to manufacture a line of cosmetics, which they continued in partnership after their divorce. In 1933 she wed for the third and final time, to Henry Bolton, who turned out to be abusive and beat Lawrence severely. The union lasted five months.
Last years and death
When Lawrence's mother died in 1929, she had an expensive bust sculpted for her mother's tomb. By then, demand for her in films had long since disappeared. The stock market crash and ensuing economic depression saw her fortune decline but she did return to the screen in 1936, when MGM began giving small parts to old stars for USD $75 weekly. Alone, discouraged, and suffering with chronic pain from myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow disease, she was found unconscious in bed in her West Hollywood apartment on December 27, 1938 after she had ingested ant paste. She was rushed to a hospital but died a few hours later, aged 52.
Just nine years after she had paid for an expensive memorial for her mother, Lawrence was interred in an unmarked grave 1,000 feet from her mother in the Hollywood Cemetery, which is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Hollywood, California. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall, serving on the National Film Preservation Board, paid for a memorial marker for Lawrence which reads: "The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star", although the year of birth is inaccurate.
- In William J. Mann's novel The Biograph Girl (2000), Mann posits the question, "What if Florence Lawrence didn't die in 1938 from eating ant poison, but is 106 and living in a nursing home in Buffalo, New York?"
The novel faithfully covers Lawrence's life up to 1938, but takes it beyond her "supposed" suicide.[clarification needed]
- A biography by Kelly R. Brown entitled Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star, was published in 1999.
Florence Lawrence was married three times. All three unions were childless and ended in divorce.
- Harry Solter (1908–1914)
- Charles Woodring (May 12, 1921 – 1931)
- Henry Bolton (1932–1932)
- Menefee, David. Sweet Memories (Menefee Publishing Inc., 2012); ISBN 1-4699-6695-6
- Brown, Kelly R., Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star (1991); ISBN 0-7864-0627-5.
- Dictionary of Hamilton Biography (Vol III, 1925–1939): Thomas Melville Bailey (W.L. Griffin Ltd), 1992; pp. 106–108
- Born 1886 as per this biodata
- Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner of Vitagraph were both publicized by name by their studios to the general public in March 1910, making them the first true "movie stars". Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, University of California Press, 1994, pp. 112–13; ISBN 978-0-520-08534-3.
- "Q&A". Pascack Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-02-14. "Florence Lawrence ... lived at 565 Rivervale Road in River Vale from 1913 through 1916. (the house is still there)"[dead link]
- Record of Charles B. Woodring, in 1920 U.S. Census, State of Colorado, County of Denver, enumeration district 253, p. 2A, family 43.
- "Ex-Film Star Gets Decree: Florence Lawrence Obtains Divorce for Desertion", The New York Times, February 12, 1931, p. 29.
- "Divorced Pair to Continue as Partners", Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1931, p. A1.
- "Florence Lawrence, Once Film Star, Gets Divorce", Chicago Tribune, April 10, 1934, p. 4.
- Florence Lawrence profile at Find-a-Grave (wrong year of birth)