For the first interview in this series, it is very fitting that we will be looking toward the very first “movie star”, Florence Lawrence! I say “very first”, because she really was, the very first named movie star!
“What?” you ask. “Does this mean that people didn’t have names back then?” The answer is, no, not really. I’m talking about the movies, silly! Of course people had names, but the public did not know the names of movie stars. The motion picture, in the beginning, was all about the stories. It was all about the play on the screen.
It took a few years for movies to have narrative storytelling. Before that, people were watching very short clips, maybe a few minutes long, of burlesque dancing girls, strong men, or the ever-popular magic trick. That all changed in 1903, when The Great Train Robbery came into existence. Directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company, this short film is deemed the first in narrative storytelling. It still holds up, 113 years later, too, because it’s, you guessed it, a western! Although I’m not huge on westerns, I like this one, because the filming gives you the feel that you’re really there watching the events unfold in front of you.
What does this have to do with our star, Florence Lawrence? I’m getting there. Films were the alternate to the stage play, with all the big names of stars. Names that we still recognize to this day, one in particular, Sarah Bernhardt, who was already old by the time she starred in a handful of pictures. If you think of it, her name has lasted far beyond what it should have. I mean, she was born in 1844, and died in 1924. There’s no way for us to understand why she was so popular, from a modern standpoint, because no one alive has seen her perform, except the small snippets that exist on film, and at that point she was already pushing 70. Yet, we still use her as an example of a prima-donna, or an over-actor.
Now, these stage plays stars were pretty popular, and with popularity brings the inevitable, “If I’m so popular, and bring in so much money, I should be paid more.” People always wanted to know who it was that they were watching on the screen. The film companies hesitated, fighting as hard as they could to keep the names of the players a secret, for as soon as their names got out, they would be demanding a much larger salary, which many didn’t want to cough up.
Florence Lawrence was first with the Edison Company. Soon she was with Vitagraph, which lead to Biograph with the promise of a $25 a week salary. Florence Lawrence had been starring in many film shorts, and had become extremely popular. Even amidst thousands of queries from the public who wanted so badly to know who the players were, Biograph refused to give out her name. Because of this refusal to reveal the name of this leading lady, Florence Lawrence was referred to as The Biograph Girl. In 1909, she was fired for looking for work elsewhere. She went to work for Carl Laemmle (whose niece happened to be Carla Laemmle, who was born in 1909 and died in 2014. She had been the last surviving member of the cast of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. She had an uncredited role of a ballet dancer), who headed the independent film company Imp. In order to shake up the movie industry, Laemmle published a faked news article in the paper that she had been killed by a streetcar. He then created an advertisement that debunked the whole thing, entitled We Nail A Lie blaming other companies for the ‘scandal’. He then had Florence Lawrence make public appearances to show that she was, in fact, not dead, and to publicize her upcoming film.
Finally, a picture-player had a name. She became the first movie star.
Florence Lawrence made a little over 4 dozen films for Imp, before leaving in 1910 to go to the Lubin Manufacturing Company, which is where we find her during today’s featured interview. It is from The Motion Picture Story Magazine December 1911, and was the first Chats with the Players segment ever. She was 21 years old when the interview was conducted.
Chats with the Players
MISS FLORENCE A. LAWRENCE, OF THE LUBIN CO.
When the editor decided to inaugurate the Chats with Players, and I received my first assignment for the new department, I felt that it was fortunate. For who that had seen Miss Lawrence’s acting would not be delighted with the thought of interviewing her?
When you were a child, did you ever dream that the figures in your favorite pictures upon the nursery walls came down out of their frames and talked and played with you? If you did, you will understand the unreal, dreamlike sensation that I felt when Miss Lawrence, in her own pretty sitting room in the Philadelphia hotel where she lives, came forward, with gracious words of welcome, to greet me. For Miss Lawrence off the stage is exactly like Miss Lawrence upon the stage—the same charmingly expressive face, the same dainty, natural, yet finished, manner. It was as if The Little Rebel or The Hoiden had suddenly stepped off the screen and begun to converse with me in a musical, clear-toned voice.
“I have a long list of questions that I am directed to ask you. I hope you wont mind,” I said, hesitatingly.
“I have not promised to answer them all, but you may ask them all,” she smiled. So I asked them all, and she answered most of them, directly and concisely, with an occasional witty comment which made the task a pleasure.
According to these answers, Florence A. Lawrence, known to her inmates as “Flo”, was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, of Irish and English parents. Just when this event took place was not stated, but I am convinced that it could not have been very long ago. She was educated at the Loretta Academy in Toronto. Her stage work began with baby parts when she was three years old. Then she played Little Lord Fauntleroy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ten Nights in a Barroom, Rob Roy; toured the West as leading lady in the Lawrence Dramatic Company, and finally, three years ago, turned her attention to Motion Pictures, in which she has played innumerable parts with the Edison, Vitagraph, Biograph, Imp, and Lubin companies.
“Dont you miss the glare of the footlights and the applauding audiences?” I questioned.
“No,” she replied. “I am quite contented without those features. I love to go into a Photoshow and sit unknown, among the audience, watching the effect that my pictured acting has upon them; but I do that as a study rather than as a gratification to my feelings, tho, of course, I am pleased when I see that they like my efforts. I enjoy all my work when I am in the right mood, but it’s hard to act tragedy when one feels like comedy, or vice versa—and I always dislike rehearsing.”
“Do you ever go to the picture houses and appear before the audiences?”
Miss Lawrence’s height is only five feet four, and her weight only one hundred and eighteen poumds, but the look that she gave me at this question shriveled me (altho I am many sizes larger) into a mere pigmy beside her.
“Emphatically, no,” she said. I changed the subject, hastily, to that of her favorite sports and pastimes, and she smiled again.
“I love the country,” she declared with enthusiasm; “the seaside, the mountain, the farm are equally dear to me. I enjoy walking and swimming, and I adore a baseball game. Automobiling is delightful, especially in the country. Once the report spread abroad that I had been killed in an auto accident and I was compelled to go to St. Louis to prove myself alive.”
“And your spare time in town? Or dont you have any?”
“Yes. Some days I do not pose at all; other days the work continues into the wee sma’ hours. I do not care for social functions, and in leisure time enjoy the opera, the regular drama, or the Photoplay. I delight in reading the old writers, especially Lytton and Thackeray,—I also like needlework.”
An inquiry about politics brought out the fact that Miss Lawrence is a Suffragette. She doesn’t look the part, according to my ideas, but I forebore argument. She also confessed to a love for beautiful clothes, to a very sensitive disposition and to an abhorrence for anything bordering upon vulgarity, and she does look the part in these particulars.
Finally, to my great pleasure, she spoke most kindly of The Motion Picture Story Magazine.
“I enjoy all its contents,” she told me; “it is extremely interesting and tends to elevate the Photoplay.”
So I left her, and I stepped out of her presence the dreamlike illusion came back, as if, for a delightful half hour, I had talked with a dainty pictured lady, who had stepped back into her frame again.
Here is the link to the December 1911 Edition of The Motion Picture Story Magazine.