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The First Movie Star

Florence Lawrence, "The Biograph Girl," in 1905.

On this day in 1938, Florence Lawrence, the actress credited as the world’s first movie star, died by her own hand in a West Hollywood apartment.

Florence Annie Bridgwood was born in Canada in 1886. Her mother was a vaudevillian actress who used the name Lotta Lawrence on stage. Young Florence took on her mother’s professional surname after the death of her father when she was four.

Florence joined her mother on stage at an early age and the two eventually migrated to New York City when she was 20. It was there in 1906 that Lawrence got her first film role for Thomas Edison, being paid five-dollars a day for a two week shoot.

Florence, who rode horses as a girl, was able to garner steady work due to her beauty and equestrian skills. In 1908 she was offered a sizable raise (to $25 a week) to join Biograph Studios to work with director D.W. Griffith. She appeared in most of the 60 films that Griffith made for Biograph that year.

Lawrence became popular with fans, but no one knew her name as the studios feared (rightly, as it turned out) that if actors had their names listed in the credits, they would be able to demand greater salaries. During her time with Griffith, Lawrence was listed simply as “The Biograph Girl.”

By this time, Lawrence was married to actor Harry Solter. When the pair tried to move to Essanay Studios for higher pay, they were both fired from Biograph.

Carl Laemmle, the head of the IMP Film Company (and future founder of Universal Studios) hired Lawrence for a film. To promote the movie, Laemmle “disproved” a rumor (which he had created) that “The Biograph Girl” had been killed in a street car accident. He introduced Lawrence to the public by name in advertisements and public appearances. Soon the name Florence Lawrence was known to all at a time when no actors were known by name to the public. This single act created the “studio system” and proved producers fears correct when other actors then demanded their own names on the marquee, with higher salaries.

Lawrence left Laemmle in 1910 to form a separate studio called the Victor Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She made five hundred dollars a week as the company’s leading lady with Solter acting as director. The couple sold the studio in 1913 and “retired” to a 50-acre estate in New Jersey.

The retirement didn’t last long. In 1914, Lawrence was again in front of the cameras in a film for Universal called Pawns of Destiny when she was seriously burned in a studio fire. It took months for her to recover from her injuries which seriously depleted her finances as Universal refused to cover her medical bills. She never regained her star status.

Lawrence divorced Soltis a short time later and tried to regain her footing in films before suffering a relapse brought on by her injuries in 1916 that left her paralyzed for many months. Her health returned sufficiently for her to appear in bit parts, but her remaining fortunes were wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929.

Completely forgotten by the industry she helped create, the 52-year-old killed herself on this date in 1938 by swallowing ant paste.

Her humiliation continued after death when she was interred in an unmarked plot in what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall honored the forgotten star when he paid for a memorial. It reads, “The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.”

An interesting bit of trivia: Flo-Lo, who was once married to an automobile salesman, is also credited with inventing the first turn signal for cars, which she called an “auto signaling arm.” She never patented the device, which made fortunes for others.