Friday, November 8, 2013
FORGOTTEN ONES: FLORENCE LAWRENCE
Florence 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 in 1886, 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.
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, at age 20, 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. 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 (200,000 m2) 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.
Lawrence was induced to return to work in 1914 for her company (Victor Film Company), which was later 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 she suffered a serious fall. She went into shock for months. She returned to work, but collapsed after the film's completion. Blaming Solter for making her do the stunt in which she was injured, the two were divorced. To add to her problems, Universal refused to pay her medical expenses, leaving Lawrence to feel betrayed.
In the spring of 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. By the time she returned to the screen in 1921, few people remembered her. In 1921 she traveled to Hollywood to attempt a comeback. However, she had little success, and received a leading role in a minor melodrama (The Unfoldment), and then two supporting roles. All of her screen work after 1924 would be in uncredited bit parts. During the 1920s she and her husband Charles began to manufacture a line of cosmetics, which they continued in partnership after their divorce.
Although only 29 years old, she never regained her stature as a leading film star after taking time off to recover from her injuries. The following year she married automobile salesman Charles Byrne Woodring, but they were divorced in 1931. In 1933 she got married for the third time to Henry Bolton, who turned out to be abusive and beat Lawrence severely. The union lasted only five months.
When Lawrence's mother died in 1929, she had an expensive bust sculpted for her mother's tomb. By then, in her mid-forties, demand for her in films had long since disappeared and the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression saw Lawrence's fortune decline. She returned to the screen in 1936, when MGM began giving small parts to old stars for seventy-five dollars a week. 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.
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. She remained forgotten until 1991, when actor Roddy McDowall, serving on the National Film Preservation Board, paid for a memorial marker that reads: "The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star...