While many people would think that either Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin were the first “movie stars,” that title is usually reserved for a long-forgotten actress named Florence Lawrence. She made the first of her 38 films for Vitagraph in 1907 and then moved on to Biograph where she became a favorite of D.W. Griffith. In fact, in 1909, the year that Pickford joined Griffith’s ensemble, Lawrence made 65 films. In all, she appeared in nearly 300 films.
But Lawrence’s work was pretty much anonymous. Because the studios feared the power of a “star system,” actors’ names were not listed in film credits. Producers knew that once actors received on-screen credit, their salary demands would rise (they were right). But audiences still had their favorite movie performers, and Lawrence was one of the major favorites. She was so popular that she gained the nickname of “The Biograph Girl,” a title that Pickford would later inherit.
The Publicity Stunt
In 1910 Lawrence was lured away from Biograph by Carl Laemmle when he started his new Independent Motion Picture Company, known as IMP (he founded Universal in 1913). He wanted Lawrence to be his star attraction so he offered her more money ($250 per week) and marquee billing, something Biograph (or Griffith) was not about to do.
But Laemmle’s real brainchild was a publicity stunt that garnered national attention. After signing Lawrence, he screamed to the press, “My competitors will stop at nothing to ruin me. They’ve kidnapped poor Florence, perhaps even killed her!” For the next few weeks Americans followed the bizarre hysteria in the newspapers as several false reports of foul play were splashed in headlines, and one account actually had Florence killed by a New York City streetcar in an attempt to escape her captors. In an odd way, this stunt almost presaged the Pearl White serial craze of a few years later, especially The Perils of Pauline (1914).
Florence Lawrence, however, miraculously surfaced in St. Louis where she was mobbed by screaming fans, her clothes ripped off by hired stooges. Laemmle then bought huge ads in all the leading newspapers nationwide, stating that Lawrence was safe and sound and working for the IMP Company in a film called The Broken Oath (oddly called The Broken Bath in an IMP ad). Seemingly overnight, everyone knew her name. In fact the stunt was so successful, Lawrence attracted more people in St. Louis than President Taft did in his visit the week before.
And so Florence Lawrence gained a huge following. As the most famous actress in films, Lawrence starred in a series of highly profitable films for IMP and then moved to Lubin Studios in Philadelphia (a minor studio Marie Dressler also worked for) before starting her own production company in 1912, the Victor Film Company, which she sold to Laemmle when he founded Universal Pictures in 1913.
In 1914 Lawrence was still going strong (19 films), but hurt her back in a fall after a fire broke out on a set (some reports state she was also badly burned). She retired from films just as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, and Blanche Sweet were rising to star status. Indeed, Pickford succeeded Lawrence as IMP’s leading lady just as she had at Biograph.
In 1916, the 30-year-old Lawrence returned to films in a comeback attempt. She starred in 2 films, but they both flopped. In Elusive Isabel Lawrence was at the center of a spy plot. In The Singular Cynic, she was involved in a love triangle. She made only a few more films and retired in 1918. In 1922 she tried another comeback in The Enfoldment. The film flopped. After this failure, Lawrence appeared sporadically in small roles through the end of the silent era. She retired again in 1926 and returned yet again in 1930 and appeared in 8 talkies, usually in uncredited bit parts. Ironically, one of these last films was Secrets, which starred Mary Pickford.
Of the nearly 300 films Lawrence made, only some of the Biograph films and relatively few of her later silent films still exist. But Lawrence has another claim to fame.
According to Kelly R. Brown’s 1999 biography, Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl, she was an avid automobile driver at a time when very few people actually owned cars. In 1914 she invented the first turn signal, which she called an “auto signaling arm.” The arm attached to the back fender and when a driver pressed a button, it electrically raised or lowered, with a sign attached indicating the direction of the intended turn. Her brake signal worked on the same principle, an arm with a sign reading “stop” rose up whenever the driver pressed the brake pedal. This was the essential concept behind today’s brake lights. But unlucky Lawrence didn’t properly patent her inventions and soon other, more refined versions were invented and brought to market. With her mother, however, she did patent a system of electrical windshield wipers in 1917, but it made no money. By the time the first electrical turn signals became standard equipment on the 1939 Buick, her contributions were long forgotten and she was dead.
Sadly, Lawrence committed suicide in 1938 by consuming a mixture of cough syrup and ant paste. She was 52 years old and long forgotten by an industry she helped establish.