Actors in the earliest movies are unnamed and uncredited
In the early 1900s, the concept of “movie stardom” did not exist. The movies were not yet a respectable option for actors and could not compete with vaudeville as entertainment. Most of the films were one-reelers, lasting less than 15 minutes. Entrance fees were generally a nickel, the “nickelodeon” was often a small room with a sheet nailed to the wall, and the smells of so many people cramped in a small space could at times be overpowering. The audiences did not come to see a particular actor, as there were no screen credits and no mention of actors’ names in the newspapers. They came for the novelty of the thing.
The various movie companies that sprung up to provide content for this new form of entertainment resisted making stars out of its actors. They had the example of vaudeville, in which the most well-known performers were shockingly paid. Eva Tanguay, who sang outrageous songs such as “I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me” and “Go As Far As You Like,” was making $3500 per week in 1910. Obviously the studios, newly formed and barely profitable, couldn’t afford that. So the actors remained unnamed and uncredited.
The “Biograph Girl”
The most popular movie studio at the time, Biograph, had one particular young woman who kept showing up in its one-reelers. She was short and cute, and she could ride a horse. The people in the audience didn’t know her name, but that didn’t stop many of them from sending fan letters to the studio. Many different names were attached to the young girl, but the most popular name was also the simplest: the “Biograph Girl.”
The actual name of the Biograph Girl was perfect for movie stardom: Florence Lawrence. But Biograph had no intention of publicizing her name. In 1908, she was making $25 a week, equivalent to approximately $600 – $700 dollars per week today.
Florence’s collaboration with D.W. Griffith: “You can see her thinking.”
In 1908, the driving force at Biograph was D.W. Griffith. In 7 years, he would direct his masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. At Biograph, he was honing the techniques that he would later use to make Nation. Florence was progressing also, from his direction but also from her own self-study of other movies and other actors, especially French actors. Her short stature and cute face disguised a fierce ambition. Her acting was evolving from the histrionic style of acting to a more natural type of acting.
Their greatest film together, Resurrection, was released in May, 1909. An adaptation of Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection told the story of a young, poor woman who succumbed willingly to a lecherous prince, paid a high price, and yet still managed to keep her dignity and self-respect. The focus of the entire film was on Florence, and she displayed acting abilities that had rarely been seen in American cinema. The histrionics were gone, and she displayed a quiet, heartbreaking confidence. A reviewer for Moving Picture World wrote “we do not know the lady’s name, but certainly she seems to us to have a very fine command of her emotions and to be able to express these emotions before such an emotional thing as a camera . . . a genius.” An audience member of a later movie more succinctly summarized Florence’s appeal: “You can see [her] thinking.”
This was new. In vaudeville or in traditional staged plays, the players were larger than life, elevated above the audience and directing their voice and actions towards the back of the hall. But the movies allowed an intimacy between audience and performer, an intimacy that had not even been imagined a few short years ago.
The Trust is formed, and Florence Lawrence is fired.
In 1909, Vitagraph and Edison Studios, along with 7 other movie companies, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, otherwise known as the Trust. Later, Biograph joined the Trust. The purpose of the Trust was to share the patents on Edison’s moving picture equipment (and to keep the patents from other movie companies that were not a part of the Trust), but one consequence of the Trust was that actors were tied to their particular studio. One studio would not raid the actors from another studio, which was another effective method of keeping salaries low.
Around this time, Florence married Harry Soulter, an assistant to D.W. Griffith. Harry had ambitions of his own, and Florence went along with his plans. Harry approached another studio and offered himself and Florence as a package—he would direct and she would star. Word of Soulter’s plan got back to Biograph, and Florence and Harry were both fired.
The Biograph Girl is dead, and Florence Lawrence becomes a star.
The Trust was comprised of ten movie companies, but there were others. The industry was too new to be easily controlled. International Moving Pictures, or IMP, was a studio based in Chicago and not aligned with the Trust. Carl Laemmle, its upstart owner (and future founder of Universal Studios), hired Florence and Harry in late 1909.
After hiring Florence, Laemmle then did something revolutionary – he used Florence Lawrence’s name in an advertisement to movie distributors, informing them that the Biograph Girl was now an IMP girl. Still, the use of Florence’s name in an advertisement did little to enhance her fame. Most fans who knew her as the Biograph Girl did not see the advertisement.
Soon after, the rumors started: the Biograph Girl was dead. She had been killed in a streetcar accident while filming a movie.
My theory about these “death rumors” and their origins is in this blog post:
Eventually, the rumors gained enough credence to be repeated in Billboard magazine, which used her name and explained that the Biograph Girl was actually alive and well and making pictures for IMP. And Carl Laemmle would prove it—he would let the fans meet Florence for themselves. He arranged for Florence and King Baggot, her co-star, to make personal appearances in St. Louis, the hometown of King.
Florence Lawrence arrives in St. Louis and becomes America’s first movie star
A few minutes after 5:00 p.m. on March 25, 1910, a date that could reasonably be called the birth of movie stardom, Florence’s train pulled into the station in St. Louis. As the train was slowing down, Florence looked out the window and was astonished to see hundreds of people on the platform, jostling for position and scanning the windows. Occasionally someone would recognize her, and the change in the person’s face was remarkable, the anxiety immediately replaced with a look of adulation and joy. Florence would wave shyly. On rare occasions she had been recognized on the streets, but this was different; these people had come expressly to the station for the hopes of seeing her. She became aware of a change inside the train car, as her fellow passengers started to look her way and tried to figure out who she was and why all these people were so anxious to see her. King Baggot, who was with her on the train, patted her on the knee. She laughed and shook her head, as if to say “Can you believe this?”
At the train station, Florence was met by Carl Laemmle and other dignitaries. The crowd pushed in on them, many of them shouting in an attempt to get a moment of Florence’s attention. Buttons were torn from her clothes. As she was led into a car, the crowd surrounded the car to get a final glimpse. It took several minutes for the car to make its way through the crowd.
The next day, newspapers in St. Louis reported on her reception at the train station. Publishing a variety of stills from her movies, they called her the Girl of a Thousand Faces. They also called her by her name. No longer just the Biograph Girl or the IMP girl, she was Florence Lawrence and she was a movie star.