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Who Was the First Movie Star?

By Oliva Harlow

The answer is Florence Annie Bridgwood—more commonly referred to as “Flo” Lawrence, or the “Biograph Girl.” Today, her name is one of the most recognizable in film history, but during most of her life spent in the limelight of fame, no one actually knew what to call her.

And like so many modern-day celebrities experience today, Florence’s fame was the cause of her ultimate demise.

Flo’s Background

Born in Ontario, Canada on January 2, 1886 to a professional vaudeville actress, Florence spent much of her childhood touring on the road and, of course, on stage. Her first appearance was in a song-and-dance routine titled “Baby Flo, The Child Wonder Whistler,” in which her biological ties instantly revealed a common love for theatre. Yet, as her face became well-known with age, her identity remained a mystery.

A Rising Star, Unknown

Florence played a lead role in nearly 250 silent films at the wake of American cinema, all of which went un-credited. She began her movie career with a role in a 1907 Edison Company film titled Daniel Boone/Pioneer Days in America, in which she played Daniel Boone’s daughter. Afterwards, things really took off. Following the film’s premiere, Flo appeared in nearly 40 movies for Vitagraph Studios, before being convinced to sign with Biograph Studios, on a $25-per-week salary contract. There, she was directed by renowned filmmaker D.W. Griffith, under whom she played a wide variety of roles—from Cleopatra to Shakespeare’s Juliet to a wild western cowgirl.

All the while, no one knew her name.

It’s true that during cinema’s first 15 years, no actors, directors, producers, or writers were given recognition on screen. Their names were never attributed. Their success was never indorsed. Even when eager fans begged for names of the iconic faces they had come to recognize on screen, the Edison Trust refused to release information—in fear that actors and actresses would then demand more money.

The Name Released

Eventually, Biograph fired Lawrence, after hearing that she had approached other film companies to offer her on-camera skills. But of course, she wasn’t unemployed for long. Independent Movie Pictures executive Carl Laemmle ended up signing Lawrence to his studio and used the leading actress as promotion for impressive business success.

Manipulatively, Laemmle planted a story in newspapers that claimed Lawrence had been struck and killed by a car, and then advertised a debunked version of the story called “We Nail a Lie,” which blamed rival studios for the deception. In the rebutted statement, Laemmle said that not only was Lawrence actually alive, but that she’d be starring in his next film.

To promote the upcoming movie further, Laemmle scheduled a public appearance in St. Louis, inviting fans to come and see the actress in-person. Fans fled from all corners of the country to catch a glimpse of the ever-famous Florence Lawrence—this time with a name attached to her celebrated face.

It was the beginning of stardom—not just for Flo, but for all other famous actors and actresses to follow. It was the birth of a “movie star” lifestyle.

A Dark Turn

Sadly, from there, it was a downward spiral for Ms. Lawrence. In 1915, she suffered serious injuries while filming a fire stunt, putting a temporary hold on her career. She was bed-ridden for months, and her marriage fell apart. Like so many movie stars today, Lawrence learned how quickly the celebrity spotlight can be extinguished.

By the time she recovered and was ready for a comeback, six years had passed and studios no longer recognized her name. Reluctantly, she agreed to appear anonymously on screen in sideline roles—a metaphor for many of her life’s surrounding aspects: Her second marriage failed when her husband left her for another woman. Her third marriage ended when her alcoholic husband abused her. And her health deteriorated, mentally and physically.

When she finally began starring in big-time films again and earning herself substantial income, she received news that she had developed an extremely rare and incurable bone marrow disease. Her career again dissolved, and she became weak and depressed.

Just three days after Christmas in 1938, Lawrence poisoned herself and died.

The Memory of “The First Movie Star”

While Florence’s story is a sad one, her name and memory lives boldly on. She’s remembered today as a revolutionary female—an individual who sought after her dreams at a point in history when women seldom pushed their limits. For years, her grave was blank, but in 1991 an unknown person marked what should have been written long ago across her memorial stone: “The First Movie Star.” It can be seen in the Hollywood cemetery.

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