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Florence La Badie (April 27, 1888 – October 13, 1917) was an American actress in the early days of the silent film era. Though little known today, she was a major star between 1911 and 1917. Her career was at its height when she died at age 29 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
FLORENCE LA BADIE - THE GIRL ON THE COVER
She sits demurely posed on a rock, one black-stockinged toe carefully dipped into the water. Behind her, in the background, ocean and sky stretch out peacefully toward the endless horizon. But the year is 1914, the month is August, and the peaceful aura is illusory. Beyond the horizon lies Europe, where the first shots of the Great War are being fired. The carnage would last for another four years, ending forever the Age of Innocence.
The exquisite young woman so calmly oblivious to the guns of August would not live to see the war's end, like millions closer to the front. Florence La Badie, heroine of The Million Dollar Mystery, lived for six weeks after her automobile overturned and pinned her in the wreckage, suffering the slow agony of blood poisoning in a pre-antibiotic era. Florence died early on the afternoon of October 13, 1917.
Seventy-five years after her death, Florence La Badie is only one shadowy name among many others for most silent-film admirers. But she can still captivate viewers in the handful of her films that survive. Photographs testify to the haunting beauty that inspired Edward Wagenknecht's heartfelt tribute in his wonderful The Movies In The Age Of Innocence. Evidence of her unique allure abounds in fan and trade magazines from the teens. Other actresses were more highly praised for dramatic prowess or comedic flair, but for fans and journalists alike, Florence was the essence of exquisite femininity.
Was Florence nothing but a dainty Victorian doll? Hardly! Time and again, the languid beauty who turned heads at film exhibitors' balls was described as a daredevil, a young woman of the new century who sought out thrills on land, sea, and air -- and on the dance floor! Photoplay, Moving Picture Magazine, and Moving Picture World are sources to be used with care, since studio publicists were already expert at molding the reality of star personalities to public expectations by the second decade of the twentieth century. But there's a unanimity to these tales of Florence's thrill-seeking bent that lends them credibility.
Little remains of her filmic legacy, but those remnants reveal an energetic and endearing figure forever alive in unfailing patterns of light and shadow. The person behind the screen persona inevitably remains more elusive, though she hasn't been entirely lost to us. What follows is only the first step in exploring Florence's regrettably brief existence on-screen and off, and reviving her memory for those who may care.
WHO WAS FLORENCE?
The outlines of Florence's film career can be sketched quickly. After playing in a handful of 1911 Biograph one-reelers, often under the direction of D. W. Griffith, she moved to the Thanhouser company in the late summer of 1911. While the film industry expanded inexorably and her colleagues flew from company to company in pursuit of exponentially escalating financial rewards, Florence remained with Thanhouser until her death. During those six years at Thanhouser, she grew along with the medium, appearing in over a hundred one- and two-reel films from 1911 to 1915, usually in starring or leading roles, then graduating to five- and six-reel starring vehicles in 1916 and 1917. By 1917, she was unquestionably THE Thanhouser star -- though the company itself, overshadowed by aggressive newcomers like Zukor and Selznick, was no longer an industry leader.
Florence herself could accurately be characterized as a leading star of the second magnitude, one who was outshone by contemporaries like Mary Pickford, Pearl White, Clara Kimball Young, and Alice Joyce, but whose name, face, and and delightful presence drew thousands into theaters throughout America and beyond.
A tangible Florence emerges from tidbits gleaned from film magazines of her day. She was 5-4 and 125 pounds, with light brown hair and bluish-gray eyes. She loved swimming, horse-back riding, and driving fast cars and boats. Despite these vigorous pastimes, her manner was quiet and her face serene -- at least when magazine interviewers came to call! Her heritage was French-Canadian, though it's still unclear just where she was born (Montreal or New York) or when. Her death certificate specifies a birthdate of April 27, 1888 in New York City, five years earlier than the 1893 usually given in Photoplay or Moving Picture Magazine answer columns. Did our young actress -- or her parents, or studio -- knock off those five years to make herself seem even younger? Quite possibly -- but the New York Municipal Archives has no record of her birth in 1888, or 1893 for that matter. [1998 addendum -- As it turns out, Florence's origins were not what they seemed. Her birth certificate was not available because it had been placed in a sealed adoption file in 1891. She was actually born Florence Russ on April 27, 1888; her birth mother Marie C. Russ attested to the relationship on October 8, 1917 when her daughter was dying. The adoption by Amanda and Joseph LaBadie took place on November 4, 1891. Why did Marie Russ give up her child? It's easy to infer that she was a single mother pressured by a "respectable" family. Florence was 3-1/2 years old when she was adopted; what memories did she retain of her first family?]
There's no comparable doubt when or why Florence died. The death certificate speaks succinctly of "septicemia [blood-poisoning] due to compound fracture of the pelvis as result of accident." She lingered from August until October before being released from what could only have been a pain-filled, semi-conscious shadow of her former vigorous life. Florence was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn on October 17, 1917. There is, strangely, no evidence or record at the cemetery of any grave marker or memorial.
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