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Following the time-honored example of the fairy-tales, studio publicists have often supplied their stars with radically embellished genealogies (nobody would have laughed harder than Mabel Normand to learn that she was the offspring of "one of the leading families of Massachusetts," as claimed by an early Photoplay!). So it's difficult to judge whether Florence's lofty familial legacy owes more to the historical record or to the imagination of Thanhouser PR wizard Leon Rubinstein.
As the story goes, her father Joseph La Badie was the scion of a French-Canadian family renowned in Montreal for both commercial and political accomplishments. Even so, Amanda Victor La Badie could have justifiably felt she had married beneath her station since she was the descendant of French nobility, both of the Napoleonic and pre-Revolutionary ilk! Of course, eminent families may fall on hard times. So even if the La Badie-Victor heritage was authentic, grocery money may have been hard to come by in turn of the century New York.
But why New York? The LaBadies wouldn't have been the first Canadian family to seek their fortune by trekking down the Hudson. After all, Mrs. Mary Smith of Toronto brought her talented daughter Gladys to New York, dramatic capital of the Western Hemisphere, in pursuit of stage stardom -- and reaped success beyond her wildest dreams when Gladys became Mary Pickford. Florence's family may have pursued the same dream when it became clear that their only child was a girl beautiful and gifted above the norm.
Sheer speculation -- as noted, Florence may actually have been born in New York [She was; see 1998 addendum above]. But Florence does seem to have been a child of two cities, returning to familial roots in Montreal for religious education at Villa Maria, then back to New York for study in the public school system that was undoubtedly both more secular and livelier than convent tutelage -- certainly Florence claimed that she preferred the New York high school.
We don't know whether she graduated from high school or if she had any interest in higher education. Laudatory fan magazine profiles insisted that Florence was fluent in several languages; it's certainly plausible that she was bilingual in English and French. But nothing in these articles arouses more skepticism than the pious contention that she was a devoted reader of Dickens, Thackeray, and Bulwer-Lytton. How could the busy actress have perused their bulky tomes amidst leisure time devoted to automotive daredeviltry and dance-floor exploits? Her choice of a fiancee, as we'll see later, hints that Florence's taste in fiction may have been as daring as her other recreations. Few young women attended college at the turn of the century. It's unlikely that Florence, by her mid-teens already a model sought after by prominent illustrators such as Penhryn Stanlaws and Harrison Fisher, aspired to be one of them.
There's no evidence to suggest that Florence trod the boards as a child as did contemporaries Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. She did claim, according to several magazine reports, that her good friend Mary Pickford was responsible for introducing her to Biograph. If the girls were acquainted, where else but onstage, backstage, or between stages could Florence and Mary have cultivated that friendship?
Thanks to a "Where-were-they-then?" feature from a 1914 Motion Picture Magazine, we do know that Florence was a theatrical professional as early as October 6, 1908. Attired as one of the little fairies in Chauncey Olcott's Ragged Robin, she was scampering about the stage of the Lexington, Kentucky Opera House that long-ago evening. The Smith/Pickfords could have encountered Florence as part of this or a similar Olcott tour -- the kind of 40-week marathon, by the way, that caused Florence to explain a few years later why she was so ready to give up the stage for the more artistically dubious but less itinerant (though not necessarily safer) moving-picture profession photoplayer, she was also a confirmed New York City girl, living with her parents in a comfortable apartment located on the then-fashionable Riverside area. Was she also the chief breadwinner for a family with pretensions to gentility but few economic resources?
A January 1913 Motion Picture Magazine "Chat" convincingly presents her as the center of the family circle; her position may have been due to reasons economic as much as emotional. Both parents remain shadowy figures and it's unlikely that Florence's mother influenced her as decisively as Mrs. Pickford and Mrs. Talmadge did their daughters. But, when her fatal accident occurred in 1917, Florence was reportedly still living with her mother at the St. Andrew's Hotel on respectable upper Broadway. Her father, though listed as a survivor on the death certificate, apparently wasn't in residence.
VENUS AND MADONNA
By 1912, Florence was well-established with the Thanhouser Company. Commuting to the New Rochelle studio daily from her Manhattan home, she appeared in at least 30 films that year, sometimes starring, sometimes playing a leading role in support of colleagues like James Cruze and Marguerite Snow. As did most early film companies, Thanhouser carried on the traditions of the theatrical stock companies from which many of the players had sprung. Founder Edwin Thanhouser had originally made his mark as the impresario of a regional stock company in Milwaukee, and he had strong reservations about the star system. But certain players, through skill, attractiveness, or some mysterious charisma , stood out from the rest of the company. Plot, photography, direction -- viewers and exhibitors alike valued these components of film production. But by 1912, it was the fascinating male or female screen persona, the STAR, that was coming to overshadow all else in the eyes of the audience. For Thanhouser, Florence was one of a half dozen leading players. For many in the audience, she was a star, the reason they'd plunked down their money at the box office.
She displayed the versatility characteristic of many early film stars. As Thanhouser's resident glamor girl, she filled 1912 roles such as Miss Robinson Crusoe and Undine that required daringly skimpy costumes, and played the sexy siren Venus in 1913's Tannhauser. Edward Wagenknecht has testified to the impact made on his 12-year-old psyche by the bare-legged Florence in Miss Robinson Crusoe. Yet, aside from it and Undine, the only other La Badie film he mentioned by name in ...Age of Innocence was The Star Of Bethlehem, a production appealing, at least theoretically, to much different emotions! In this Christmas film, Florence essayed an ethereally lovely but, of course, fully-clothed Madonna. Between these two extremes lay dozens of roles, comedic, dramatic, alluring, reverent, fantastic, and realistic. Like any actress, Florence had her hits and misses, and she may have winced at the misses more than she relished the hits. If the January 1913 Motion Picture Magazine can be believed, Florence often viewed her work: "I sit with my hands clenched and watch myself, seeing where I might have done better and longing to walk into the picture again and improve my acting." Those skeptical of her conscientiousness should remember that only a 15-30 minute investment was necessary for stars to review their work in the days of one- and two-reelers.
Early film critics gallantly tossed bouquets to their favorites, but they didn't hesitate to throw bricks when appropriate. Louis Reeves Harrison of the trade journal Moving Picture World was a literate representative of the genteel tradition who applied his high standards to the photoplays that most cultured folks held in contempt. Judging Florence miscast in Thanhouser's 1912 production of The Merchant of Venice, he dismissed her Portia as too light and girlish, thus lacking the force necessary to a successful interpretation.
But Harrison by no means considered Florence just another pretty face -- though to judge from his language, he believed her very pretty indeed. Later in 1912, Florence's title performance in Aurora Floyd elicited from Harrison this glowing but insightful estimate of her dramatic potential:
"The interiors are a delight to the eye, and so is Flo La Badie. This young beauty...has at last struck her true gait. I do not mean to say that she has ever limped. Au contraire, her breaks have been of exuberant spirits, like those of a happy child jumping rope......[She] has grasped the value of self-repression in her impersonation..., has curbed the restless smile always trembling on her lips and has made a creditable effort to simulate the sentiments she is supposed to express. She is nearing the absolute necessity of being the character she is called upon to depict."
If not yet a true mistress of her trade, Florence was learning her lessons well. How well can be inferred from Harrison's praise of her contribution to a June 1913 Thanhouser drama, The Snare Of Fate. Relentlessly de-glamorized, Florence interpreted her role as an impoverished young mother with "delicacy and sympathetic intelligence."
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