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Less discerning fans and exhibitors undoubtedly overlooked the subtle growth of her craft. For them, it was Florence the "young beauty" who mattered. Speaking for them was the perhaps smitten journalist who reported her personal appearance at the Second Motion Picture Exhibitors Ball on November 14, 1912. For him, Florence was "a rare picture of delicate beauty and refinement as she sat in quiet dignity, enfolded in a rose-colored satin wrap, taking in the situation."
A favorite at the numerous exhibitors' balls of the era, Florence later dazzled in a context to which the phrase "quiet dignity" could hardly apply. At the Madison Square Garden Ball of February 19, 1916, she was observed riding a float and "lolling gracefully in a golden chair, carried on the shoulders of Nubian slaves." Glamor was no stranger to the booming film industry of the teens, and in playing this role as well as Swanson or Negri could have done in the 20s, Florence was simply relying on one of her strengths -- but by no means her only one.
From the middle of 1912, after Edwin Thanhouser's retirement, the Thanhouser Company was headed by Charles Hite, an energetic partner in the great Mutual distribution combine. Led by Hite, Thanhouser struck gold in 1914 with The Million Dollar Mystery, perhaps the most financially successful of the early serials. As Florence Gray, the serial's heroine, Florence LaBadie reaped a substantial share of the glory. Menaced, abducted, bound and gagged, forced to dive from speeding boats: Florence experienced all the perils that any self-respecting chapter-play heroine could expect! But Florence and her stalwart hero James Cruze were equal to all pitfalls prepared for them by villainess Marguerite Snow and her henchman. Together they escaped death, solved the mystery, and joined hands at the altar before the serial's last fadeout. Florence's career reached its zenith in the summer of 1914.
Early that summer, Mabel Condon, a leading Photoplay contributor, interviewed her for the August issue whose cover features Florence in that demure cheesecake pose so well-suited to post-Victorian America. While the personality of any subject undergoes distortion, gross or subtle, when filtered through the words and perceptions of an interviewer, Condon's article convincingly portrays a unselfconscious young woman preoccupied with the mundane matters of her own life. The energetic "young beauty" emerges with piquant authenticity in a stream-of-consciousness monologue that savors the perquisites of stardom while dutifully accepting its responsibilities:
"We had an awfully nice time [at the Chicago Exhibitors Ball]. I think I'd like Chicago, only they don't dance there. We were at the La Salle Hotel and both Peggy [Marguerite Snow] and I must have showed our disappointment at there being no dancing, as the people we were with took us to a smaller restaurant for supper, and when nearly everybody had left at 12 o'clock, the chairs were removed and the few of us who remained were allowed to dance......I wore this head-dress, and I love my coat-- I like its gold collar......We didn't go to Chicago for a rest, so we didn't rest. One afternoon -- we were there only three afternoons -- there was a tea-party and all the women talked about their babies and some of them adored house-keeping. That was one occasion on which I had absolutely nothing to say."
The young New York star obviously did not envy the life of a Chicago exhibitor's wife! In 1914, the turkey-trot and jaunts to Coney Island attracted her far more than the joys of motherhood. If she gave any thought to the subject at all, Florence must have assumed that she had plenty of time before she need concern herself with motherhood and children.
In the very month that her cover-image enticed Photoplay readers, however, Florence's extended Thanhouser family suffered a disastrous loss. Foreshadowing her own fate, Charles Hite was killed in August 1914 when his car plunged over a New York City embankment. Though Edwin Thanhouser returned to lead the company that bore his name, Hite's loss undoubtedly weakened the New Rochelle studio just as the film industry was becoming increasingly competitive. (For a fuller account of the Thanhouser company's decline, see Muriel Ostriche: Princess Of Silent Films by Q. David Bowers.)
One symptom of that decline was the embarrassing failure of Zudora, sequel to The Million Dollar Mystery. Starring James Cruze and Marguerite Snow, the much-ballyhooed serial apparently disappointed the expectations of the audience that had flocked to its predecessor. Zudora may have been irredeemably awful, but Florence's absence from the cast must have baffled and irritated fans. Florence's non-participation could had a physical basis: a surprisingly brief magazine item of 1915 claimed that she had been severely burned while filming a fiery Million Dollar Mystery scene.
Though stunt people and extras have always been placed in greater jeopardy than credited players, danger was more democratic in film's first decades. Florence was widely publicized for making a daring boat leap during Million Dollar Mystery; given her affinity for the water, she probably did the stunt herself. Most early players preferred the risk of injury to that of unemployment or humiliation, though stunt substitutes may have been provided for especially hazardous scenes. Yet even scenes not considered troublesome could prove deadly: witness Martha Mansfield, who merely brushed against an open flame while wearing a gauzy gown and was fatally burned in 1923. Far less tragic, Florence's accident could still have caused second or third degree burns requiring months of recuperation. If she weren't actually injured, why would Thanhouser have broken up the LaBadie-Cruze-Snow team that had performed so spectacularly well in Million Dollar Mystery ?
Whatever the reasons for not casting Florence in Zudora, the team was dissolved permanently in 1915 when James Cruze and Marguerite Snow, by then husband and wife, left Thanhouser for greener pastures. Now undeniably the studio's mainstay, Florence was showcased in 20 releases during 1915, most of them still two-reelers, but a few, like Monsieur Lecoq, full-length features. For 1916, Thanhouser responded to the film revolution spearheaded by the Griffith and DeMille with a LaBadie program of six feature releases. Hesitations about the star system flung to the wind, the studio emphatically promoted Florence's star persona: the message to filmgoers was, in effect, "Go to see Florence LaBadie in this film" rather than "Go to see this film with Florence LaBadie."
Judging by complaints in Photoplay, Florence's presence may indeed have been the only reason to buy a ticket for many of her later films. Julian Johnson, in Photoplay's Shadowstage column for April 1916, noted that Thanhouser's January release The Five Faults Of Flo benefitted from "an original concept and the exquisite Florence LaBadie," but failed because it was "clumsily carried out, badly staged, and inefficiently directed." In August, a fan letter asked "Why don't they put Florence LaBadie in better plays?" The editorial response concurred that she hadn't had a really good vehicle since The Million Dollar Mystery! The following month, Julian Johnson surveyed the entire acting field from his Shadowstage and categorized Florence with Henry Walthall, Anita Stewart, Mae Marsh, and several other players whose careers were stagnating for lack of good roles. Mae Marsh's problem was solved with the release of Intolerance that very month of September 1916, but Florence was not to be as fortunate. Her only opportunity to work with a great director came at the very beginning of her career.
Dissatisfaction with the Thanhouser product was apparently not confined to fans and critics. Mutual severed relations in the summer of 1916, forcing Thanhouser to turn to Pathe for distribution. The departure of publicity chief Leon Rubinstein, presumably for a more lucrative post elsewhere, was another blow to the studio's reeling fortunes. As Thanhouser continued to flounder in the shark-filled waters of the 1916 film industry, did Florence too begin to look elsewhere? Except for a tantalizing notice in Motion Picture World that Marcus Loew invited her to Loew's 1916 Halloween party, no evidence exists hinting at negotiations with another company. Thanhouser's only remaining major star, Florence must have been well-paid, though probably far below the rarefied Pickford-Chaplin level.
New York loyalist Florence may also have hesitated at the prospect of relocating to a still-provincial Los Angeles. She'd traveled west with Griffith in 1911 and with a Thanhouser group in 1913; perhaps those sojourns had convinced her not to stray from the Hudson if she could help it! New York was far from finished as a film production center in 1916, but with pioneer companies like Biograph and Edison struggling just as desperately as Thanhouser, the industry's center of gravity was inexorably shifting westward. Perhaps Florence simply refused to follow the trend.
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