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Florence Lawrence the Biograph girl
Florence Lawrence (January 2, 1886 – December 28, 1938) was a Canadian silent film actress. She is often referred to as "The First Movie Star." She appeared in almost 300 films for various motion picture companies.
FLORENCE LAWRENCE: The First Movie Star
When Florence Annie Bridgwood was born on January 2, 1886, no one could have predicted that she would become a movie star... because movies weren't exactly being made yet!!! There had been several advancements in technology leading up to the establishment of "motion pictures," but it wouldn't be until 1889, three years hence, that Thomas Edison would invent the Kinetoscope, which would alter the entire realm of cinematic possibilities. True, Florence was far from "Hollywoodland," born in Hamilton, ON to George Bridgwood (carriage builder) and Charlotte "Lotta" Dunn (actress). The baby of 7 other children, 4 step siblings and two biological brothers (George and Walter), she was destined to be lost in the shuffle. Not so at all!
Flo never really knew her father. She spent the majority of her childhood away with her mother, George, and Walter, touring with the Lawrence Dramatic Company. An impassioned and gifted woman, Lotta was not meant to be some boring housewife, so she took her kids along with her as she tried to make an independent living, though she never divorced her husband. While George and Walter did not act past their adolescence, Flo got the itch young and couldn't scratch it for the rest of her life. She began appearing with her mother on stage at the age of 3. The company had noticed her ability to pick up dances and mimic expressions, so they worked her into the routines. She would wander on stage, seemingly lost, and the audience would giggle at the supposed mishap. Then, she would slowly join in with her mother's act, which of course left the audience in stitches. She would become known for her uncanny abilities as a tune whistler as she grew older, and having clearly received her calling, she and her mom went pro, changing their last names to "Lawrence," after the company.
As a little performer, Flo was a quick learner and a natural talent, who could light up the room with her abilities and energy. Passionate like her mother, she had a fire within her that would not be quenched, and the audience merely radiated in its warmth. A lovely singer, dancer, and comedienne, Flo also had a penchant for the dramatic, although as a young child she let the weight of the subject matter overcome her at times. She would often cry herself to sleep at night, worried that she had made her audience sad. Her deep attachment to her work would always be a part of her life, but as she grew she did not let the gravity dampen her spirits quite as much. Ups and downs in her demeanor were always a present factor, but most people didn't notice. She tended to put her best face on and put all of her energy into pleasing the crowds, while remaining equally professional behind the scenes.
At 10, Flo's father passed away, though the loss had little effect on her. It was her mother that was her true compatriot. Lotta was definitely an intelligent and ambitious woman, but luckily she wasn't a control freak. She inspired her daughter to be the best she could be, and Flo would spend her life trying to do so, but Lotta would not put her own hopes on Flo's shoulders. She had dreams of her own and did not expect Flo to fulfill her own failed ambitions. They were a separate but equal team. After her husband's death, Lotta took her three children to live with her mother, Grandma Ann Dunn, in Buffalo, New York, and the kids finally got the pleasure of a public education. Flo was the class clown and a tom boy, who led a "gang" of boys, played baseball, road horses, and (after breaking her nose playing ball) took up cheerleading as well. She was still an artist though, and she was quite proficient at both the violin and the cornet.
Though she had enjoyed the slow pace of a normal life, Florence wanted something new... a change! This was also an aspect of her personality that would dictate many of her decisions in life. Impulsive and mercurial, Flo would begin one thing to drop it not much later, then pick it up again, then drop it, etc. What she wanted now was the stage! She and her mother began actively seeking employment with different companies to little effect. There weren't too many plays being produced due to the fact that there was new competition in town: motion pictures. The Great Train Robbery had been released in 1903 when Flo was 17. She also recalled seeing Rip Van Winkle. She found flicker shows entertaining, but had no real interest in pursuing a career in front of the camera. There was still a stigma attached to "film acting," and most of the beginning motion picture actors weren't even actors at all... Just regular Joes and Janes looking to make a buck. Eventually, due to the latter necessity, Flo began submitting herself for screen work. At least it was acting!
Wandering over to the Edison Studios at 41 East 21st Street with Lotta, Flo was introduced to a slew of girls looking for work. Fortunately, Edwin Porter and Wallace McCutcheon singled her out, mostly for the needed physical characteristics she possessed, and cast her as one of the daughters in Daniel Boone. Exteriors were filmed in zero degree weather in Bronx Park, and interiors were filmed atop the studio on the single set roof. It was fortunate that Flo knew how to ride a horse, for it would be required of her role. In 1907, Flo saw herself on film for the first time... and was horrified! Not by her performance, but by the inconsistencies of her frontier character wearing high-heeled shoes! She liked the look of herself on the screen, and became fascinated with the new medium. She vowed to educate herself as much as possible about it, and seeing the future of film, decided to quit the stage and enter a life on the screen. Surprisingly, Lotta protested, worried that Flo would shame the family as a film actress. Flo didn't care. This was it!Flo auditioned everywhere, finally landing at Vitagraph Studios. Her next big picture was The Despatch Barer, a Civil War drama in which Flo was almost killed! While riding a horse through the woods, she was nearly driven right into a tree. This would not be the last time she put her life in danger. Early filmmakers were true renegades; pioneers in a new world with no rules, no limits, and no protection. Their bold, and often crazy, moves paved the way for those who would follow. Vitagraph was an important example of this. One of the first official film companies, it was experimental and innovative, pushing the envelope in terms of storytelling with adaptations of Mark Twain and Shakespeare. Their film Romeo and Juliet is a subject of some controversy, with regard to Flo. Some historians credit her as playing Juliet, and others credit her contemporary Florence Turner. Vitagraph films remain some of the best preserved and most accessible silents to this day.
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