We seldom if ever give a thought to movie stars of a hundred years ago, partly because most people think they didn’t exist as early as that — but also because we live in a world that treats people as highly disposable commodities. Who can remember the divas that came after Madonna and disappeared before Whitney? The other day I struggled for hours to remember Kevin Costner’s name, even though — in his day — I had paid to see a couple of his movies, a rare thing for me: ‘The Untouchables’ and ‘JFK’.
Actually, to call a film actor a ‘star’ before about 1909-10 is, strictly, incorrect. Movies’ leading actors’ names were rarely publicized before that, for two main reasons:
1) Participating in movies at that time was even lower than performing in ‘legitimate’ theatre, only now shucking off its pariah status. Female performers in burlesque or novelty sideshows were previously thought no better than prostitutes, and were prey to the same social stigma, often purveyed by social climbers of their own sex. Performers of either gender hesitated to drag their family’s good name through the muck and would often appear for screen work under a pseudonym. In addition, for some seventeen years when the business of exhibiting movies was in its barely gurgling infancy, and until the courts finally ruled otherwise, it was believed that most movie production companies were illegal operations — that is, those who didn’t pay Thomas Edison royalties for using movie-making apparatus he held patents on. These ‘outlaws’, which included some of the best movie innovators of all, were reluctant to be thrown in the hooscow on old man Edison’s say-so, by his private police force.
2) Up to almost World War I it wasn’t necessary for movie actors to withhold their names because the studio they worked for did that — knowing full well that when a performer became a ‘name’, especially one with international exposure, he or she could command recompense in proportion to the size and popularity of that name.
The temptation became too much for Carl Laemmle, a diminutive German emigre who had worked his way up to own the biggest nickelodeon chain in the Midwest. In the spring of 1910, a year after he had made his first film (a single-reel version of the ‘Hiawatha’ story) for his own company, IMP — Independent Moving Pictures — he approached perhaps the most popular proto-star of her day with a promotional scheme that couldn’t miss. Florence Lawrence — not the kind of name a star would get away with today — had started on screen three years earlier with the then most successful American film studio, Vitagraph of Brooklyn, New York. In 1908 she had moved to local rival Biograph to be directed by the revolutionary D W Griffith, universally acknowledged as “Father of the Movies”, just shifting from acting. Florence, a year before Mary Pickford’s screen debut at the same company, quickly became the studio’s most popular ‘player’ (actor) — distinctive enough to be called by audiences “The Biograph Girl”. (Gene Gauntier was “The Kalem Girl”, Kathlyn Williams “The Selig Girl”, and so on.)
With matchless chutzpah (most of the second and third generation studio bosses were Jewish) Laemmle planted a story in newspapers that the Biograph Girl had been killed in a streetcar accident. Taking credit for her ‘rebirth’, he announced that she would reappear disembarking a train in St Louis. A huge crowd turned out for the occasion, and newspapermen and others insisted on knowing actual names. Thus was born a megastar with the mellifluous name of Florence Lawrence, “The Imp Girl”, officially the first* American movie star to be known by name. With a shipload of public sympathy behind his new prime leading lady, Laemmle was well on his way to founding Universal Studio. His initiative had revolutionized the industry, but other studio bosses, forced to top the exorbitant $200 a week he was paying Florence, didn’t thank him for it.
In 1915, the year Universal City opened for tours at the new base of Hollywood, and a new comic called Charlie Chaplin began his rapid rise to world stardom, Florence was badly burned helping a workmate escape a studio fire and was forced to retire for a time to recuperate. A comeback attempt failed. She continued in acting, though quickly forgotten by the fickle media. By the late Twenties she had been hired, like her early Vitagraph rival Florence Turner and other former stars fallen on hard times, by MGM boss Louis B Mayer for small, dignified parts on a steady salary. Studio shots of her in the early Thirties show her looking withdrawn, even distressed, far from the madcap camera hog she had been at her height. It is likely she sustained longlasting disability from the burns suffered in her heroic impulse to save fellow workers. In 1938, aged 52, she committed suicide by ingesting insect poison.
Sort of puts all the Britneys and Courtneys into perspective, doesn’t it.
*There is scholarly debate over what movie stardom precisely constitutes. G. M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, who had appeared in very early films including the legendary ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903), from 1907 starred himself in highly popular westerns so that his name was generally known but without attracting the overboard ballyhoo that passes for stardom today. There is also international competition to enliven the discussion. In France, early comic Andre Deed had the popularity associated with stardom, but under his clown’s pseudonym. Following him, Max Linder, invariably playing the character “Max” from late 1907, and quickly accruing a vast European popularity that included Russia with its 30,000 cinemas, is said by many to be the first true international star of movies.