First Movie Star Dies

First Movie Star Dies

“On this day in 1938, Florence Lawrence, a Canadian silent film actress known as the world’s first movie star, died.

Born Florence Annie Bridgwood in Hamilton, Ontario, the Canadian actress grew up in a theatrical family. Her mother, Charlotte A. Bridgwood (stage name, Lotta Lawrence), was a vaudeville actress who worked as the director and leading lady of the Lawrence Dramatic Company. The young actress adopted her mother’s stage name, Lawrence, as a child, around the time her father, George Bridgwood, died. After finishing school, Lawrence and her mother moved to New York City.

It was in New York that Lawrence’s career took off. In 1906, at 20, she appeared in her first motion picture. The next year she appeared in 38 movies, including Daniel Boone, The Shaughraun, Seminary Girls, and The Dispatch Beare. She eventually married Harry Solter, another young actor. Solter and Lawrence joined the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, where through a publicity campaign, she became one of the first performers to be identified by name. At the time, most silent screen actors were not named because studio owners feared the fame might lead actors to demand higher wages. But through a publicity stunt—film studio founder Carl Laemmle spread rumors that Lawrence died in a streetcar accident, then revealed she was, indeed, alive and well and preparing to star in one of his films—Laemmle and Lawrence gave birth to the “”star system.”” Before long, Lawrence became a beloved household name, and, as studios feared, she began demanding higher wages. In 1906, she earned US$5 a day to film Daniel Boone. By 1912, she was earning $500 per week as leading lady of the Victor Film Company.

From there, things took a turn for the worse. While filming Pawns of Destiny in 1914, Lawrence was burned and injured from a serious fall when a staged fire got out of control. The accident left her with back problems, facial scarring, and temporary paralysis. The stress—she was also forced to pay her own medical expenses—led Lawrence to divorce her husband. She took time off to recover from her shock and injuries and never regained her stature as a leading lady. In 1920, Solter died. Lawrence married and divorced again, twice. Lawrence traveled to Hollywood in 1921, but by 1924, she only had uncredited bit parts. In 1929, her mother died and the stock market crash saw what was left of her fortune disappear. Towards the end of her life, Lawrence was alone, discouraged, and suffering from chronic pain. She ingested ant paste and cough syrup in an apparent suicide, was rushed to the hospital, and died a few hours later. She was buried in an unmarked grave near her mother in the Hollywood Cemetery, now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and largely forgotten. In 1991, actor Roddy McDowall “”rediscovered”” Lawrence and paid for a memorial marker for her grave. It reads The Biograph Girl/The First Movie Star.”

Credit: History of Medicine (NLM)
Caption: Florence Lawrence, widely known as the world’s first movie star, appeared in some 300 films.