This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 10, 2008 - In an earlier post, I made a reference to Florence Lawrence deserving the title as the first movie star. Lawrence is an interesting if largely forgotten figure in film history, and the story of her “stardom,” like so many other stories of the early days of moviemaking, has been retold and embellished so many times that it’s hard to tell how much of it is true. And it even has a local connection.
In the first few years of the film industry, the people who made movies spent their time turning out one-and two-reelers so rapidly that they never gave much thought to how they were being received in the theaters across the country. There are many stories of actors and actresses going out of town for vacation and being surprised by mobs of fans who recognized them on the street. (You can see this sort of event dramatized in Peter Bogdanovich’s wonderful but little-known film “Nickelodeon.”) Of course, most of them demanded raises the moment they were back at the studio, but for a short while anonymity was the norm.
That doesn’t mean that audiences weren’t noticing or finding favorites among the dozens of players they watched week after week. So Florence Lawrence, leading actress in many films produced by the Biograph studio, became identified by the public as “the Biograph girl.” Shortly after Ms. Lawrence left Biograph and signed with Carl Laemmle’s IMP Company, her new employer began cautiously exploring the possibility of identifying their players. After all, it didn’t make sense for her to be called the Biograph girl anymore.
Shortly thereafter, while traveling across the country, Ms. Lawrence made a public appearance before a large crowd at Union Station in St. Louis to prove that she was very much alive. It was the first known public event in which it became obvious that a new and growing industry had developed its own celebrities. It was, in a sense, if not the birth then at least the baptism of the idea of the movie star.
There was another St. Louis connection on that day. Sharing the stage with Ms. Lawrence was King Baggot, a St. Louis-born actor and director who was IMP’s most popular male lead. If Lawrence was the first publicly known movie star, Baggot almost simultaneously became the second.
Another strange detail from this largely forgotten life: Lawrence was an enthusiastic automobile lover and invented the first turn signal.