One of the seminal figures in cinema at the dawn of America’s love affair with the movies is among the least known. One of the first film actors to be singled out for adoration by the first filmgoers, she was among the first to fade. She was the first to have her name and face used by a film producer to promote a film and a film star, and the first to have been the subject of a studio “publicity stunt.” But she would be forgotten long before the end of her life not only by film audiences, but by her co-workers and colleagues who went on to greater fame and longer lives, and who would write memoirs in which she is barely mentioned or not at all.
As one of the early, important contributors to the development of acting for the camera, she received no credit for those contributions during her lifetime or long after her death. Incredibly, she is one of the few pioneers of American filmmaking whose early, important work — a majority of it — actually still exists on film and paper in both the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as in the collections of smaller archives. Yet until recently she was little known or studied even among film historians. Her name is Florence Lawrence.
Florence Lawrence was a native of Canada, born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1886. Her mother was a singer and actress, and Florence had been in show business since early childhood, with ten years on stage in live theater touring companies, and one year in movies with the Vitagraph Company of New York. She was still only 22 when she was hired by D. W. Griffith, who saw one of her films after she had been recommended to him by one of his actors at Biograph, Harry Solter.
While working with Griffith at Biograph, she rapidly developed the skill for subtle, understated acting for the motion picture camera, a method of acting sometimes labelled “verisimilitude,” as in a literal translation from its Latin roots, “same-as-truth,” essentially “life-like.” On stage this style had become the preferred method for serious artists in dramatic literature of the theater in the late 19th century. In her first lead role in a film with Biograph, “Betrayed by a Handprint,” in August of 1908, she generally resorts to the obvious gestures then considered “correct” for acting in live melodrama.
The standardized acting techniques employed in classic stage melodrama included broad arm gestures, head turns and extreme facial contortions — what today we would call “body language,” designed to signal or represent a character’s emotions to the audience. This was what she knew, what she had learned from her years of experience in live melodrama, and it was the type of theater and the type of stage performance best known to general audiences of the time.
By the end of her time with Biograph she had developed her skills to the point where she used only remnants of a melodramatic style. She relied even less, if at all, on the “pantomime” that many actors in film had adopted in addition to the gesticulations of melodrama, so their characters could be better understood in film without spoken dialogue.
In early summer of 1909, Lawrence and Harry Solter, the actor who had recommended her to Griffith and who was now her husband, were fired by Biograph after it was learned that Lawrence and Solter were negotiating with rival studios while still under contract to Biograph. Producer Carl Laemmle of the Independent Motion Pictures Company, “IMP,” and likely one of those with whom she and Solter were negotiating, planted a false story in newspapers that a certain actress who’s face was familiar to moviegoers had been killed in a streetcar accident. When her broken-hearted fans, who knew her face but not her name, began to write of their grief in letters to newspaper editors, Laemmle unleashed phase two of the plan. He placed ads in newspapers and trade periodicals across the country explaining that not only was the actress alive and well, her name was Florence Lawrence and she had just signed with IMP and could be seen exclusively in their upcoming releases.
It is difficult to assess the impact of Lawrence’s departure from Biograph on the fortunes of the studio, Griffith and other actors. Convention has it that Biograph never skipped a beat. In the absence of significant evidence to the contrary, this appears to be true. The studio was able to attract and develop new acting talent, while maintaining a stable group of supporting players. G. W. “Billy” Bitzer continued to devlelop his skills as cinematographer. (As an artist and technician, he is still one of the most underrated figures in the history of American cinema.) Director Griffith continued to explore and experiment with the elements of narrative film — methods of cinematic “storytelling” — within the limitations of the one and two-reel format over the next several years.
But it would have been fascinating to watch Lawrence continue to grow as an actor, alongside Mary Pickford, goading each other to greater heights in a friendly rivalry, and then watch as new talent, Blanche Sweet, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, or stage veteran Claire McDowell, tried to shove aside the established film actors. In reality no studio could afford to keep that kind of talent forever — Biograph certainly could not and did not. Even setting that consideration aside, who would want to work for such a company, where breaking into the starting lineup would be near-impossible?
One of her last leading roles in a Biograph film was “Resurrection,” shot in April and released in May, 1909. She portrays “Katucha,” in an adaptation of a novel by Tolstoy. Her performance in that film is a revelation — a more natural, realistic style of acting than was typical then. Watching her perform this role in 1909 may have given film audiences of that time a similar feeling that stage audiences of the late 1940s or filmgoers of the early 50s had when watching Marlon Brando and “method acting” for the first time.