“Moving picture artists in the making would surely be a fit title for this chapter of my story, which shall concern my time with the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company . . . for more of the day’s recognized artists began their motion picture careers in the Biograph studios during those twelve months than in all the other studios combined,” Florence Lawrence, “Growing Up With The Movies,” Photoplay Magazine, January, 1915 (italics added).
The previous November, Photoplay, one of the leading early film periodicals, ran the first of a four-part series of articles that it described as “the most valuable contribution to motion picture literature up to this time — the authentic life-story of the most remarkable motion picture actress of today, Florence Lawrence.” Less than a year earlier, the same Magazine had welcomed her back from a premature “retirement” from the film business — a retirement she felt necessary after barely surviving her attempt to hold together a pioneering effort — her own film company — and salvaging her marriage to a suicidal man who was also her business partner and director. The article in Photoplay, January 1914, described her as “probably the only ‘star’ who could retire at the height of her popularity, drop out of sight for a year, then return to the pictures and immediately become as popular as before.” She was routinely found among the top actresses in film magazine popularity polls more than a year after her last film (phenomenal in an era where movies were not routinely rereleased, and home video was 70 years in the future).
Yet her “comeback” would prove as short-lived as her “retirement.” Having completed a total of 20 movies in 1914 (16 two-reel films, 3 three-reels and a single one-reel short), most before the end of August, and the last in October just prior to the first installment of her Photoplay series, she would not work in film again until 1916. And that, my friends, represents the culmination of the career of ‘The Biograph Girl,” “The First Movie Star.” A casualty of fame? No. She was quite clearly that singular creation of fame — a “star.” And yet no one who knew her, before or after stardom, felt she was changed or consumed by it. Chronic insecurity about both her ability and her looks? Could be. She said that she was always struck by the disappointment in the faces of people meeting her in person — an absolutely stunning (and very telling) admission. The inability of sheer talent to overcome the kind of physical, mental and emotional damage that is endemic in the business of entertainment and the creative, highly self-exposed world of performance art? Likely.
But do we leave the psycho-pop analysis of movie stardom to others more inclined? For now, yes. This post is about acting and art. Let’s leave behind the mawkish sentiment. Enter: Mary Pickford!
“I gave considerable thought to the problem of acting in those early days. One day I made a vow that I tried never to break. I swore that, whatever the temptation, I would never overact. This was revolutionary in the early movies where actors were using the elaborate gestures of the French school of pantomime. ‘I will not exaggerate, Mr. Griffith,’ I would say in a firm voice. ‘I think it’s an insult to the audience.'” (Mary Pickford, “Sunshine and Shadow,” Doubleday, 1954. Italics added.)
In the last two decades of the Nineteenth Century, motion photography and its inventors, technicians, nascent artisans and artists-to-be struggled in spasms first to create the best machines to record and display the images, and then to find a purpose, a market and a profit. Acceptance within the popular culture was not yet conceived as part of any business plan, and little or no thought was given to artistic achievement. At about the same time, live theater as practiced in the Western World had been undergoing changes as significant in the performing arts (if not as sudden and rapid) as that of photochemical technology in the sciences.
Since at least the middle 1700s, acting in live theater had as its artistic ideal, ITSELF. It was self-referential, and reflexive — it required no mental gymnastics on the part of the audience, and that was the point — E!ntertainment. That is what made the form, “Melodrama,” so popular. In actuality, it wasn’t all that far removed from the Christian morality plays of the middle ages — everyone knew the characters and the endings — but the fun was to revel in the fits and fights of those characters and watch how the plot played out to the preordained conclusion. Not vastly different from modern soaps, tv dramas or even sitcoms (though comedy performance style is a creature unto itself not directly comparable to the styles of dramatic performance) — many of the basic elements remain and are understood and somehow comforting in their predictability.
The pinnacle of achievement in melodrama was not to reproduce “reality,” not to show “life as it is,” but instead, the depiction of “characters” who symbolized any and all of the human vices and virtues. Rich man, poor man, beggar, thief, lover, fighter, devil, saint, the good, the virginal, the corrupt, the decent, the dirty, the thrifty, the wasteful, the noble, the peasant, the admirable, the wastrel, the mustache-twirling bastard.
Most admired were those actors who were the best in their profession at portraying these identifiable characters. Actors weren’t concerned about being “stereotyped.” Being stereotypical, and doing it well, was the goal. And the relish and enthusiasm with which they portrayed these stock characters — and they played their characters to the audience, as much as to the other players within in the play — was integral to the performance. It was audience participation the likes of which we probably see now only with an oldies act or at a Jimmy Buffett concert, not at a movie or a play.
Then a French revolution took place in the middle of the 19th century which would greatly impact the theater. Francois Delsarte, a student at the Paris Conservatory, studied the anatomy of human movement, and how through proper control it could be used in performance arts — singing, dancing, even oratory, and of course acting. It was not a revolution in favor of “reality” in acting per se, but how body movement and breath control could express natural human interaction and emotion. Delsarte devised a system of body movement and physical gestures to be used by actors to represent emotional states.
But Delsarte never wrote a book explaining his theories and their application in detail. An American, Genevieve Stebbins, a student of the American actor, stage director and Delsarte acolyte Steele MacKaye (who had espoused “Delsartism” in a series of popular lectures in the 1870s), produced a popular best-selling book on the principles of Delsarte applied to a naturalistic acting style. But “naturalistic” in the arts of the 19th Century meant an idealized nature, not reality. Nature was to be shown in its idealized form, and the actor was instructed to display nature in that idealized state. Acting was artistic expression and art was an exaltation, not a reproduction, of life.
However, acting “manuals” proliferated, especially in America — those crazy Americans and their need to document and reduce everything to writing! Those purporting to teach the “Delsarte method” simply combined stock poses with their own knowledge and experience of melodramatic acting, not “Delsartism.” The manuals became cartoonish in their illustrated reproductions of the proper poses and gestures, and this distortion of Delsarte’s concepts created a caricature of the original — as in “rock and roll” we see copies, cartoonish characters acting the part of music rebels. So it was with acting by the dawn of the 20th century. It had become, in the words of Mary Pickford, “the French school of pantomime.” And the Delsarte approach to acting devolved back into something resembling the stock “character” acting of a hundred years earlier, with the art of acting and its teaching dumbed down to a “cookbook” in which the actor was instructed that he or she need only “strike a pose” according to recipe to give a successful performance.
Now it is 1908. Moving pictures — “motography” — has begun to compete seriously with the stage and live theater among the working-class and a new and growing middle class America. And the “story” film supplants the “actualities” and trick photography films. Now enters the poor stage actor between real acting jobs, reduced to posing for moving pictures. We saw what Griffith the actor did in his Biograph film debut, flopping his arms into a blur on the exposed film — the way he thought you were supposed to act in movies. We read Pickford’s assessment of the state of film acting and what she did in reaction to Griffith’s direction: “I will not exaggerate, Mr. Griffith. I think it’s an insult to the audience.” No French pantomime for this English Canadian/Irish “Belasco Actress!”
Preceding Pickford at Biograph by nine months, and beating Griffith to the movies by more than a year, is Florence Lawrence — “The Biograph Girl,” “the first movie star.” These labels are unimportant — we can see how far she got with them. They, not her, are tragic. They are downright trivial compared to her contribution to the art and craft of motion picture acting in its early, formative stages between roughly 1907 and 1913, the period in which narrative “story” films began to dominate American film production, up to the dawn of feature-length films in America.
I have consistently, and I think correctly, identified three actresses of early narrative film in America — Marion Leonard, Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford — being as important as any in the early development of motion picture acting (I also include a fourth, Blanche Sweet, but haven’t yet brought her into the discussion because her first significant contributions came in 1911 after the other three had finished their primary periods of success at Biograph, as well as a fifth, Miss Lillian Gish, who enters at the tail end of the one and two-reelers in 1912 — practically beginning her career in the era of feature film, and feature film would encourage significant change in film acting from that of the shorter format films). And yes, the “Griffith” or “Biograph” effect applies to them in the sense that more of their films, those made with Biograph, survive as a percentage of those made than of any other American film producer of their period. My response to that? Don’t hate them because they survive — in other words, don’t demean or even lessen their contribution because the others, who exist primarily (and likely unidentified by name credit in the media of the time) on paper in old periodicals, but not on film, and cannot therefore be adequately evaluated. I deal with evidence. Not, “If only . . .”
Like her colleagues Pickford-Leonard, Florence Lawrence had a background of at least ten years in live theater prior to making movies. However, Lawrence’s theater experience was, for the most part, more varied in composition than that of her future Biograph colleagues. Her experience was more that of a vaudevillian in some of its less exalted forms — she was “Baby Flo the whistling wonder,” she sang novelty songs, and she played almost exclusively in lower-rung touring companies, the true “Gypsies” of the theatrical world in the U.S. and Canada in the 1890s and at the dawn of the 1900s. She was a physical performer both in drama and comedy — an athletic physical comedienne before Mabel Normand became the ideal in that regard. But this was not a hindrance in her entrance to film. In fact, the exact opposite proved true, and it was key in her obtaining her first work in movies.
She was a fairly skilled horsewoman, polo player, and swimmer. Athletic ability played a part in her hiring for her first three film “jobs:” at the Edison Company as the daughter of “Daniel Boone,” and at Vitagraph as “The Dispatch Bearer,” both in 1907, both requiring that she ride a horse, and at the American Mutoscope and Biograph company in July of 1908, where D. W. Griffith was also looking for an actress who could . . . ride a horse!
Lawrence also benefitted from a couple of other factors, all of which combined to make her hiring at Biograph in July of 1908 seem almost preordained with stars in the heavens in perfect alignment for the future “Biograph Girl/1st Movie Star.” Marion Leonard, at 26 a veteran and mid-level star of the stage in New York and in touring companies (most recently with Sidney Olcott in “Billy the Kid,” in 1907) in both drama and comedy, had begun working at Biograph in June 1908, between real acting jobs, of course. Leonard appeared in four Biograph films in less than four weeks in late June and early July before departing for a previously scheduled touring company production which would last nearly four months. Griffith had only begun directing in June, and was not yet under contract as director (he was still “filling in” for the ill Wallace “Old Man” McCutcheon, Sr). The departure of Leonard, though temporary, left him with one lead actress: Linda Arvidson, his still-“secret” wife (“It’ll be better for business if we don’t tell them”). Arvidson was a good role player, but did not have the camera presence to carry a film as a lead player, something that was crucial to sustain audience interest in the “story” films that were now dominating the screen. Griffith was in the unenviable position of needing another lead actress fast, and essentially having to replace his wife with another woman — being married was bad for business in unforseen ways for director Griffith.
Griffith had seen Florence Turner of Vitagraph in a film, as well as the 22-year-old Lawrence, also a “Vitagrapher,” in another movie. But it appears to have been Turner who most impressed the neophyte film director. He asked Harry Solter, a Biograph player and an old stage acquaintance of his who had until recently worked for Vitagraph, to contact Ms. Turner regarding possible employment at Biograph. When Solter ran into Lawrence in the course of looking for Turner at Vitagraph (a missed connection in the “unconnected” world of 1908!), he mentioned that Griffith was looking for an actress to play leads — someone who could. . . ride a horse. When Lawrence expressed interest to Solter, he arranged for her to meet Griffith at Biograph. When Griffith saw Lawrence in the flesh — young, fresh, statuesque (meaning in 1908, “hot body”) with sandy-brown “blonde” hair and blue eyes — he likely forgot all about horses. He “showed” her to Biograph chief executive Jeremiah Kennedy, who knew a good-looking Irish girl when he saw one, and she was a lock for the job. To Lawrence, the best part of this deal was more money ($25 per week) for “less” work than at Vitagraph: she no longer had to sew costumes.
Lawrence’s first film with Biograph and Griffith — in which she rode a horse — was an early Western drama, “The Outlaw and the Girl.” Made prior to the rigid plot construction and character stereotypes of later, classical westerns, the action is dominated by (no not horses) . . . women. The cowboys, indians, gunfighters, lawmen — the racial and gender stereotypes had not yet developed to the point where audiences expected them, and more often the plots revolved around virtuous white women being menaced by evil white men. “The Outlaw and the Girl” was no exception. But it was in the next group of films over the following weeks that Lawrence proved her worth to a Company short of female leads by her sheer versatility. In these films she played a native American maiden (“The Red Girl”), a young struggling actress, widowed single-parent (“Behind the Scenes”), an Asian maiden (“The Heart of O Yama”), and a thieving would-be socialite (“Betrayed by a Handprint”). She finished her first month at the end of August, 1908 with two more “split reel” (under 500 ft or about 5 to 7 minutes) shorts, the latter of which, “A Smoked Husband,” was the first entry in what became the extremely popular “Jones” series of situation comedies, which made her face, if not her name, instantly recognizable to audiences, who were soon calling her the “Biograph Girl” in lieu of evidence from her employer that she actually had an independent identity.
Two highlights of her first three months at Biograph came with “Romance of a Jewess” and “The Song of the Shirt,” in September and October respectively (a period in which she appeared in 14 of 17 Biograph productions including lead roles in eleven). I think that “The Song of the Shirt” is the superior film, similar in tragic tone, but stripped down to its essence — straight, no ice, no chaser. However, because “Song” was the subject of an earlier post, I’ll stick with “Romance” here. And it is by no means “romantic” in the current popular sense. In fact it wasn’t that in any kind of sense in 1908, either. As Scott Simmon, author of the classic “The Films of D. W. Griffith” (Cambridge, 1993), in his entry on the film in “The Griffith Project” notes, the film could as easily or more accurately be called “Tragedy of the Jewess,” a tale of Lower East Side Tenement heartbreak from the first few feet until the reel’s end. relieved only by a lengthy comedy sequence shot in one set-up, no edits, that is not funny to modern audiences, and a fascinating sequence in the last two minutes that was shot on the streets of the Lower East Side with a not-completely-candid-camera and actors who didn’t fool the natives, unwitting “extras” who hilariously (to modern viewers) raise more than a few eyebrows at the Biograph players in costume and makeup pretending to be fellow tenement-dwelling immigrants.
ABOVE and BELOW: The curious citizens of the tenement and vendor-lined streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1908 are not fooled by the costumes and make-up of the two Biograph actors filming “Romance of A Jewess.” Although they don’t seem to spot the camera in these shots, the look of disapproval on the face of the woman in the center of the shot who turns and watches the “granddaughter” and “grandfather” make their way down the street speaks volumes about the inability of actors and filmmakers to fake poverty in the midst of the real thing.
We see in the work of Florence Lawrence a mixture of acting styles in these two early films from her and Griffith’s early careers. “Handprint” is clearly within the “school of pantomime,” where the actors resort to that form with a sense of urgency to make themselves understood — where “speed” seems of the essence. In “Romance” we see Lawrence use a slower technique in several scenes and admittedly the story allows for more of this than the expository nature of a “crime and detection” story that was “Handprint.” This “slow” versus “fast” filmmaking — a reference to acting, not filming or projection speeds — was to become a source of considerable debate between and among the actors and technicians at Biograph, and likely other studios as well.
Actors wanted to “slow” down the acting pace, to give time for subtle gestures — as opposed to brisk “here’s-what-I’m-trying-to-say” pantomime (as in our game of “charades” today). Director Griffith scolded his actors, “People won’t pay to watch glass slides,” (meaning the still, static photos or paintings on glass projected on-screen), “they want ACTION.” The actors clearly believed they could give the audience BOTH. But it was still an age where film was sold by the foot and exhibitors were less likely to buy and audiences thought less likely to pay to watch movies with foot after foot of “inaction.” Griffith’s first contract to direct for Biograph, signed in August, 1908, gave him a royalty based upon each foot of his films that Biograph sold to exhibitors, so in this period, commerce for the time being trumped “art.”
But Lawrence and her colleagues and successors at Biograph succeeded in their quest to slow-down acting, assisted by the changes in film distribution (film rentals became the norm by 1910) and in film production itself. Longer films, two and three reels, culminating in the four reels-plus “feature films” by 1912-1913, inspired by the imported Italian epics, “Quo Vadis,” “The Last Days of Pompeii,” and “Cabiria,” would allow actors more time to “slow” their acting and develop the subtle gestural style that would leave pantomime altogether, aside from its use for specialized (reproducing a “play” within a film) or comedic purposes.
To Be Continued . . .
(Posts in the near-future will continue the discussion of Florence Lawrence at Biograph, with detailed looks at the films, “The Cardinal’s Conspiracy,” “Money Mad,” and the rare Griffith foray into Shakespeare, “The Taming of the Shrew.” Addtional posts will continue with a study of the works of Marion Leonard and Mary Pickford at Biograph and beyond, and later our first look at the careers of Blanche Sweet and Lillian Gish.)
Suggested further reading:
Brown, Kelly R., “Florence Lawrence, The Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star,” McFarland & Co., 1999.
Usai, Paolo Cherchi, General Editor, “The Griffith Project, Volume 1, Films Produced in 1907 – 1908,” BFI Publishing, 1999;
Griffith, Mrs. (Linda Arvidson), “When the Movies Were Young,” E.P. Dutton and Co., 1925; (Later editions including a paperback “facsimile” from Dover Press, 1974, are available used and also in e-book format);
Roberta E. Pearson, “Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films,” University of California Press, (1992, 1997, paperback, print-on-demand);
Tom Gunning, “D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film,” University of Illinois Press (1991, 1994 paperback);
Scott Simmon, “The Films of D. W. Griffith,” Cambridge University Press (1993, 1998 paperback).
Schickel, Richard, “D. W. Griffith: An American Life,” Limelight Editions, 1996, paperback;
Stebbins, Genevieve, “Delsarte System of Expression,” Edgar S. Werner, 1894, Fifth Edition (Public Domain, available as a free Google e-book in several formats).
“D. W. Griffith, Director (Volumes 1 through 3)”, Grapevine Video, www.grapevinevideo.com, covers select films of Griffith at Biograph, 1908 to 1909 (the period of Lawrence’s employment at the studio). Quality varies with the source material, but it is the only way for the average person to see the films from 1908 and first half of 1909.
See also: the “Bibliography Page,” under the header image for book and publishing details and additional suggested reading.