"The first movie star" was born here.
by Sara Ouellette Knelman

        One afternoon last year my phone rang on a typically busy afternoon (I am a curator at an art gallery), and a man began to explain excitedly that he had a watercolour: a watercolour, he said, painted by a Hamilton movie star.

I googled my mind and struck on an image of Martin Short in a beret, brush in hand, capturing the ironic beauty of the industrial Hamilton landscape at sunset. This seemed, well, wrong. Improbable, at least, unless a part of comedy sketch.  So I asked him who the artist was, and he told me, "Florence Lawrence." 

Who? I know. Sadly Lawrence's reputation has dwindled over generations, supplanted by modern celebrity. But if she were alive now, I suspect Florence Lawrence would be on the cover of Hello (okay, maybe only the Canadian edition) almost as often as Angelina Jolie. 

She was born in Hamilton as Florence Annie Bridgewood on January 2, 1890 (some sources suggest 1886), but didn’t stay for long. Her tragic-glam life played out in la-la-land, quite a lot of it on the silver screen in over 300 early Hollywood movies. Lawrence, as her mother stage-named her, was the first “Biograph Girl,” a title given by the eponymous studio to their leading performers in the early days of picture-making (the also-Canadian Mary Pickford, the second “Biograph Girl”, is the better remembered of the two). She was also the first filmed Juliet in the 1909 “Romeo and Juliet,” one of 65 films she made in this year), a role that has since been played by Olivia Hussey in 1968 and most recently Claire Danes in 1996. Crucially, Lawrence was the first “named” leading cast member in a Hollywood move, in Carl Laemmle's 1910 film “The Broken Oath,” changing the system forever, and ushering in a new era of the “movie star”.

But it’s Lawrence’s curious off-camera life – before, during and after the movies - that would have made her the not only the first "movie star" but also the first celebrity. From the age of 3, Lawrence traveled the vaudeville circuit as, in all seriousness, "Baby Flo – The Child Wonder Whistler," with her stage mother Lotta Lawrence. This auspicious beginning set the tone for her dramatic life in Hollywood. Twenty years later when Laemmele nabbed her from Biograph, he did it with impressive PR wizardry. Laemmele started compelling rumors that Lawrence had died in a tragic streetcar accident, then miraculously pulled her out of his hat without so much as a scratch, and announced her presence at his studio. This stunning trick made her already adoring fans swoon with relief: her subsequent appearance in St. Louis, the alleged location of the accident, apparently drew a bigger crowd than a Presidential visit had the week before. 

Florence’s actual demise, though, turned out to be as tragic as the one Laemmele invented. Her career was cut short when she was badly burned in an on-set fire, apparently because of her attempt to rescue someone else from the flames. She lost two husbands in a decade, and a third marriage failed in less than a year. Although she continued to work sporadically toward the end of her career, her depression eventually ended in suicide. In 1938, just after Christmas, she swallowed a lethal concoction of cough syrup and rat poison.

Her film career is now all but forgotten. As is her documented but unpatented invention of the first turn signal — Lawrence was also an early fan of the “new” automobile, and, apparently, her turn as a watercolourist. But she should be celebrated, her legend resurrected, here in her hometown. The Florence Lawrence Film Festival, maybe? I bet Martin Short would come home for that.

     [Distillate © HA&L + Sara Ouellette Knelman  |  {from the Greek bios} -- the course of a life.]