early hollywood -- 4/8/22

Today's selection -- from Hollywood Stories by Stephen Schochet. Florence Lawrence was America’s first movie star:

"In the early days of Hollywood, German-born Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, fought a furious battle against Thomas Edison over the right to make movies. After patenting the motion picture camera in 1890, the shrewd self-promoting Edison required all producers to pay him a fee before their pictures could be legally exhibited to the public. Laemmle became an outlaw guerilla filmmaker who outmaneuvered the inventor at every turn. Unlike Edison, who refused to reveal the names of the actors who worked for him, the tiny mogul created the movie star system, which grew his company enormously. The battle was decided in 1915, when the courts declared Edison was not entitled to a monopoly. Laemmle, who had gotten used to his unlawful and underdog status, misunderstood when his lawyer sent him a triumphant telegram: JUSTICE HAS BEEN SERVED!

"The early movies shown in famed inventor Thomas Edison's (1847-1931) time had no stories, no movie stars and no sound. Often, short films were called 'chasers'; they were shown continuously at the end of a program until the patrons left the theater so a new paying crowd could come in. One such production, shown in the early 20th century, involved two girls getting undressed by a lake. Right before their last garments came off, a train came by and blocked the audience's view. In the next scene, they were swimming. The three-minute film was shown throughout the country. One old farmer became a big fan and kept paying to see it repeatedly. One day the theater manager came down and said, 'Say old timer. Every day you sit and watch the same thing over and over.'

'''Well sonny, one of these days I'm hoping the train will be late!'

"Many early film actors, fearful of being blacklisted by legitimate stage theater owners, were content to stay anonymous. The flickers were considered by serious performers to be an embarrassing novelty that probably would soon fade away. Those who joined the new industry were expected to work all day long, even when the cameras were not rolling Their duties included hammering nails, painting scenery backgrounds, picking up trash and lifting heavy equipment. There were no on-set trailers, perks, glamour or big mansions. Casting directors met newspaper boys on the street and then hired them as a lead actor for five dollars a day. Ladies of the evening were often given jobs mainly because they provided their own wardrobes. More often the studios would hire teenage girls who needed no make-up, which in the pre-Max Factor days would melt under the hotlights. Not knowing their real names, the movie­going public gave their favorites appropriate monikers such as 'the waif' or 'the cowboy.' The growing curiosity surrounding the cinema led to the birth of movie magazines, such as Photoplay in 1909. The new publication conducted a poll asking what kinds of screen stories people would like to see. Was it romance? Crime? The overwhelming answer was that fans were far more interested in learning about the mysterious, bigger-than-life figures they watched in the darkened movie theaters. But concerned that their players would demand huge salaries, the producers still refused to reveal who they were.

Lawrence in 1908

"One of the most prominent movie-theater owners was a former clothing store manager who had been based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, named Carl Laemmle (1867-1939), the eventual founder of Universal Studios. By 1909, the German-born Laemmle was sick of buying films from Thomas Edison (1847-1931) or European providers. He concluded it was easier and cheaper to make his own movies. Many nights, Carl would listen as his patrons left his theater as they would excitedly discuss the magical people on the screen. If Carl was going to pay for his own pictures, he would sell them by creating a star. He wasted no time in hiring a twenty-year-old actress named Florence Lawrence (1886-1938), known to the public as 'The Biograph Girl' (she was named after the studio she worked for). One tale had the four-foot-ten Laemmle conducting a midnight raid of Biograph's offices, where he carried his new charge away over his shoulder. He revealed her name and two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a­week salary to the new fan magazines, and then arranged for Lawrence to mysteriously disappear. 'My competitors will stop at nothing to ruin me. They've kidnapped poor Florence, perhaps even killed her!' he told the press.

"For the next few weeks, Americans followed the saga in the newspapers; there were several false reports of foul play. One account stated Florence was killed by a streetcar. Then, as pre-arranged by Carl Laemmle, Florence 'miraculously' resurfaced in St. Louis where she was mobbed, her clothes ripped off by fans (some of them hired). Florence Lawrence gained a huge following, her name on a cinema marquee guaranteed ticket sales and she arguably became the world's first movie star."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Stephen Schochet


Hollywood Stories


Hollywoods Stories Publishing


Copyright 2010, 2013 by Stephen Schochet


163 - 165
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment