As we touched on yesterday, the movie industry more or less sprang into being over a whiplash-inducing couple of years, and has hardly changed since.
And nowhere is that more true than when it comes to the glorious monster we all love to obsess over and also criticise every single aspect of… the movie star.
We often talk as though we just invented fame. It’s arguably true that technology - particularly social media and the ability to follow (or at least feel as though you are following) your fave’s every move - has amplified the whole thing. But we’ve been fascinated by people a bit fancier than ourselves for hundreds of years.
In days gone by it might have been the aristocracy — or more likely, the mistresses of aristocracy — that we gossiped about, speculated over their love lives, tried to find out what they were wearing to this ball or that. Because I’m a pain in the arse, I love to point out to people criticising the cult of fame for fame’s sake that arguably the Kardashians worked more for their fame than folk who were born with titles. By which I’m not particularly defending the Kardashians, as much pointing out that being famous for being famous is not a new thing.
One of my heroines, for reasons of her sheer gumption and hustle, is Lady Emma Hamilton.
She was born into poverty 1765 in Cheshire. In her early teens, she ran away to London where she became a model and a muse for various artists, a very expensive call girl, an all round fixture on the party scene. She developed an act called Attitudes, where she would pose initiating famous sculptures or paintings (sexy ones, to be clear) at society parties and gentlemen’s clubs. She would freeze in a tableau and men would stroll around enjoying the view, and she became a millionaire.
She was also famous for merrily shagging her way through a series artists and diplomats, most notably Horatio Nelson, Admiral of the British Navy. They were like an 18th century Brangelina or Love Island couple of the moment — the model fashionista and her navy guy. They did tours of the country where they sold swag of themselves and were mobbed by fans just for being fabulous.
Tragically Lady Emma was essentially murdered by the patriarchy. After Nelson’s death at Trafalgar she inherited his debts but not his money so she died destitute in France. My point is, if the internet had been invented, she would have broken it.
Of course movie stars ware famous for acting, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind, that there was a culture of celebrity worship all ready for them to step into. Also let’s be honest, while many movie stars are also phenomenal actors, the correlation between talent and fame isn’t as direct as we might like to think!
In the 1860s, theatre productions were built around stars, to the extent that, according to Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood by Karen Ward Mahar, ‘the public fell into a state of mind in which it regarded any production as inferior that did not include a star in its cast.”
(I know any actors reading this are groaning, because that is one thing that definitely hasn’t changed!)
What is curious, though, is that despite the success of star-packed theatre, producers initially tried very hard to avoid movie stars becoming famous.
For the first few years of the film industry, the names of actors weren’t advertised, it would be “the Biograph Girl”, the “girl with the golden curls.” (We do know who was in The Kiss, only because it was a scene from a Broadway hit, so the actors had already been credited by the theatre.) This attempt at keeping actors anonymous was predictably cynical: producers suspected that if actors became famous and discovered their worth to the commercial success of pictures, they would expect to be paid accordingly.
They were entirely correct.
Enter Florence Lawrence.
From Hamilton, Ontario, Lawrence’s breakthrough role was for the Edison company playing Daniel Boone’s daughter in 1907’s Daniel Boone: or, Pioneer Days of America.
In Go West Young Women, Hilary A Hallet describes her performance in Daniel Boone:
Playing a Boone daughter captured by [indigenous people], Lawrence executes a daring escape, riding bareback at breakneck speed, long blonde curls flying out behind her.
She moved on to work for Vitagraph then Biograph, two companies, both in New York, that dominated early American filmmaking in the naughties. At Biograph, her main competition was Mary Pickford, or “America’s Sweetheart” as she was then known. Despite also being Canadian.
Pickford specialised in playing plucky and fiesty, but ultra feminine, characters. She would have been perfect for Legally Blonde. In think Reece Witherspoon may well be be Mary Pickford reincarnated, which I hope she would take as a compliment because that absolutely how I mean it.
Lawrence, on the other hand, was more Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality, too busy having adventures to bother with girly stuff. She kicked off a whole genre in the teens which was referred to as New Women: basically action-adventure movies in which women raced cars and flew planes and generally had a whale of a time. When she first came to Biograph in 1907, DW Griffith reportedly asked her if she could ride a horse and she replied “I would rather ride than eat,” which strikes me as a bit extreme, but you do you Florence.
And if she wasn’t cool enough on screen, Lawrence was such a petrol-head in real life that she invented indicators, plus was a passionate and public advocate for women’s suffrage.
Between 1906 and 1910, she made almost 100 movies, but nobody knew her name. Then in 1910, a producer called Carl Laemmle, a recent German immigrant to the States, started his own company, the Independent Motion Picture Company. He needed a star to launch it with. To tempt Lawrence away from Biograph, he approached her and — like many a greasy producer hanging around the Arrivals hall at LAX ever since — told her he could make her famous.
She agreed, so he took out an ad denying that she was dead. As you do. The ad claimed that people were saying she had been killed getting off a streetcar in New York. Nobody was saying that, not only because it didn’t happen, but because nobody knew who she was.
But now they did. The ad reassured everyone that she was alive and well and shooting The Broken Oath for the Independent Picture Company. That film proved a huge hit and Laemle sent Lawrence on a publicity tour of the Midwest, where she was mobbed everywhere she went.
As we all know, this is a technique still used today. Every time an actor pipes up out of nowhere to absolutely deny he is the new Bond, he is paying homage to Papa Carl. A couple of years later, partly off the back of Lawrence’s wild success, Laemle bought a plot of land in the San Fernando Valley and he named the studio he built there Universal.
It’s still doing quite well.
Like so many early silent stars, Lawrence’s story ends tragically. Her career faltered as the flapper age got underway and her spunky pioneer spirit style fell out of fashion. She lost much of her fortune in the Wall Street Crash, then the Depression killed off the cosmetic store she started with her second husband. In the mid thirties, MGM started a program giving destitute silent stars bit parts for $75 a week. Lawrence was working there in 1938 when she died in her late forties.