Florence Lawrence was born into show business. Her mother was a Vaudeville stalwart and Florence first trod the boards aged 3, in a cutesy act where she was dubbed ‘Baby Flo, The Child Wonder Whistler’ (apparently what passed for entertainment was a lot different then)
Thankfully, Florence grew up, and got the hell out of whistling based entertainment, moving to the newly developing film industry. By 1906 she landed had her first film role.
Within just a few months Florence had appeared in dozens of films. It was thanks to this relentless work ethic, as well as that Florence’s strong acting ability and looks, that led to Florence landing her big break. The plum part of Daniel Boones daughter, in Boone, a biopic of (unsurprisingly) Daniel Boone.
For this honour Florence got to stand in the freezing cold for hours on end, whilst being paid a pittance. Glamorous this was not. BUT Vitagraph, the studio behind Boone, loved Florence and almost immediately she was signed up and staring as the lead in countless films.
However, Vitagraph weren’t the only studio who’d fallen for Flo. Biograph Studios was the industry big hitter and they wanted Florence on their roster.
With an offer of more money and endless opportunities, Florence would have been stupid to turn Biograph down.
And so by 1908, just 2 years after starting out in film, Florence was Biograph’s main attraction. Her face plastered everywhere, she was a box office draw like no other.
Suddenly Florence had become the worlds first film star – but there was just one caveat:
Nobody knew who she was.
You see Biograph didn’t credit their onscreen talent. And so, Florence’s name never appeared anywhere near her films.
And despite their desperate pleas, fans were never offered her real name. She was known only as:
The Biograph Girl
One big downside of being famous but nameless was that you were very disposable, something Florence found out when she was fired from Biograph after trying to source her own work.
Florence was down, but she wasn’t out! So, she joined an independent film, The Broken Oath, with the films posters and promo all featuring Florence by name.
Now Florence wasn’t just the first film star, she was the first titled film star
With a name to go with the face, the world went Florence Lawrence mad. And so, Florence invented the film star and the celebrity that goes stardom.
Which is kind of ironic, considering Florence’s true passion:
Florence was never happier than when she was under the hood of a car. She spent years studying up in mechanics and tinkering with as many engines as she could get her hands on.
Seriously, girl loved cars, once saying:
“A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.”
But despite Florence feeling cars were inherently wonderful and kind, they had a bit of a bad rep, thanks to their nasty habit of killing a ton of people. Florence decided to change that.
In 1914 she started developing a system that allowed drivers to tell other drivers and pedestrians which way they were going (a sign flipped up with a quick click of a button) then she invited a system that alerted people when the car was about to brake.
Florence’s inventions were the forerunners to the electric signal turns and brake lights that are now in every car worldwide today.
Sadly Florence never patented her inventions, so she never got the credit she deserved or ALL of the money that goes with such world changing genius.
Sadly it only gets worse from here. Florence was badly burned in an onset accident, which left her with burns on her face and dramatically cut her work offers.
Then she lost most of her money in the final crash of 1929. By the 1930s, Florence was broke, with a string of divorces and business closures behind her and a medical condition that caused her unceasing pain, in addition to depression.
In 1938, Florence Lawrence took her own life.
But thats not the end of Florence Lawrence’s story. Well, it doesn’t have to be.
Florence’s groundbreaking film career and her incredible inventions are just starting to be remembered.
So tell people about this amazing lady and when you’re next in a car (or near one!) remember to thank Florence, because she invented the break light, which has totally saved your arse at least once.
That was interesting, where can I find out more? Kelly Brown has a fun biography of Florence (Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star) it’s more focused on her film career than her work in mechancics, but a great read on the silent era of film