January 1st, 2010

carole lombard 05
  • vp19

Celebrating two cinematic centennials

The opening scene from a future Carole Lombard biopic:

(The Peters home, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Oct. 6, 1908. As her husband and two sons look on, Elizabeth Peters, in bed, holds the newborn Jane Alice in her arms.)

I have so many dreams for my little Jane Alice, and what she’ll accomplish. Who knows –- maybe she’ll go to Hollywood, and be a movie star!

An offscreen scream is heard -– not from the film soundtrack, but from me in the audience. In just a matter of seconds, this fictional biopic has made “Gable And Lombard” look like a documentary by comparison.

Why? For the simple reason that in 1908, there were no such things as “movie stars.” People acted in films, yes, but actors were not identified, so the term “movie star” was nonexistent. And while Hollywood existed in 1908 –- at the time, it was even its own city –- few people outside Los Angeles knew, or cared. The tiny community certainly wasn’t synonymous with the developing motion picture industry.

We have just entered a year that celebrates the centennial of the beginning ot the recognition of both the concept of the “movie star” and of southern California becoming the focal point of the film industry. Neither happened completely overnight, or even within the year — but 1910 would be the catalyst for both.

So, who was the first person defined as a “movie star”? Mary Pickford? Not a bad guess, and in some ways you could define Mary as the first motion picture “superstar” (pardon that hackneyed word), but her period of recognition came a little later. It was another actress –- one few have heard of today -– who was the first “star” of note. Her name: Florence Lawrence.

Lawrence, an Ontario native like Pickford, was already known to film audiences…well, her image was. She was the most recognized player in Biograph films, and in fact was labeled the “Biograph girl.” But her identity remained a secret. (That seems inconceivable today, but many stage actors actually preferred not having themselves linked to motion pictures, as it was deemed lower-class entertainment.)

In February 1910, Carl Laemmle, head of the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP) and future Universal mogul, hired Lawrence from Biograph –- and from the start, he intended to promote her to the public by name. Advertisements appeared in newspapers throughout the country, calling Lawrence "the greatest moving picture actress in the world today."

But the hype appeared for naught in March when it was reported that Lawrence had been killed in a streetcar accident. Not the case, however; it was a fabrication invented by Laemmle’s publicists. Later in March, Lawrence and IMP’s top male player, King Baggot, appeared in St. Louis and drew thousands of spectators. Soon, the phrase “moving picture star” entered the lexicon, something shortly contracted to “movie star.”

Lawrence was both a talented actress (she did many of her own stunts) and a fascinating personality. She was a passionate feminist, regularly appearing at suffrage rallies, and she also pioneered the concept of actress as inventor. Decades before Hedy Lamarr helped the Allied cause in World War II with designs for a torpedo guiding system or Julie Newmar invented a new form of pantyhose, Lawrence -– who loved to drive -- devised turn signals and brake lights for cars, and with her mother created an automatic windshield wiper. (She didn’t patent any of her inventions, and they were soon technologically superceded.)

Lawrence made more than 140 films between 1910 and 1914, then took some time off from acting. Her career never recovered. By the time she returned to the screen in 1916, the industry had matured, and her previous popularity with the nickelodeon crowd didn’t mean much anymore. She would appear in only 18 more movies, increasingly being unbilled or placed in bit parts.

One guesses that movie-mad Jane Alice Peters saw her share of Lawrence films while still in Fort Wayne. Did they ever meet? The answer is most likely yes…for in 1932, Lawrence appeared in the Carole Lombard film “Sinners In The Sun,” though the Internet Movie Database doesn’t list the name of her character. I have no idea whether Lombard and Lawrence were in any scenes together.

Lawrence’s final film work came in 1936’s “Hollywood Boulevard,” when she was 50; however, her scenes were deleted. Despondent over her inability to find work, she committed suicide near the end of 1938 by ingesting ant paste.

This is downtown Los Angeles in 1910 (at right is the fabled "Angels Flight" tram at Third and Hill streets). The area was growing rapidly, though it had not yet usurped San Francisco as California’s dominant city. That would soon change for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were films.

In late January 1910, director D.W. Griffith arrived in the city to produce films. He wasn’t the first émigré from the east to make movies -– two companies had set up shop in 1909 -- but he was clearly the most influential; among his troupe were future industry legends Pickford and Mack Sennett. Here's Griffith directing a scene in California:

It’s often stated that Los Angeles became a film capital because independent producers, trying to evade the stifling Motion Picture Trust, liked being close to Mexico. But that’s a gross oversimplification. Had that been the case, San Diego -– only a few miles from the border -– would have been the focal point.

No, Los Angeles had many other things working in its favor -– a good climate; easy proximity to all sorts of terrain from mountains to beaches; and a largely supportive business community. All of these factors helped southern California conquer its chief motion picture rivals -– Fort Lee, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and Jacksonville, Fla. By the end of the 1910s, both had sharply declined as sites for film work.

So where does Hollywood specifically figure into this? In early February 1910, Griffith made his third film on the Coast, “In Old California” –- the first to be shot in a new section of Los Angeles known as Hollywood. (It had been its own city for several years, but in January, voters decided to bring it into Los Angeles to take advantage of its burgeoning water supply.)

A few months after “In Old California,” Griffith shot “Ramona,” an adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel about white society’s injustice to Native Americans. Released in May, “Ramona” became a sensation, aided by the beautiful scenery of the then still largely rural Hollywood region.

Other companies followed, and within a few years the word “Hollywood” became not only synonymous with filming in southern California, but to the industry as a whole.

A wonderful Web site constructed by William M. Drew has all sorts of information on this largely neglected part of cinematic history. (Believe it or not, Florence Lawrence has no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though to be fair the films of her peak era were all shot outside California.) The site includes photos, contemporary clippings and more. Go to http://william-m-drew.webs.com/ -- you will be enthralled. And you’ll also get your history straight.
  • Current Mood
    nostalgic nostalgic