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How We Got Movie Stars

Written By: Stephen Schochet

Early movies had no stories, no stars and no sound. A popular movie in the 1890′s was two girls getting undressed by a lake. Right before their last garments came off, a train came by to block your view. In the next scene the two girls were swimming in the lake. The film was a hit throughout the country.

One old farmer went and saw this same movie for weeks and weeks. One day the theater manager came down and said,” Say old timer. Every day we show the same film with the girls, the train and the lake and every day you keep coming back.” “Well sonny, one of these days I’m hoping the train will be late!”

Many of the early film actors were quite content to stay anonymous, reasoning that the new flickers were a novelty and would damage their reputation on the legitimate stage. They were often expected to work all day long. Their duties included hammering nails, painting the set, picking up trash, and lifting heavy equipment. There were no trailers or perks or glamour or big houses. A casting director might meet a newspaper boy on the street and hire him as an lead actor for five dollars a day. Ladies of the evening were often given jobs simply because they provided their own wardrobes. Not knowing their real names, the movie going public would give their favorite actor’s appropriate nicknames such as “the waif” or “the cowboy”. The growing curiosity surrounding the identities lead to the birth of movie fan magazines such as Photoplay in 1909. But fearing that their players would demand huge salaries the producers still refused to release their names.

One of the most prominent movie theater owners was a former clothing store manager from Oshkosh, Wisconsin named Carl Laemmle, the eventual founder of Universal Studios. By 1909 he was sick of buying movies from Thomas Edison and had decided to make his own. Laemmle would listen each night, as his patrons would leave his theater; many would excitedly discuss the actors on the screen. He decided if he was going to produce 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 known to the public as the Biograph Girl after the studio she worked for. One tale had the four-foot Laemmle conducting a midnight raid of Biograph where he carried his new star away over his shoulder. He then announced her real name and 250-dollar week salary to the new fan magazines then arranged for her 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 had Florence killed by a streetcar. Then, as pre-arranged by Carl Laemmle, Florence “miraculously” resurfaced in St. Louis were she was mobbed, her clothes ripped off by hired fans. And so Florence Lawrence gained a huge following. Movies with her name on the marquee started selling like hot cakes.

A few years later she was working on a film when a fire broke out on the set. Young Florence courageously risked her life to save her fellow actors and the incident left her temporarily paralyzed. By the time she recovered no one would hire her. But though she ended up in obscurity, Florence Lawrence was the first movie star.

About the Author

Stephen Schochet is the author and narrator of the audiobooks “Fascinating Walt Disney” and “Tales Of Hollywood”. The Saint Louis Post Dispatch says,” these two elaborate productions are exceptionally entertaining.” Hear realaudio samples of these great, unique gifts at www.hollywoodstories.com.

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