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chapter two “To Get Some of the ‘Good Gravy’” for Themselves Stardom, Features, and the First Star-Producers T he story of the first movie star, as told in the contemporary trade press and many subsequent histories, goes something like this: On February 19, 1910, a St. Louis newspaper reported that the popular actress known only to movie patrons as the “Biograph Girl” was dead following a tragic streetcar accident. Fans did not know the name of their favorite actress because producers withheld the names of their players to avoid paying the higher salaries film stardom would bring. But fans soon learned that the Biograph Girl was named Florence Lawrence and that she was alive and well and in the employ of a new producer because Carl Laemmle , head of the Independent Moving Picture Company (or IMP), told them so. Taking out a full-page announcement on March 12 in Moving Picture World, Laemmle claimed that Biograph planted the story in a fit of pique over losing its best player to the rival IMP Company. Using the actress’s real name for the first time in print, Laemmle assured readers that Lawrence, “the ‘IMP’ girl, formerly know as the ‘Biograph’ girl,” was “in the best of health” and that “very shortly some of the best work of her career is to be released.”1 To prove it, Laemmle sent Lawrence, her leading man, and her director to make an appearance in the flesh at two St. Louis theaters—the Gem and the Grand Opera House. The St. Louis Times announced the arrival time of Lawrence’s train, planned a welcome party, and offered a special clip-out coupon to female fans, who would receive a “handsome photo” of Lawrence upon presenting it to the actress.2 What allegedly happened next shocked observers. A crowd larger than the one that had greeted President Taft a week earlier rushed at the moving picture actress. They ripped the buttons from her coat and stole her hat. According to one source, Lawrence escaped only with the help of the police.3 Foreshadowing the now familiar hysteria of film fandom, the first American movie star was born. Laemmle’s publicity stunt was so successful it carried this creation myth to the end of the twentieth century, until the late Robert deCordova revised the history of the early star system in 1990. He discovered that the names of film actors and actresses were revealed months earlier, even Lawrence’s name, and he found no evidence of the alleged original newspaper story claiming Lawrence had died. The Lawrence stunt did not invent the film star, he argued; instead, the arrival of the star system was a natural shift from the focus on the “apparatus” as the creator of film to the actors on the screen, concomitant with the rise of the narrative film.4 However, both Laemmle’s announcement in Moving Picture World and Lawrence’s appearance in St. Louis were real. And although we cannot be sure of her reception, the reactions published by Moving Picture World after this publicity stunt indicate a sea change. A mere two months after Lawrence’s live appearance in St. Louis, Moving Picture World’s “Man About Town” professed astonishment at “the interest the public has taken in the personality of many of the picture players.” Letters allegedly poured into the offices of film manufacturers and exchanges, from both men and women, asking for autographed photos of their favorite leading actors. One actress claimed to have received three thousand offers of marriage just three months after the Lawrence incident.5 By the end of 1910, Moving Picture World’s new “Picture Personalities” column profiled Florence Turner of Vitagraph, Mary Pickford of Biograph, and Pearl White of the Powers film manufacturing company.6 Even if it did not invent the film star, the Lawrence incident signaled to the industry that the star had arrived. The second major corrective from deCordova was his proposal that the film industry marshaled the emergence of the star system for its own gain, an idea that runs contrary to “[s]tandard accounts,” which, he asserted, “would almost lead one to believe that the industry entered into the star system against its will.”7 Truly the film industry benefited from the box office draw of the star and the publicity of fan culture and participated in the development of both. When the stars first emerged from within the film industry’s own stock companies, rather than try...


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