In the beginning, being a film star was not glamorous, at least not in the way we think of film stars today. In fact, early actors and actresses were un-billed and nameless to the public, known, if at all, for their face only. Early stars who caught on with viewers were given nicknames: “The Biograph Girl” (Florence Lawrence), “The Girl With The Curls” (Mary Pickford), etc. Finally, because of the popularity of certain faces, their names were publicly released and the movie star, as we know it, was born.
The new medium, film, also began with a lackluster reputation. Opposed to Vaudeville and Broadway, it was affordable for the lower classes. Without an elitist sheen, it was seen as unsophisticated and inelegant. Immigrants went to the flickers! Poor folk! Films were churned out quickly and were often crudely made. To be an actor in such things meant that you had a touch of the cheap and vulgar about you. It was thought to be a major step down for those who considered themselves serious artists.
But it was a job.
So, despite their better judgement perhaps, some serious actors and actresses did embark on a film career. They soon found themselves in the mix of a scrappy group of pioneers who worked and discovered together, who did their own stunts, who were bold and brave because they had the freedom to explore and discover. The landscape was bare and they were shaping it together.
Many of the earliest studios started on the East coast, not sunny California where they eventually ended up. These first studios were often brownstone walk-ups, not sprawling lots.
Edison – The first film studio, built and named for its creator in 1893 (you may know his name), Thomas Edison. It was Edison’s vision and cash that ran the works, but it was his assistant, engineer William K.L. Dickson, who put together the world’s first motion picture film camera (called the Kinetograph). Because he was the creator, so to speak, of the film industry, Edison fought tooth and nail with other studios that popped up as competitors (and many did pop up). Edison’s studio remained one of the major outfits of that period, but he soon had some actual competition, despite his patents and lawsuits.
Biograph– Under-appreciated Dickson grew disillusioned with his role at Edison and broke off to create his own studio in New York, the American Mutoscope Company, later renamed Biograph (for the new camera that Dickson created). They quickly grew to become one of the most popular studios. From Biograph came resident auteur, director D.W. Griffith, and America’s first movie star as she was the first to be publicly named: Florence Lawrence, originally known as “The Biograph Girl.” The May 26, 1910 edition of the Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana) described the occasion,“Yes, you could pick her out of a crowd as easily as you could pick your best girl, so often have you seen her in the moving pictures. She’s in your life, the same as the Goddess of Liberty, and for a time she was just as incognito. But that’s all over with the incognito. Her name is Florence Lawrence. There.”
Essanay – Founded in 1907, this Chicago based studio later setup a lot in California and was best known for its association with Charlie Chaplin, its biggest moneymaker and future film phenomenon. Chaplin’s exit from the studio marked Essanay’s doom and it was absorbed by a bigger studio.
Vitagraph – New York based studio, the American Vitagraph Company (known simply as Vitagraph), was founded in 1897. It started with newsreels and Westerns and in time grew to be the largest film company of its peers. However, by 1925 the growing film industry ensured that this once big fish was officially overtaken by some stronger swimmers.
This was the case not only for Vitagraph, but for the other studios mentioned above.
A few young hopefuls had thrown their hats in the ring. Many were lower class, foreign born, who came with their families to America for better opportunities. They were ambitious and saw the growing business of film as one where a bit of business acumen, some cash, and a lot of hard work could pay off.
Among these were Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, and the brothers Warner…
To Be Continued…
Brown, Kelly R. Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star. Mcfarland, 1999.
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Dirks, Tim. “The History of Film The Pre-1920s: Early Cinematic Origins and the Infancy of Film .” AMC Filmsite, http://www.filmsite.org/pre20sintro.html.