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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring: FLORENCE TURNER

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1911 Florence Turner Vitagraph Players CardOkay – so we know by now that most of the starlets of the silent days were crowned some kind of glorious or not-so-glorious title: “First Lady of the Screen” (Clara Kimball Young); “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” (Mae Murray); “The Girl who is Too Beautiful” (Barbara LaMarr), for example. Yes, these catchphrases made for good publicity, and some of them are better than others at depicting the sheer talent or true star power of those icons of the day, but they do make one a little nostalgic for a time when studios put so much work into promoting each and every one of their contract stars. And it would be remiss to leave out Florence Turner, whose spin doctors may not have been all that creative, but who surely thought the world of her; they dubbed her, simply, “The Vitagraph Girl.” Maybe that says it all, and if it doesn’t, it might be interesting to note that she was sometimes credited in her films as Baby Twinkles.

Little Miss Twinkles came onto the scene rather early, and was therefore probably the first to acquire such treatment from publicists. Florence was born in 1887, well before the movies were, and well before there was even a notion that actors could become such powerful cultural forces. Hailing from New York, she began, as most of her would-be contemporaries did, on the stage, doing both theatre and vaudeville under the less glamorous name of Eugenie Florence. While a good actress, she became known primarily for her comic abilities, specifically her impersonations of famous actresses such as Fay Templeton and Marie Dressler.

Unlike other movie starlets, Florence didn’t have an inkling of what the movies were to become for quite awhile; in 1907, when she finally entered the business, she was already twenty years old – but she was also a seasoned performer, and raring to go. She quickly caught the interest of Vitagraph producers (Vitagraph was one of the first real studios), and she was more than ready to experiment along with them as they got their feet off the ground. Not only did she begin appearing in many short films – her debut was in How to Cure a Cold in 1907 - but she also spent quite some time doing a lot of legwork for the new company; she did some accounting, handled payment for performers, acted as clerk, and was always doing this work with a smile on her face. No wonder she was seen as such an asset to Vitagraph.

Her attitude paid off: among her early film credits were such interesting ones as A Tale of Two Cities, Lancelot and Elaine, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, A 1924 Norma Talmadge BAT Tobacco CardMidsummer’s Night Dream, The Closed Door, The Dixie Mother. She made four Shakespeare adaptations in 1908 alone! An interesting side-note here is that during the filming of A Tale of Two Cities, she took ill and couldn’t finish all of the shoot. At this point, a new up-and-comer, the now famous Norma Talmadge, stood in for her, largely being shot from behind. While Norma would become of the leading actresses of the day, she had nothing but compliments for Florence Turner; in fact, she was quoted once as saying, “I would rather have touched the hem of [Florence’s] skirt than to have shaken hands with St. Peter.” Quite a compliment!

Back in those days, as today, stars really needed to work hard to promote themselves, and personal appearances are a tried, tested and true way of reaching out to fans. In 1910, Florence did a series engagements, including an tour of theatres in Brooklyn to promote her new song “The Vitagraph Girl”, the title that would immortalize her. It was this tour and its extreme success that drew the attention of the New York Dramatic Mirror, which did great tribute to Florence by calling her “A motion picture star.” Florence really trailblazed here; not only was she probably the first person called a movie star, but her success led Vitagraph to continue doing personal appearances, giving other actors and actresses the chance to rise to fame. Florence, of course, continued doing them as well – personal appearances were the new order of the day, and the studios were stupefied by how popular they were – before there were ever rock concert riots, there were fights breaking out all over the place when people couldn’t get into the halls to see Florence Turner.

By 1913, Florence made an odd move, choosing to leave Vitagraph to do a vaudeville tour. This does remind us, though, that the movies weren’t always what they are today; at the time, theatre was still going extremely strong, and it probably didn’t dawn on Florence that the movies would be much more lucrative a career choice, that they would eventually “take over” from the theatre as the most popular form of entertainment. But she didn’t leave the movies behind entirely. Her vaudeville tour included a one-reeler of Florence’s and her best claim to fame: her impersonations. This went well, and when it ended, she moved to London, England to do a music hall tour at the London Pavilion.

Also an entrepreneur, Florence established Turner Films while in London. Her friend and also a former Vitagraph employee Larry Trimble became head of production, and British thespian Henry Edwards signed on as lead male actor. Independent film (non-studio) was quite good business in England, and while there, Florence made over 30 films while continuing to do theatre, including: Creatures of Habit, Rose of Surrey, and the feature-length film Far From the Madding Crowd. In 1915, she made My Old Dutch with Albert Chevalier, and this ended up being her most popular film, and most enduring. She wasn’t forgotten by the U.S., either; a company called Mutual distributed her films there, and the public still loved her.

The First World War came between Florence and her European career, and she moved back to the U.S. in 1916. Unfortunately, the Hollywood she left behind was not the Hollywood she had left. New, younger actors and actresses where gaining public attention, and despite Florence’s achievements and track record, she just wasn’t able to keep up; she would never again appear in a major feature film. She tried her hand at directing comedy, having been solicited by Universal in 1919, but that deal ended up on the cutting room floor before much could come of it. A year later, she became a stock player at Metro, clearly a step down for a former star, and after becoming dissatisfied with doing small parts, she 1924 May McAvoy BAT Tobacco Cardmoved back to England in 1922. She was still a star there, and did many features, but these were never brought to the U.S. – one such film was The Little Mother, of that year.

She did, though, have her ever-popular impersonations to keep the fire in her blood, and now she had new personalities to bring to the public, including the hard-to-mimic   Charlie Chaplin, and popular and notoriously difficult screen actress Mae Murray. In 1924, though, the film industry was flailing in England, and all studios shut down. Once again Florence returned to the U.S. in search of work. Again she wasn’t too successful; her old friend Larry Trimble, now at Universal, wanted to remake My Old Dutch with Florence reprising the lead role, but studio heads wanted a younger star: May McAvoy got the role.

Florence continued doing small roles, mostly playing mothers; one memorable performance was in Buster Keaton’s 1927 College. She also continued doing impersonations well into the 1930s, now of movie stars in a show called Pioneer Film Days, which did quite well. Never a quitter, she signed on as a stock extra in the movies, this time with MGM. This contract would be her last; she died on August 28, 1946. She will always be remembered as the first true movie star, and her career perfectly encapsulates the era of the rise and fall of the silent film; Florence’s star days were over before sound revolutionized the movie industry, and yet, her outstanding success played a small part in ensuring that the movies, in any form, were truly here to stay.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.