For as long as I can remember, the American film-history canon lists Florence Lawrence as the first movie star and that she was first featured as a star in the 1910 film, The Broken Oath. It’s a great story because it reveals that the established dominant players in the film business were too busy maintaining the status quo in the early 1910s and missed that film audiences wanted more than a generic motion picture. They wanted something different.
Film companies in the nickelodeon era, prior to 1910, would not promote their actors. The film manufacturing companies preferred to sell films as commodities, pricing them by the foot, and didn’t want to promote the actors for fear that they would demand higher salaries. Instead, a foot of film was like a barrel of oil, a bushel of corn, or a pound of cotton.
However, film audiences began to recognize certain actors and developed an affinity with them. One such actor was Florence Lawrence, who appeared in the dozens of films produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph. Audiences clamored for more films with the “Biograph Girl,” although they did not know her name, and pressured theater operators to book her films.
Biograph was part of a dominant film-making cartel in the first decade of the 20th century called the Motion Picture Patents Company, but there were competitors who often broke the law to make films in violation of patent laws. One such intellectual-property scofflaw was Carl Laemmle, who lured the Biograph Girl to this company, Independent Motion Pictures (IMP).
Laemmle didn’t just stick Lawrence in his movies: he used her for the first movie publicity stunt. Laemmle had newspapers report a story that Lawrence, the Biograph Girl, had been killed in a streetcar accident. It was a tragic story. Shortly afterward, Laemmle bought space in those newspapers to report that the rumors of Lawrence’s demise were greatly exaggerated: she was, in fact, alive and well. You can see that in this ad, where they “nail a lie.” Oh, yes, and by the way, she will starring in the upcoming IMP film The Broken Oath.
The one part of this story that doesn’t make sense to me is the name of the film in the ad. The ad for the 1910 film, where they “nail a lie,” names the film The Broken Bath, not The Broken Oath, as every source I’ve read lists it. That raises a couple of questions:
Is this ad a fake? No, you can see the ad in the March 12, 1910 issue of Moving Picture World on page 365.
Did the name of the film change? Possibly, but in that same issue, on page 400, you can see the film listed as the The Broken Oath. Also, in subsequent issues of Moving Picture World, the film summary describes the film as follows:
To break a secret society oath requires a good deal of nerve, and there are certain situations connected with a sweetheart which also require nerve. Where these two come together it is quite likely to be doubly interesting.
Clearly, the film is about an oath, not a bath. Besides, a “broken bath” makes little sense unless it refers to a broken bath tub.
Did I nail a lie? Or could the name just have a typesetting error?
- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, 3rd. ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010, pp. 30. ↩
- Film companies were called “film manufacturing companies,” not studios, suggesting that they were similar to a company that manufactures a good like rubber or cotton, not the content on the films. ↩
- Thompson and Bordwell, 30. ↩
- Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915, University of California Press, 1994, pp. 112–13. ↩
- Moving Picture World, 26 March 1910, pp, 467–468. ↩
Update: There are two “m”s and only one “l” in “Laemmle.” Thanks to Claus R. Kullak for pointing it out in the comments.