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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Brooklyn, Florence Turner & Vitagraph PART 1

Brooklyn's first movie star, the world’s second, Florence Turner. The girl From Sheepshead Bay.


What the heck is Brooklyn’s place in early film history?



By George Seminara



The Vitagraph Girl Florence Turner


Let's go way back to 1896, when J. Stuart Blackton arrived from England and was gainfully employed part-time as a reporter/artist for the New York Evening World. Back then, drawings were much easier and cheaper to print than photographs. When his editor sent him to interview Thomas Edison (yes, that Thomas Edison) in New Jersey, he jumped at the chance. Edison was one of the most influential people in America, and he had his finger on the pulse of this new, fast-arriving century. The story was about Edison's new film projector. (For those who follow my stories, Edison purchased his new projector from another genius, you know who.) The inventor talked the entrepreneurial young newsman into buying a set of film and a projector.


A year later, in 1897, Blackton and his new business partner Albert Smith, founded the American Vitagraph Company in direct competition with Thomas Edison. They were joined by a third partner, distributor William "Pop" Rock, in 1899, a full five years before the first movie theater would be born. (What the heck did a film distributor do?) The company's first production studio was located on the rooftop of a new-fangled five-story building called "Sky Scrapers" on Nassau Street in Manhattan's financial district. (Don't get excited, it was just Wall Street and little else.) Due to Edison's predisposition to sabotage competitors, the whole operation moved from Edison's grasp to the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.


s-l1600 Map


Vitagraph's first claim to fame was newsreels. The Vitagraph cameramen were on the scene, reporting on important events of Spanish–American War of 1898. These short films were amongst the first works of motion-picture propaganda, and some even had a few, possibly more than a few, studio re-enactments that got passed off as footage of actual events. In 1897, Vitagraph made The Humpty Dumpty Circus, which might be their second claim to fame, as the first American film to use the stop-motion technique, a testament to their innovative spirit.


J. Stuart Blackton Portrait


Note#1: By innovative spirit, I mean throwing the spaghetti on the wall, just to see what sticks. That's not to say they weren't interested in the potential of cinema. They didn't know what it was yet. Blackton was fascinated by Georges Méliès' magic films and animation. With his art background, it was only natural for him to explore this direction. (He starred in a couple of films himself. Drawing images that came alive! Well, they moved.)


Vitagraph was one of many companies seeking to make bank from Edison's motion picture inventions. Edison's lawyers were very busy filing patents in the 1890s and 1900s. They were also suing competitors, left and right, for patent infringement. Blackton did his best to avoid litigation by purchasing a special license from Edison in 1907 and by agreeing, a testament to the legal challenges faced by Vitagraph and the competitive landscape of the early film industry, to not compete with Edison's output and allow the old pain-in-the ass to have a first look at distributing their titles.


That left fictional storytelling. This means drama, needing stories, actors, pretty girls, and maybe a writer or two. Edison was not interested in this kind of film. It was a market dominated by the French, who had developed their own cameras. Edison's attorneys tried hard to find a way to prove that the French Cameras violated the genius's patents. Try as they might, they couldn't. Viva La France!


Vitagraph, or American Vitagraph, settled on a flat patch of farmland deep in the heart of Brooklyn. Brooklyn, home to the hippest of hipsters, was initially founded by the Dutch, but that didn't hold it back, it grew into a busy port and by the 19th century it had one of the largest populations in North America. January 1, 1898, was the date. After years of political campaigning and a vicious PR battle during the late 1890s, and opposition from many prominent Brooklyn residents, it became the final piece to form the current five-borough structure of New York City. It was twenty years after Brooklyn-born outlaw Billy The Kid was gunned down and a year before Al Capone came into the world screaming in north Brooklyn. The Vitagraph guys knew that Brooklyn was their kind of place.


Edison's Black Mariah


Vitagraph understood the key to any successful film production facility was a studio. Well, a glass house, like a greenhouse with high ceilings. Just like Edison's Black Mariah, except improved. (I'm sure he sued them over that as well.) They threw up a rotating greenhouse with Black Curtains on the exterior. Edison's opened up to let in the sun like a giant cigar box. It also lets in the cold, the rain, and the snow. Vitagraph utilized the greenhouse because it would let in the light and stay warm and dry. They also realized they needed a wall around the glasshouse to stop the rubberneckers and the rock throwers. Technical advances were coming at a breakneck speed. Soon, they were churning out multiple titles


The Vitagraph Studio 1911.


The American Vitagraph Company made many contributions to the history of movie-making. In 1903, Joseph Delmont started his career by producing Brooklyn Westerns. He became famous by using "wild carnivores" in his films—an absolute sensation for that time. Vitagraph made the first film adaptation of the novel Les Misérables, as a silent short of four reels, each released over three months in 1909, was a hit.


In 1910, several of the new "movie houses" popping up around NYC showed the five parts of the Vitagraph serial The Life of Moses consecutively, for a total length of almost 90 minutes- Eat your heart out Martin Scorsese! - making it one of the first to claim the title "The first feature film retroactively." Vitagraph embarked on an ambitious series of filmed adaptations of Shakespeare. These were the first ever produced in the U.S.


12th Night


Comedian John Bunny made a series of successful films for Vitagraph in the 1910s. Bunny was the most popular film comedian in the world in the years before B.C. (Before Chaplin.) A moment of silence was observed worldwide when Bunny kicked the bucket in 1915 and shuffled off this mortal coil. (Lacking the telephone, the telex, and simultaneous international communication of any sort, the moment of silence wasn't the same worldwide, but it was the same feeling of sadness and loss.)


John Bunny Memorial card


In 1911, Vitagraph produced the first aviation film, The Military Air-Scout, featuring the future General of the Air Force, Hap Arnold, as the first movie stunt flier. The 1915 feature The Battle Cry of Peace (written and directed by Blackton) was one of the first great propaganda films of World War I. After America declared war, the government viewed the film as not being patriotic or pro-war enough. Blackton re-edited the film, earning it a spot in film history and censorship, too!


Editing Room


Jean the Vitagraph Dog was the first animal star of the silent era! She was an actual female collie, unlike Pal, the drag queen who played Lassie! The pupper owned and trained by director, Laurence Trimble, Jean was the first canine to have a leading role in a motion picture. Future stars such as Wallace Reid, Helen Hayes (Helen made two films with Jean, the Vitagraph dog, as a ten-year-old in pigtails.), Viola Dana, Dolores Costello, Norma Talmadge, Constance Talmadge, and Moe Howard- that Moe Howard made their way through the studio gates.


Jean the woof woof


Famous Flol Picture


In this heady environment, the 20-year-old native New Yorker, Florence Turner, stepped through the gates. By this time, Florence was a trooper. She was first thrust on the stage at age three by her ambitious mother, an early version of the stage mothers of today. In the following years, Turner became a regular performer in various staged productions around the five boroughs. In 1906, she joined the fledgling Vitagraph Studios, making her film debut in 1907's How to Cure a Cold.


One hundred and seventeen years ago, provided you are reading this in 2024, there was no such thing as a movie star. If you were already famous on the stage, which meant constant touring and flirting (to get that press baby!). Performers were rarely even mentioned by name. Screen credits and sites like IMDB weren't even an idea. There was nothing but the name of the production company and the name of the picture. Guess what happened to Florence in How to Cure A Cold? Spoiler alert: she cured the cold. Eventually, movies got past simple incidents or situations into telling actual stories. Some early heroes of the silver screen were given a non-specific identity, such as the "Edison Girl" or, two in Florence Turner's case, “The Vitagraph Girl” and "The Girl from Sheepshead Bay."


Florence Turner Promo card


Though Florence was only known as the "Vitagraph Girl" in the early motion picture shorts, Florence became the most popular American actress to ever appear on screen, even though the freaking French pictures still dominated the market! As Vitagraph's biggest box-office draw, her pay was upped to a whopping $22 a week! (In today's money, $ 730.99) She received that pay for her work as an actress and as a part-time seamstress. It was less than the male leading players, especially those with stage experience, like uber-popular Maurice Costello. (Banking $ 35.50! Without having to function as the studio janitor.) By March 1910, she and Canadian transplant Florence Lawrence (the two Florences, one the Vitagraph girl, the other the Biograph Girl.) became the first American screen actors not already famous in another medium to be publicized by name. Frenchie Max Linder beat them both!




Somehow, through hard work and perhaps her distinctive eyes, Florence began to receive fan mail. Florence had her portrait taken and reproduced and appeared at theaters around New York City, where her films played. Her personal appearances were a throwback to her theater days, and she reveled in their attention, which was magnified by the photo she gave each of them autographed with her name on it. No longer would she be “The Vitagraph Girl” or “The Girl from Sheepshead Bay.” She was forever Florence Turner. 


Florence as Daisy Doo Doo


Note #2: Besides a brief period on the stage as a teenager, as Eugenie Florence, for some mysterious reason, she preferred her birth name, Florence Turner. Most of her starlet contemporaries, like Gladys Smith, became Mary Pickford, Florence Brigwood, Florence Lawrence, or Cincinnati-born Theodosia Goodman, who turned into the Vamp, Theda Bara. There was some argument about her name when Vitagraph was ready to roll out their promotional campaign. There was nothing they could do, she had already created her identity beyond "The Vitagraph Girl." The studio was left with no other option. This gave Florence a stronger position to negotiate her salary and the roles she was offered. A big step up from her mostly unknown contemporaries.


Hold your horses, let's talk about that canuck Biograph Girl, the rhyming Florence Lawrence. Legend has it that before he was Universal Pictures, Carl Laemmle was the head of Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP). Shortly after taking charge, IMP acquired Florence Lawrence, "The Biograph Girl." Laemmle needed a way to reboot Lawrence, who was still mostly known as "The Biograph Girl." He decided to feed a story to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Florence Lawrence, the former Biograph Girl, had been cut down in the bloom of youth by a trolley car on the streets of St. Louis! Laemmle, who planted the story, also placed a well-timed advert in The Moving Picture World calling The St. Louis-Post Dispatch story a "vicious lie!" This incident "could be" the first time the public learned Florence Lawrence's stage name, and it "could also be" the first time someone had perpetrated a publicity stunt of this magnitude. I say "could be" because I wasn't there. As the immortal Bard wrote, "Between the legend and the truth, print the legend!"



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