Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Make Me a Star!

Most die-hard classic movie fans know that John Garfield was born Julius Garfinkle, Edward G. Robinson Emmanuel Goldenberg, Cary Grant Archibald Alexander Leach and Joan Crawford Lucille Fay LeSueur.  It takes a world-class flicker freak to identify the following (the answers will be found at the end of this piece):

                  February 1910: The P.R. Stunt Supreme

                  February 1910: The P.R. Stunt Supreme

  1. Spangler Arlington Brugh
  2. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke
  3. Jane Alice Peters
  4. Clara Viola Cronk
  5. Ruby Stevens
  6. William Henry Pratt
  7. Alphonso d’Abruzzo
  8. Maurice Micklewhite
  9. Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko
  10. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia McMath
  11. Dino Paul Crocetti & Jerome Joseph Levitch
  12. Melvin Kaminsky & Jerome Silberman

What few fans know is that  during the silver screen's first fifteen years,  the movie-going public had no idea what their favorite stars names were - let alone directors, producers or screenwriters; they were either completely anonymous, known by their character names (such as "Broncho Billy," whom we met in our last posting), or identified by some physical characteristic. As an example, years before the public knew the name Mary Pickford (Gladys Marie Smith), they were head-over-heels in love with a virginal young actress known simply as "The Girl With the Curls." Similarly, the silver screen's first matinee idol, Maurice Costello, (who would one day become John Barrymore's drinking buddy . . . not to mention father-in-law) was known as  either "The Dimpled Darling," or simply, "Dimples." 

There were two reasons why early movie stars had no names:

  1. Early studio owners and producers kept their actors (largely amateurs) anonymous, figuring that if the public knew their names, these nameless amateurs would demand higher salaries. (For the most part they earned $2.50 and $5.00 a day.)
  2. Those actors who did come from the legitimate stage didn't want theatre-goers or the fellow thespians to know that they were "slumming."  Most stage actors coming from the thee-ah-ter considered motion pictures decidedly déclassé. They managed to justify their "walk on the wild side" by convincing themselves (and their Broadway colleagues) they were only in it for the money . . . hence the anonymity.

That all changed in February, 1910. 

                      Carl Laemmle ((1867-1939) in 1910

                      Carl Laemmle ((1867-1939) in 1910

The two people most directly responsible for this revolution were an elfin mogul named Carl Laemmle and a Canadian-born actress known to the public as "The Biograph Girl."  Laemlle, originally from Laupheim, Germany emigrated to the United States as a young man with $50.00 in his pockets and an itch to make something of himself. By the age of 17 he was bookkeeper for the Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Armed with an innate genius for self-promotion and a love of spectacle, he wandered into the nascent movie industry and in 1909, on a shoestring, created a production/distribution company with the pixiesque name "I.M.P.," which stood for "Independent Moving Pictures."  Its logo featured a suitably impish logo of a grinning devil wielding a pitchfork. It took guts to create IMP; in so doing, Laemmle would be forced to take on Thomas Alva Edison's "Motion Pictures Patents Trust," which ordained that any company wishing to use an Edison-made camera had to pay his trust a royalty for every foot of film exposed.  Against tremendous odds, Laemlle successfully took on Edison and proved  in court that the Trust was in violation of the Sherman Anti Trust Act.

Step one.

Next, Laemmle decided to enhance both his image and that of his company by stealing away and signing the most popular movie star of the day: the Canadian-born Florence Lawrence, who had been a stage actress since age 6.  Moving over to moving pictures in about 1906, Florence worked first for the Vitagraph Company and then for Biograph, whose director was the great D.W. Griffith.  So taken was the public with this incredibly photogenic young woman with the most expressive face on celuloid, that they flooded the studio, (located at 11 East 14th St. near Union Square) demanding to know her name.  When the studio refused to reveal her name, her hundreds of thousands of fans took to calling her, simply "The Biograph Girl."  Making upwards of three one-reel films a week, Florence made a fortune for Biograph, which paid her a mere $25.00 (about $655.00 in today's money) a week.  Needless to say, Florence was dissatisfied, and surreptitiously, began contacting other studios to find out if anyone might be willing to pay her more.  When Biograph found out about what she was doing, they fired her.  But Florence wasn't out of work for long.

Enter Carl Laemmle.

Laemmle, who as mentioned above, had a flair for self-promotion and publicity stunts, came up with a doozy which he shared with the Biograph Girl.  She agreed to go ahead with it . . . especially since Laemmle agreed to pay her an astounding $125.00 a week (about $3.200.00 in today's dollars. What Laemmle did was to stage a ruse to publicize his new leading lady.  

Laemmle planted a newspaper story in February 1910 that the “Biograph Girl” had been struck and killed by a streetcar, and then took out an advertisement in an industry newspaper to debunk the story. “We Nail a Lie” (see facimile above) declared the IMP advertisement, which blamed rival studios for the deception of its own creation and announced that not only was Lawrence alive, but that she would star in its next film.


              The Story That Gave Birth to Stardom

              The Story That Gave Birth to Stardom

A star was born.  Shortly thereafter, Laemmle revealed to the public the name of one of the heretofore leading male heartthrobs: King Baggot, the first "King of the Movies."  Before too long, an ever-increasing number of photo-players were known by name and, as the early producers feared, were paid more and more money.  Within four years, a Jewish girl from the North Avondale section of Cincinnati named Theodosia Goodman, would be renamed "Theda Bara" (supposedly an anagram for "Arab Death," turned into a vamp and paid $4,000.00 a week by William Fox (Fuchs), the eponymous founder of everything Fox. (BTW, Theda's $4,000.00 is the equivalent of nearly $95,000.00 per week . . . and at a time when there was no such thing as an income tax.)

Lawrence and Laemmle's fortunes would go in opposite directions.  Florence Lawrence would make some 55 pictures for Carl Laemlle's IMP Company over the next year, then move on to the Lubin Company for which she would make another 75 pictures.  By 1916, her career was on a downward spiral; over the next 20 years she would appear on screen (frequently as an uncredited extra) in but 20 pictures for such "Poverty Row" studios as Nestor, Supreme, M.H. Hoffman and Ben Wilson Productions.  By the end of 1938, Florence Lawrence, the "Biograph Girl" and world's first motion picture star with a name was dead . . . the victim of suicide.  It was depressing when an adoring public did not know her name back before 1910; it became lethally so when the public had totally forgotten her . . . 

For Carl Laemmle, things went in the precise opposite direction . . . up, up, up.  In 1915, "IMP" became "Universal Studios," with a 237-acre facility located in an area just outside Hollywood proper forever known as "Universal City."  At the studio's two-day grand opening (March 15 and 16, 1915) which was attended by the crème de la crème, including Henry Ford and literally thousands of locals, the young John Ford, then an assistant director, occasional actor and all-round roustabout, managed to burn down an entire Western set which quickly spread to the rest of the studio, nearly burning it to the ground. The quick-on-his-feet, nearly fired Ford claimed that he had done it on purpose in order to get spectacular footage for an upcoming Western film!  He was subsequently hired to direct cowboy pictures . . . and the rest is history.  Within 3 years, Laemlle's Universal Studios had more than 6,000 employees, a vast number of whom were relatives including future director William Wyler and his 18-year old secretary Irving Thalberg, who would eventually become the legendary production manager at MGM.  Indeed, Laemmle had so many cousins, nieces, nephews and children working for him that all Hollywood grew to know the line "Carl Laemmle (pronounced lem-lee) has a big femiy . . ."  And of course today, Universal is as big as ever.

But for all his accomplishments, Laemmle's most important  - and certainly most enduring - may well have been giving stars the right to have names . . .  either the ones they were born with or the ones they were assigned by their studios, agents or publicists.

And speaking of names, here are the Hollywood names of the people listed at the beginning of this piece:

  1. Spangler Arlington Brugh: Robert Taylor
  2. Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke: Mary Astor
  3. Jane Alice Peters: Carole Lombard
  4. Clara Viola Cronk: Clair Windsor
  5. Ruby Stevens: Barbara Stanwyck
  6. William Henry Pratt: Boris Karloff
  7. Alphonso d’Abruzzo: Alan Alda
  8. Maurice Micklewhite: Michael Caine
  9. Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko: Natalie Wood
  10. Frederic Austerlitz Jr. & Virginia McMath: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
  11. Dino Paul Crocetti & Jerome Joseph Levitch: Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis
  12. Melvin Kaminsky & Jerome Silberman: Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder

That's pretty much how a Hollywood brat born with the last name "Schimberg," got lawfully "Stoned" when he was 7 . . . 

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone