Florence Turner - Silent Star of May, 1998
by Kally Mavromatis
"I would rather have touched the hem of her skirt than to have shaken hands with St. Peter." -- Norma Talmadge
She was known simply as The Vitagraph Girl, in a time before "stars" were stars, but she was one of the first well-known screen stars and the first to be put under contract by a film company. After almost a century, Florence Turner’s beauty, charm, and wit still have the power to delight; and it is not difficult to understand the fascination she held for audiences at the start of the 20th Century, who made her — identified only as "The Vitagraph Girl”— America’s first movie star.
Florence Turner was born in New York in 1887. The child of actors, she was on the stage from the age of 3, and was proud to have played alongside Sir Henry Irving in Richelieu on his last American tour. She began her extensive career on the stage and in vaudeville as Eugenie Florence. Her specialty was her impersonations, including caricatures of popular stage actresses Marie Dressler and Fay Templeton.
Turner joined Vitagraph, one of the earliest film studios, in the spring of 1907. As with any small company, the young actress wore a variety of hats: she kept the books, paid the staff and artists, and was clerk, cashier, and accountant, never hesitating to pitch in whenever and wherever needed. While at Vitagraph she performed in a wide variety of roles, in films such as A Tale of Two Cities, Lancelot and Elaine, Jealousy, The Deerslayer, The Closed Door, and The Dixie Mother. During the filming of Two Cities, she became ill, and a young Norma Talmadge acted as stand-in, filmed from behind.
In 1910 Turner began a series of numerous personal appearances, including an April "tour" of theatres in Brooklyn to introduce the new song "The Vitagraph Girl." The tours were enormously successful, and taking notice in June 1910 the New York Dramatic Mirror wrote a story on her titled "A Motion Picture Star," perhaps the first time the phrase came into the public consciousness. The increasing popularity of Turner's appearances paved the way and led to bookings for other Vitagraph players.
While personal appearances are standard stuff today, such was the naivete of the film industry at the time that when one exhibitor asked if he could publicize in advance the appearance of Turner, the studio heads were stunned at the small-scale riots by those unable to get in. By the end of 1911 the advertising value of the players had become very clear indeed.
After playing a variety of roles at Vitagraph, Turner decided to leave Vitagraph in early 1913 for a vaudeville tour. A one-reeler of one of her films would be screened, followed by a variety of impersonations. Once the tour was over she announced her plans to go to England for a music hall tour, and on May 26, 1913 Turner made her British debut at the London Pavilion.
While in England, Turner formed Turner Films, with studios at Walton-on-Thames, home of British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth. Longtime director and former Vitagraph pal Larry Trimble was named head of production, with popular British actor Henry Edwards her leading male performer.
The films that the company produced and released through Hepworth were among the best British productions of the period. Florence Turner, who took an active part in the production and often herself directed, is justly characterized by Rachael Low as "both … a light comedienne and a dramatic actress with a great fondness for elaborate make-up”.
England was the ideal choice for someone looking to produce and distribute independent films, and while there Turner produced 30 films, including one-reel shorts like Creatures of Habit (England 1914), two-reel comedies Rose of Surrey (England 1913), and the five-reel, feature-length Far From the Madding Crowd (England 1916). In 1915 she starred in My Old Dutch (England 1915) with Albert Chevalier, a role which quickly became her signature film. She also continued her popular impersonations in a one-reeler titled Florence Turner Impersonates Film Favorites (1915), where she appeared as Ford Sterling, Broncho Billy Anderson, Mabel Normand, and Sarah Bernhardt. Her films continued to be seen by the American public, with U.S. distribution handled by Mutual.
World War I put an end to her English productions, and on November 12, 1916 she returned to the U.S. But her return to Hollywood found her in a drastically different industry. Despite her status as early star, film pioneer, and independent producer, she was never able to achieve the status and prestige she had previously enjoyed, and only appeared in occasional starring or featured roles, but never in a major production. She was set to direct a series of comedies at Universal in 1919, but the deal fizzled out, and in 1920 Turner became a stock player at Metro. Unhappy with bit parts, she returned to England in 1922, playing leading roles in British productions, none of which were released in the U.S. In addition, Turner returned to the stage with her impersonations, portraying Alla Nazimova, Mae Murray, Charlie Chaplin, and Larry Semon.
In 1924 a crisis in the British film industry led to the closing of all British studios. Unable to return to the U.S., Turner was aided by Marion Davies, who paid for her and her mother to return to the U.S. and gave her a role in Janice Meredith.
In 1925 old Turner Productions director Larry Trimble, now at Universal, wanted to remake My Old Dutch and did a screen test with Florence recreating her role. While Universal approved the project the lead was given to May McAvoy. For the rest of the decade she continued to act in small roles, usually as the mother, including Buster Keaton's in College 1927. In the early '30s Turner continued her stage impersonations in a program titled Pioneer Film Days, and in 1937 was offered a contract as a stock extra at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.
Florence Turner died August 28, 1946 at the Motion Picture Country House.