The Biograph Girl ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Back in the early days of silent movies, in the first and second decades of the twentieth century, actors in movies were not identified to the public by name. The cult of personality surrounding the larger-than-life personages on the movie screen had not yet begun. It was not until the 1910s that one movie actor became known to the public by her own name. She was the official “first” movie star. She became wildly famous and popular, mobbed by adoring fans wherever she went. She was Florence Lawrence, known as the Biograph Girl, after the movie studio where she worked.
Florence Lawrence rode the wave of popularity and stardom for a number of years but, as always happens in Hollywood, the fickle public soon turned to other darlings of the screen such as Mary Pickford, and poor Florence Lawrence became one of the first in a long line of Hollywood has-beens whose name came to mean nothing. In 1938, at about age 50, she poisoned herself in her modest Hollywood home. Try as she might, she had never been able to regain her footing in the motion picture industry and reignite her early fame and success.
The Biograph Girl by William J. Mann is an imaginative “what-if” novel about Florence Lawrence. What if she really didn’t die in 1938? What if she used another woman’s suicide to make people think it was her and then continued to live for a long, long time? Not likely, you say? Well, strange and unexpected things can and do happen.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s. Two twin brothers, Richard and Ben Sheehan, one a journalist and the other a documentary film maker, discover a very old woman, 107 years old, living in a posh Catholic old folks’ home. After talking to her and finding out about her life, they discover that she is none other than Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl. They both immediately begin to calculate how they might exploit her. The documentary film maker, Ben, wants to make a film about her life, while his brother, Richard, wants to write a book about her. Not to worry, though. Florence Lawrence has an intrepid nun, Sister Jean, to stand in the way of all interlopers and protect her from the harsh and ugly realities of the modern world.
After Florence Lawrence is “re-discovered,” she becomes famous all over again, with appearances on TV talk shows and write-ups in magazines. She is so vital and lively to be 107 years old! How does she do it? Soon questions are raised about how Florence Lawrence faked her own death. Did she kill a woman to make people think it was her? Well, as might be expected, all the fame, publicity, eventual suspicion—and the surrounding innuendo—begin to wear the old woman down.
The Biograph Girl is entirely a fictional, speculative story based on the sad life of a real person from the early days of Hollywood and not in any way to be taken for reality or any facsimile of reality. It’s pop fiction for those seeking “light” reading. It’s way too long for what it is, nearly 500 big pages, and it takes a long time to get to the “pay-off” at the end. If it wasn’t so easy to read, you might stop reading about halfway through and read something else instead.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp