Bright Lights Film Journal

Florence Lawrence and the Truth Behind “We Nail a Lie” (Famous Ads, 1910)

Studio portrait of Florence Lawrence by Frank C. Bangs, 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ever since the ad appeared, there have been unanswered questions: who or what was behind the rumors of Florence Lawrence’s death? Did these rumors start because the fans of her Biograph films noticed that she was no longer in them, as the IMP films were much less popular than the Biograph films? Were these rumors concocted by Carl Laemmle to promote his new star? Most writers have assumed the latter, though no one has known for sure.

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On March 12, 1910, a remarkable ad entitled “We Nail a Lie” appeared in Moving Picture World and The Billboard:

The ad has been rightly recognized as a pivotal moment in motion picture advertising. Before then, movies were sold on the strength of the story, the photography, and the studio who made the film, not the actors who starred in the film. This ad contributed greatly to the fame of Florence Lawrence, the original “Biograph Girl,” but more importantly advanced the notion of movie stardom, the idea that the star of the movie was perhaps the most important element in selling a movie.

The basic premise of the ad concerns a rumor being disseminated about the famous actress Florence Lawrence, that she has died in a streetcar accident. The ad reads:

The blackest and at the same time the silliest lie yet circulated by enemies of the “Imp” was the story foisted on the public of St. Louis last week to the effect that Miss Lawrence (the “Imp” girl, formerly known as the “Biograph” girl) had been killed by a street car. It was a black lie because so cowardly. It was a silly lie because so easily disproved. Miss Lawrence was not even in a street car accident, is in the best of health, will continue to appear in “Imp” films, and very shortly some of the best work in her career is to be released.

A few weeks after placing the ad, Carl Laemmle, the head of IMP (Independent Motion Picture Company), brought Florence Lawrence to St. Louis to prove she was alive (and, of course, to advertise his movie company).

Ever since the ad appeared, there have been unanswered questions: who or what was behind the rumors of Florence Lawrence’s death? Did these rumors start because the fans of her Biograph films noticed that she was no longer in them, as the IMP films were much less popular than the Biograph films? Were these rumors concocted by Carl Laemmle to promote his new star? Most writers have assumed the latter, though no one has known for sure.

A second question that I have had concerns her appearance in St. Louis. Why did Carl Laemmle choose St. Louis, of all places? Why not cities with a larger population and more fervent movie-going fans, such as New York or Chicago (which happens to be the home of IMP).

A post in Bright Lights goes with the “Carl Laemmle as puppet master” theory. This post states: “Laemmle promptly came up with a classic piece of disinformation, planting the fictitious story that his leading lady had been killed in a street-car accident. The press swallowed it whole, which then allowed Laemmle to take out a full-page announcement in the March 12, 1910 edition of Moving Picture World, indignantly headlined “We Nail a Lie.”

The story contributes greatly to the legend of Carl Laemmle. But I have a different theory, with a different villain. And some proof to back it up.

TIMELINE

The basically accepted timeline is this:

Early 1909: Florence Lawrence is the biggest movie star in America. In those early days, the actors in the movies were uncredited, so the public does not know her name. She is known as the “Biograph Girl,” after the studio where she makes her films.

  1. Mid-1909: Biograph learns that Florence Lawrence has been trying to get a better deal with a different studio. They fire her.
  2. Late 1909: IMP hires Florence Lawrence. The owner of IMP is Carl Laemmle (who would later found Universal Studios).
  3. Early 1910: There are rumors floating around that Florence Lawrence has died. Carl Laemmle hears these rumors (or perhaps he starts these rumors, as a way of publicizing his new star).
  4. March 1910: Carl Laemmle addresses these rumors by placing the famous “We Nail a Lie” ad. While this ad is not the first to mention a movie star by name, it is certainly the boldest.
  5. Carl Laemmle brings Florence Lawrence to St. Louis, in the first-ever-publicized appearance by a movie star in America.

The third point is in bold, as that is the step that I wish to rewrite.

NOT CARL LAEMLLE

No one has ever been able to satisfactorily account for the rumors of Florence Lawrence’s death. Her biographer, Kelly R. Brown, stated, “Film history has been very quick to say that Laemmle was probably the source for any rumors about Florence that were circulated.” Carl Laemmle’s biographer, John Drinkwater, stated, “A rumor was released from ill-disposed quarters that she had been killed in St. Louis.”

The assumption of all theories is that Florence Lawrence’s “death” was either wholly made up by Laemmle, or else was published honestly (but incorrectly) in a newspaper somewhere prior to the placement of the ad (Florence Lawrence herself claimed several years after the placement of the ad that she had seen her obituary in a New York newspaper). No one, as far as I know, has examined these assumptions in the age of the Internet, with its easy access to all major newspapers and the ability to search on keywords. I searched newspapers and trade magazines for stories published about Florence Lawrence’s death in the months prior to the “We Nail a Lie” advertisement. I used only “Florence Lawrence” as my search term, so as not to limit what I might find. Surprisingly I found only two articles that referenced her “death,” from a newspaper in St. Louis and a newspaper in Louisville. But I believe these two articles provide the key to the source of the rumors of Florence’s death. And that source was not Carl Laemmle. Instead, it was a showman from St. Louis named Frank Talbot.

ST. LOUIS STAR AND TIMES, FEBRUARY 21, 1910: FLORENCE LAWRENCE IS NOT DEAD

I found the following article in the St. Louis Star and Times, on February 21, 2010 (approximately three weeks before the “We Nail a Lie” ad). I believe this is the first article to ever address Florence Lawrence’s “death.”

The article states: “Miss Lawrence lives in New York and her death by automobile was widely published . . . Frank L. Talbot, manager of the Gem Theater [emphasis mine], telegraphed to the Independent Moving Picture Company Monday asking if Miss Lawrence was dead. He received this answer: “Report is silly. Miss Lawrence in perfect health and turning out picture today.”

In that very same newspaper was this advertisement for Frank Talbot’s Gem Theater:

LOUISVILLE COURIER JOURNAL MARCH 6: A SECOND ARTICLE STATES THAT FLORENCE LAWRENCE IS NOT DEAD

The only other article I could find on Florence Lawrence’s “death” appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal on March 6, six days prior to the “We Nail a Lie” advertisement. Here is that article.

This article is interesting because of its similarity to the St. Louis article. Both reference a telegram sent to the IMP company inquiring about Florence Lawrence’s death, and the IMP company replies that the “report is silly” or “report absolutely silly.” Both articles appeared before the “We Nail a Lie” ad.

But here is the most important thing: The article in the St. Louis paper references the Gem Theater. The article in the Louisville Theater references the Hopkins Theater. Both theaters were supplied films by the Wagner Film Company. In fact, the Wagner Film Company supplied films to only three theaters (the Gem, the Hopkins, and the Lyric theater in St. Louis), and two of them are mentioned in two separate but practically identical articles two weeks apart.

Wagner Film Company advertisement, mentioning the three theaters. From the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Feb. 20, 1910

It follows that, almost certainly, the telegram in the second article is made up, in that the people associated with the Hopkins Theater would have known already the Florence Lawrence was alive. Therefore, almost certainly, the two newspaper articles originated from the same source.

MY THEORY

Based on these two newspaper articles (and the fact that I could find no other reference to Florence Lawrence’s “death” in any other newspaper or trade magazine), I believe that Frank Talbot, manager of the Gem Theater, originated the rumor of Florence Lawrence’s death, as a way of advertising his theater (“Florence Lawrence Not Dead”). Talbot is quoted in the first newspaper article, and is also named in the ad from the Wagner Film Company.

I don’t know if he made up the rumor, or whether a customer of the Gem Theater, noticing that the “Biograph Girl” was no longer appearing in Biograph films, asked Frank if she had died. Regardless, I think Talbot did what all good showmen do ˗ he saw an opportunity and exploited it. He sent a telegram to IMP, and Carl Laemmle replied. And Frank made certain that that reply appeared in the newspaper, weeks before the “We Nail a Lie” advertisement.

It is possible that, rather than Frank, some unnamed person at the Wagner Film Company was the brains behind the rumor that Florence Lawrence was dead. But my research into the Wagner Film Company found little or no indication that it was advertising or trying to influence the general public. The Wagner Film Company was a business-to-business company, and all its advertisements were the same kind of dull ads as shown above. Nothing of the showman’s art about them. So I think that Frank Talbot originated the rumors and convinced someone at Wagner to plant a similar story in a Louisville paper.

Now, Carl Laemmle certainly did his part. He or someone on his staff responded to the telegram by creating a fantastic advertisement. And so it was two great showmen, Frank Talbot and Carl Laemmle, playing off each other and amplifying the “rumors” of Florence’s Lawrence’s death, then dispelling those rumors with an indignant ad and a personal appearance in St. Louis.

FURTHER PROOF: THE ST. LOUIS APPEARANCE

And when Florence Lawrence appeared in St. Louis a few weeks later to dispel the rumors, where did she appear? At Frank Talbot’s Gem Theater, of course:

The Gem Theater seated 2,000 people. The Grand Opera House (which was also leased for the occasion, according to the advertisement) seated 2,300 people. I don’t know if both places sold out for the Saturday and Sunday appearances, but if they did, that would be 9,200 total tickets. At ten cents each, that would be a take of $920, or approximately $23,000 in today’s dollars. A nice take for a bit of showmanship.

MODIFIED TIMELINE

Here is what I believe is the actual timeline (with modifications in bold) behind the ad and Florence Lawrence’s triumphant appearance in St. Louis:

  1. Early 1909: Florence Lawrence is the biggest movie star in America. In those early days, the actors in the movies were uncredited, so the public does not know her name. She is known as the “Biograph Girl,” after the studio where she makes her films.
  2. Mid 1909: Biograph learns the Florence Lawrence has been trying to get a better deal with a different studio. They fire her.
  3. Late 1909: IMP hires Florence Lawrence. The owner of IMP is Carl Laemmle (who would later found Universal Studios).
  4. Early 1910: Either a customer asks Frank Talbot (manager of Gem Theater in St. Louis) if the Biograph Girl has died, or Frank just decides on his own to create a rumor about Florence Lawrence’s death.
  5. February 1910: Frank Talbot sends a telegram to Carl Laemmle, asking if the rumors are true. Carl Laemmle replies by telegram, and Frank arranges for the telegram to be placed in a St. Louis newspaper as a publicity stunt.
  6. Late Feb, early March 1910: Carl Laemmle prepares the “We Nail a Lie” ad. Almost certainly, he has alerted Frank Talbot of his plans.
  7. Early March 1910: Frank Talbot arranges to have a story placed in the Louisville Courier Times that is almost an exact replica of the earlier St. Louis story.
  8. March 1910: Carl Laemmle places the famous “We Nail a Lie” ad. While this ad is not the first to mention a movie star by name, it is certainly the boldest.
  9. Carl Laemmle brings Florence Lawrence to St. Louis, in the first-ever-publicized appearance by a movie star in America. She makes a personal appearance at Frank Talbot’s Gem Theater.

In summary, all evidence suggests the rumor of Florence Lawrence’s death was a ploy by Frank Talbot to increase attendance at the Gem Theater. Carl Laemmle used the rumor for his own ends to promote Florence Lawrence and the IMP Company. The two goals converged with Florence Lawrence’s historical appearance in St. Louis.

Works Cited

Brown, Kelly R. (2007). Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star. McFarland and Company.

Drinkwater, John (1931). Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle. Ayer Co Publishers.