Florence Turner - Silent Star of May, 1998
by Kally Mavromatis
-- Norma Talmadge
"I would rather have touched the hem of her skirt than to have shaken
hands with St. Peter."
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.
Florence Turner was born in New York in 1887. 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
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
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. 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
Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1998
by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis