A rare surviving Florence Lawrence film concerns a country doctor and his family. When both his daughter and an impoverished neighbor fall ill at the same time, which one will he save? Lawrence is the doctor’s wife. All the melodrama you can stuff into 14 minutes!
Let’s be bucolic!
Florence Lawrence is one of those movie stars who is more famous now on the printed page than on the silver screen. As with many nickelodeon era stars, her films have a comparatively low survival rate and many of the ones that survive are locked away in vaults.
Considered by many to be the first movie star, Lawrence committed suicide at the age of 52. Her tragic death and career troubles are recounted in any good book on the early film industry but what was Lawrence like as an actress? How do her performances hold up?
Fortunately, we can find out. The 1909 Biograph short film, The Country Doctor, was released on DVD and Florence Lawrence played a pivotal role in this Connecticut-based tragedy. D.W. Griffith directs, Billy Bitzer works his magic with the camera and the supporting cast includes Mary Pickford and Griffith’s go-to mom, Kate Bruce.
The story is simple. Dr. Harcourt (Frank Powell) lives a halcyon life with his wife (Florence Lawrence) and young daughter (Gladys Egan). Tragedy strikes, however, and the young girl falls ill (apparently stricken with diphtheria). At the same time, the daughter (Adele DeGarde) of a poor family (Kate Bruce and Mary Pickford) suffering from the same deadly illness. The poor women summon the doctor to help. Will he leave his own child, risking her life, or will he stay with his family and abandon his duty as a physician?
Since the film is only one reel long, I will go ahead and spoil it. The doctor goes to the poor family and saves the girl but his own daughter dies while he is away. (Couldn’t he have had the poor child carried to his home, where he could tend to both girls? They clearly have the same illness. I hate to ruin the fable but is he ever bad at triage!) The doctor and his wife mourn their only child as the camera pans away to the beautiful countryside, an echo of the film’s opening shot.
Let’s take a moment to talk about those scenery shots.
The Country Doctor is a simple, two set tale. However, the decision to add a small prologue of the doctor’s happy family frolicking in wheat fields and flowering meadows does a great deal to set the stage and open up what could have been a very claustrophobic story. Griffith was always at his best, in my opinion, when he made tales of the countryside. This film bears out my theory, I think. Billy Bitzer’s camera drinks in the Connecticut scenery and you can practically smell the warm summer air.
But now for the main attraction. How is Miss Lawrence?
I think her performance is divided into two distinct sections. First, her happy scenes with her husband and daughter and, second, her scenes of worry and tragedy. The happy scenes display her to best advantage. She has a very warm, friendly screen presence and her appeal to audiences is obvious.
The second, more serious section of the film has not aged quite as well. Lawrence flails her arms and throws herself across her dead daughter’s bed. However, I must emphasize that stage acting was still considered to be the way to act. It was not uncommon for actors to be performing to the audience at the back of the theater. So, while the style that Lawrence is using is outdated today, one can see that she is performing it well. After all, her daughter has died and the filmgoing public of 1909 would have expected her to have an emotional crescendo at this point.
We must also remember that during this period of movie making, closeups were simply not used as often as they are today. That meant that performers had to project their emotions without the help of any fancy camera work. Florence Lawrence does a beautiful job of pantomime (especially in the more modern opening scenes). Furthermore, she was blessed with strong features that were easy to recognize even in medium and long-shots.
Florence Lawrence’s astonishing popularity did not survive the ‘teens. She was injured in while filming a fiery stunt (the exact details are obscure) and subsequent comeback attempts were unsuccessful.
We are fortunate that this film has survived in beautiful condition. (Many available Lawrence titles are in pretty rough shape.) No matter how well-written the book, it is impossible to capture the spark of life that was the secret to Lawrence’s appeal. Do yourself a favor and seek out The Country Doctor.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The Country Doctor was released on DVD in the box set More Treasures from American Film Archives.