Around the turn of the 20th century, when movies were just starting to resemble something we’d recognise as a movie (to begin with, they were just random moving images like birds flying or people dancing, to show off the technology), nobody knew who acted in them.
The actors were just referred to as “the Girl with the Golden Curls” or “the Biograph Boy.”
Then in 1909, a producer named Carl Laemmle (he’d go on to found a lil’ studio called Universal) had a picture on his hands that he couldn’t sell. It was starring a popular actress who was then known as “the Imp Girl”: Florence Lawrence.
Lawrence was a keen driver and (she invented the indicator (or turn signal in American), and a lot of her movies featured her as a racing car driver. I’m sure I’ve heard a version of this story in which the specific film Laemmle was promoting was a racing picture, but can’t find verification of it now. Mentioning it anyway because a) Lawrence was cool for being an inventor as well as an actress, and b) how many mainstream Hollywood movies are being made about female racing car drivers now?
Anyway, for reasons best known to himself, Laemmle decided that the best way to drum up interest in his dud picture was to announce to the world that Lawrence was dead. Poor old Florence opened a newspaper one day to read that she’d been killed by a street car while crossing the road in New York. I assume this news took her by surprise, but, importantly, it did the trick.
The media went bonkers with stories of fans fainting with grief and whatnot.
A couple of days later, they announced it was all an unfortunate mistake and Lawrence was in fact very much not dead. Everyone went even more bonkers (she was mobbed getting off a train at St Louis) and the movie was a smash hit.
And producers thought ‘huh, the public is interested in actors, are they?’
To quote a somewhat excitable Kenneth Langer in Hollywood Babylon:
For better or for worse, Hollywood would henceforth have to content with that fatal chimera: the STAR.
It’s ironic – or maybe prophetic – that this very first instance of celebrity gossip wasn’t remotely true. Because that’s the thing about celebrity gossip: we don’t give a monkey’s what’s actually true, we just want a good story.