Chapter 6

Not all cinema journalists enjoyed as smooth an auto ride with a star as George Vaux Bacon had with Pearl White. In 1916, Lasky star and ex-Follies girl Mae Murray took Allen Corliss, another writer for Photoplay, on such a wild ride that he was unable to conduct a proper interview with her in her new car. Instead, he wrote a humorous sketch for the magazine which reads in part:
  "I have never faced the cannon's mouth; I have never heard the battle's roar; I have never been in an aeroplane; but I have no fear of them, or other sudden deaths, because I have been motoring with Mae.

Mae Murray is nothing if not a careful driver--careful of others. She had much rather run her car up a tree than even startle a stray dog--she'd even prefer to hurdle the dog.

When Miss Murray first quit New York for the Lasky studio and took one glimpse of the roads, orange groves, etc., of Southern California . . . she decided that she must have an automobile. She told the dealer that she wanted one with lots of horse power as she was fond of dumb animals. A low, red, rakish thunderbolt was her selection; one of these wicked-looking affairs that spell speed and make the motor cops take its number on suspicion even when it is standing against the curb.

The thing had eight cylinders, or so. . . .Miss Murray remarked that eight cylinders were enough to start with, seeing as how it was her first car, but later on she might get more, but as she was new to the pictures, eight was enough for any ingenue.

Don't think for a moment that Miss Murray is not familiar with automobiles. She is an expert mechanician. . . .Of course she makes mistakes now and then, as to the proper thing to step on at the proper time--but then, no one is perfect. What would the world be if everyone was perfect--and who would be so mean as to begrudge a poor working girl the right to step on the accelerator when she should step on the brake, especially when it is her very own car?

Miss Murray does her own driving as she has had a great deal of trouble with chauffeurs. They kept bouncing off the lackey's seat on the side of the car and she would have to stop, turn around and go back and pick them up, which was a terrible waste of time, especially if she had an appointment. She kept a mechanician at home to clean the machine and help pull it back through the rear end of the garage when she came home from work--but on the road she is her own chauffeur and mechanic.

The Lasky star has a clever plan of keeping down the upkeep--she only drives on two wheels at a time letting the other two tires spin around in the air and cool off. You can't imagine what a weekly saving in tires this is. According to certain records kept by the City of Los Angeles, Miss Murray owns the only fox-trotting automobile in captivity. When she makes it say "Honk-Honk" it's just too late to duck. . . When she goes by in her car, the whole town turns out--of the way."(54)
Despite Corliss's jests, Mae Murray was scarcely unique among silent film actresses in attempting to be her own mechanic in those early days of motoring. In fact, some actresses were quite proficient under the hood. Ormi Hawley, the popular and very feminine Lubin star known as "Opulent Ormi," was a skilled auto mechanic. (55) The Vitagraph leading lady, Mary Anderson, known as "Sunshine Mary," told Henry A. Keller, an interviewer from Picture Play, in 1916, "As much as I like to drive . . . I believe it is just as much fun doing my repairs." (56) Commented Keller: "At first it struck me as strange that 'Sunshine' Mary should think of 'getting out and under,' but I noticed the firm, strong arms and determined chin and decided it would take more than a leaky carburetor to baffle this remarkable young lady." (57)

Other actresses redesigned their cars to their specifications. Bessie Eyton converted the little Maxwell that succeeded her big Paige into her very own dressing room on wheels, an innovation that attracted the attention of Mary Pickford who drove a similar Maxwell at the time. Pathe serial queen Ruth Roland drove a foreign coupe which she designed herself. Noted Mabel Condon who rode with Ruth in her "odd" new car in 1916:
  "The color is called robin's-egg blue (one would readily suspect it to be green). It is upholstered in cream-colored cretonne, on which red parrots disport themselves on green boughs and the style of the car is sedan. Ruth states it is quite the handsomest car in the industry. Contradictions may or may not be acceptable."(58)  
One silent film actress was actually an inventor of mechanical improvements for cars. Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl who emerged in 1910 as America's first real movie star under Carl Laemmle's banner at IMP, was an automotive pioneer as well as a major early force in cinema and a committed suffragette. Florence had very definite ideas about driving and in a newspaper interview published on August 27, 1920, she told the reporter after hearing a driver outside her hotel window:
  "Isn't that man stupid, stripping his gears like that? I never can understand why people treat their cars like that. A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds with kindness and understanding and care, just as people do."(59)  
By 1913, Florence was not only driving but had also begun working on her inventions of automobile accessories. As she stated in an article published in Green Book Magazine in early 1914:
  "Automobiling is my favorite sport, and raising and caring for roses is my hobby. As to automobiling, I have invented an 'auto signaling arm,' which, when placed on the back of the fender, can be raised or lowered by electric push buttons, thus indicating the intention of the driver. The one indicating 'stop' works automatically when the footbrake is pressed."(60)  
Florence's mother, Charlotte Bridgwood, was also an inventor and is credited with inventing the automatic windshield wiper, perhaps in collaboration with her daughter. Indeed, the August 27, 1920 interview noted: "In private life, Miss Florence Lawrence is president of the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company of New York, makers of an electric storm windshield cleaner invented by her mother, Mrs. Charlotte Bridgwood." (61)

Mrs. Bridgwood patented the invention in 1917, just after the TRICO company introduced hand-operated wipers. The Bridgwood device used rollers rather than blades and was powered by electricity. Unfortunately, despite its technical advance, Florence and her mother were not successful in marketing their invention. It would not be until 1923 that the automatic windshield wiper would be introduced as a standard feature on cars and the women who had pioneered this extremely useful innovation would receive no recognition or remuneration at all. Perhaps the world was simply not ready to concede that females had the knowledge to develop mechanical devices capable of improving automobiles.

Copyright 1997 William M. Drew

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