Women On Screen: The Rise of Female Stars
Florence Turner
Florence Turner was the first actor in the film
industry to sign a studio contract.
Photoplay Magazine, 1920.
Just as women helped shape early Hollywood from behind the scenes, actresses played a crucial role in the development of early film and the Hollywood star and studio systems. More popular than their male counterparts, early female stars helped make Hollywood a booming commercial venture thanks to their intense popularity with audiences. Female actresses parlayed this popularity into greater control of their acting roles, as well as what happened behind the scenes. Before the advent of the Hays Code in 1934, they also sought out challenging and dynamic roles that gave women agency and challenged accepted norms just as often as they conformed to what might be viewed as proper feminine roles. As a result, early Hollywood had a dynamic where actresses had room to explore the many different ways women might be depicted on film. Following the advent of the Hays Production Code, roles that provided women agency on screen became few and far between, a legacy of which Hollywood still struggles with today.

The first actress to sign a contract with a studio was Florence Turner, who signed with Vitagraph in 1907. This began the system in which actors signed prolonged contracts with studios that guaranteed a certain amount of pay and sometimes a certain number of films per year. During the early stages of the film industry, actors’ names were not publicized. Though actors did want to protect their privacy, casting anonymous actors ostensibly kept them from gaining enough fame to give them the power to demand higher wages and more control over their films. At first, actresses and actors who took recurring roles in serials or films made by the same production company adopted the monikers of their studios. Movie posters billed them under names such as the “Biograph Girl.” As movies became more popular, however, film audiences began to constantly seek the names of their favorite actors, leading studio executives to realize that profits could be increased by promoting certain stars.