Silent film stars had reason to be nervous at the arrival of "movitones", the New Yorker‘s 1928 term for the "singies" or "talkies." Film sound was a remarkable technical and entrepreneurial achievement. It was also going to put a lot of people out of work. Japan’s benishi, the silent film interpreters who had honed their performances to an art, hung on until the mid-thirties; the most famous of the benishi, Tokugawa Musei, was narrating films as late as the early 1960s. Argentina’s tango orchestras relied on income from performing film soundtracks. But the most visible targets of the "cruel and relentless myrmidons of science," as Robert Benchley puts it, were those actors "whose speaking voices could hardly be counted on to put across the sale of a pack of Fatimas in a night club." The studios adapted quickly. MGM released The Hollywood Revue of 1929 to highlight those of their actors that they thought could flourish in the talking picture era. Accents, for instance, suddenly made a difference. Greta Garbo went on to vant to be alone, but not all actors were so lucky. Emil Jennings had won the first Best Actor Oscar, but his thick German accent didn’t play well in America. The talkies forced him to return home, where he went on to make Nazi propaganda films. Clara Bow, Hollywood’s "it girl", had a career in the talkies (starring in The Wild Party and ten other movies with sound), but her Brooklyn-tinged voice, mild stammer, and unease in front of the microphone put her career on the rocks; scandalous gossip that came out in a 1931 trial (the nation was shocked to learn that America’s leading sex symbol liked sex) simply sealed the deal. America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford felt she sounded like a "pipsqueak"; her career was never the same, although she continued to play an important role as an independent producer (helping found United Artists) and as the founder of the Motion Picture Relief Fund (which helped impoverished actors, including those put out of work by the talkies, keep body and soul together).
But the very first movie star never needed to worry about her accent, because by the time talkies arrived, she was no longer a star at all. "The first movie star" may seem like "the first poet" or "the first dancer", but until Florence Lawrence came along, film actors were anonymous. Lawrence had made a ridiculous number of movies for D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studio (the same studio that would give Mary Pickford her first starring roles). Fearing that popular actors would demand more money than the exorbitant $25 a week they earned, Biograph simply labelled Lawrence "the Biograph Girl." Fans wrote letters asking about her anyway. Looking to make a splash, Carl Laemmle (who would later found Universal Studios) lured her away to his Independent Motion Picture Company in 1910 with the promise of more money ($175 a week!) and screen credit under her own name; he then whipped up a masterful publicity campaign, first fabricating a rumor that she had been tragically killed in a streetcar accident in New York, then placing ads denying the rumor and announcing her appearance in his forthcoming The Broken Oath.
It worked like a charm, making Lawrence famous. She vindicated Biograph’s fears by leaving IMP for even more money at another studio; now that actors got name billing, they could move from studio to studio and retain their fan base. Lawrence was replaced at IMP by another young Canadian actress and veteran of the Biograph Studios, D.W. Griffith’s favorite, Mary Pickford. The changes she pioneered didn’t help Lawrence for long, however. She was injured in an accident in 1915, and the period of convolescence essentially ended her career. She made over a dozen movies in 1914; she made four in the next eight years, including 1916’s critically panned and commercially unsuccessful Elusive Isabel, her first full-length film. A movie star was a relatively common thing now; the public had forgotten about Florence Lawrence.
By the 1930s, her third marriage had failed and Lawrence was in dire straits. Her movie wealth had disappeared during the stock market crash; although she may have invented the turn signal (her mother patented the automatic windshield wiper), she had never patented or received any money for her work. She got the occasional bit part in MGM movies, adding to the more than two hundred and fifty film roles of her career. Like most of her performances after the early 1920s, Lawrence’s appearance in 1936’s One Rainy Afternoon was an uncredited cameo. It was her last. In 1938, suffering from a rare bone marrow disease, Lawrence killed herself. Pickford’s Motion Picture Relief Fund paid for the funeral.
Her pauper’s grave was unmarked until 1999, when a benefactor paid to have a gravestone installed. It reads, "The Biograph Girl / The First Movie Star." Publicists always lie, but gravestones sometimes tell the truth. Can anyone begrudge Florence Lawrence one last credit?