Page 4 of 5
This would seemingly make her look like an inconsistent and even erratic personality, and perhaps she was, but it isn't unreasonable to think that she truly was suffering despite the pluses of her movie stardom. She had wealth and adoration, true... but movie stars at the dawn of cinema were not exactly the "babied" snobs they are now. Not only was there a constant flow of work with no seeming end, but working conditions were less than cushy. Before the time of the star trailer or catered lunches, performers would work in the freezing cold or the blinding heat. Before unions, they would work hour upon hour until the scheduled shoot was finished without today's 12 hour cut off. Most importantly, before the day of the stunt man, they would often perform dangerous feats, risking their lives to add a little action to a sequence. The number of people who actually died for the sake of their art is not insignificant. Everyone is familiar with the amazing acrobatics of Buster Keaton, whose physical wonders astounded audiences, but he was a professional, and even he broke his neck. Literally. Leading ladies were no different: Helen Holmes, Helen Gibson, Cleo Madison... they all did things that could have claimed their lives. Florence was no exception, and she was about to make a great sacrifice as an artist that would haunt her for the rest of her life.
In March of 1914, Florence was filming The Pawns of Destiny with Matt Moore and Harry (yes, still) as director. One sequence required her to pull the supposedly unconscious Matt Moore down a flight of stairs while the house burned down around them. Not only was Matt a grown man, who was more than a little too heavy for the petite Flo to carry, but the flames were also an obvious threat to her safety, and she had to perform the task 3 times. Something went terribly wrong. The exact situation is unknown, and many myths have appeared over the years. One story is that Florence was badly burned and that she went into seclusion to heal, after which movies did not want her anymore. Another is that she was injured while literally saving the life of Moore from the burning set. Neither are true. Florence was injured, but she would continue to work in films after the incident, so it didn't "ruin" her career, at least not immediately. She also did not seem to suffer burns, at least not severe or visible ones. The most traumatic result of what happened that day, was that Flo fell and hurt her back. A trouper, at first she thought nothing of the pain, but then it started to spread to the back of her head and neck, and she knew something was wrong. She went to bed to recuperate. She would get better, but things were never the same for her after, and (much like last month's star Boris Karloff) Flo would persevere while incredible pain would plague her body until it eventually became intolerable. For now, fireball Flo was forced to slow down a little, though she would by no means quit.
While retiring for a little relaxation to her New Jersey abode with sometimes estranged and sometimes not hubby Harry, Flo underwent another disaster when she was in an automobile accident. Apparently, it wasn't fatal, but the fender bender was sure to exacerbate he back, which had just been operated on. In all the fan magazines, Flo tried to sound optimistic about her health and well-being, and mostly about returning to work, but privately she was suffering. As soon as she lost the ability to do the thing she had taken for granted, she wanted it more than ever. She saw clearly, and perhaps for the first time, her remarkable gift, and not having the ability to utilize it began to slowly break her heart. Not willing to take no for an answer, Flo insisted on going back to work. This was her destiny! She was one of the most talented and well respected actresses in the world. She belonged in front of the camera, and by God that's where she would go!
So, back to old friend Laemmle and Universal she went, and her first picture back was The Elusive Isabel. She also made personal appearances, such as at the premiere of the Sarah Bernhardt vehicle Jeanne Dore to prove to her fans that she was alive and kicking, and the applause she received always warmed her heart and gave her hope. The public still mimicked her impeccable fashion sense, which was classy and modern always, and songs were even written about her, such as Emma R. Steiner's "Florence Lawrence." Flo was filled with hope when Elusive Isabel premiered on April 24, 1916. It was a personal milestone, her first full-length feature film! Sadly, the reviews weren't great, and this disheartened her. Of course, the public never blamed her for a flop, and instead praised her for elevating a soppy film as best as she could. Still, it was a crushing blow.
This was the beginning of Flo's acting decline. It wasn't because her talent had diminished, nor that the love of her had died... But times were changing. Movies were moving west to a place that would become known as Hollywood. Movie theaters were turning into lavish and grandiose movie palaces, and the films that Flo was used to starring in weren't reeling in audiences anymore. Progress was being made and the original pioneers were being left in the dust, outmoded and obsolete. Birth of a Nation changed the way movies were viewed and made, and nothing could measure up anymore. Along with Flo's greatest friendly foe, Mary Pickford, a different kind of woman was stealing her thunder. Mary continued to pull of the beautiful girl next door thing, because her acting style was so fresh and authentic... But Flo became outmoded as audiences started wanting actresses a little more sexy and dangerous. Enter Theda Bara.
Where would Flo fit into all this? And could she?! As she felt her place in movies disappearing, Flo made every attempt to stay in the public eye, and of course, being the first star, she would introduce the first taste of glamour. She bought silver evening dresses and furs as if to prove that she was still a Queen. She could not deny the inevitable, however, that things were indeed falling apart. This included her private life. Harry and she had finally reached the "D" word- Divorce. She was desperate to get out from under Harry's almost tyrannical control, but Flo did need guidance in her career. She was too impulsive to really be a shrewd business woman. With Harry gone, she lost a little stability, suffocating though it had been. She found herself strapped for cash, and even wrote to Laemmle for money. Later, she would try to sue in order to get some compensation for the injuries she had sustained, which plagued her. This was not an unreasonable plea. There were actors, like Grace McHugh who had died while filming, so a little compensation seemed in order. Though Flo came out "gun's blazing," she was no match for the studios. She was in trouble.
To keep her mind off the snowballing negatives in her life, Flo directed her impassioned focus elsewhere. She raised awareness for the Actor's Fund, returned to her rose garden, and did what she could to raise morale when WWI hit. She even managed to make another film, with ex Harry of course, The Face on the Screen, but it sank at theaters. Harry's career was also faltering. It seemed that any movie he tried to make without his beautiful wife was a failure. He made his last film in 1918, ironically titled The Wife He Bought. Growing closer to her mother in this time of despair, Flo became somewhat of an entrepreneur. Lotta, like her willful daughter, was always a go-getter, and inspired her daughter to follow her lead in checking out different ventures to pay the bills. Together, they worked in real estate, mining, and even inventions! Lotta developed the first windshield wipers and Florence is responsible for the first turn signal! Flo's creation consisted of an arm that would drop from the rear of the car saying "STOP" whenever the brakes were pressed. Sadly, she never obtained a patent for her invention and received no money or glory for it. Lotta, always a better business woman, did patent her many inventions, including another that kept glass from fogging up. When the influenza outbreak occurred, Flo also directed much of her time and attention toward helping the Red Cross.
At about this time, Flo began to see her old co-horts dropping like flies, either exiting the business or making their final exit, period. One of her first friends in film, Arthur Johnson, died of tuberculosis, though many assume that was a polite way of saying he died of alcoholism. Hanging on by a thread, Flo made The Love Craze hoping it would usher in a comeback for her career. It did not. Then Harry died of a stroke, and with him went almost all memory of his years of work and innovation as one of the earliest film directors. He did not even receive an obituary. Since their divorce had not yet been finalized, this made Florence a widow. Just another cherry on her sundae... As things in film turned sour, with Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford both dying tragic deaths, Flo turned her attention to the stage, signing up with the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. She had finally gone West! Her new production manager, George Kern, was hoping the move would reignite her career, and falsely told newspapers that Flo would be welcomed at the station by the likes of Mack Sennett and Mary Pickford. Not true, and the charade did not work. Still, Flo went on to make The Unfoldment, and those who had worked with her and respected her continued fighting vigilantly for her career. In a world where Fatty Arbuckle was being accused of raping Virginia Rappe, and the public was beginning to turn on Hollywood, relying on an old, faithful actress would seem the logical step. Sadly, audiences did not latch onto Flo again. When The Unfoldment was released, it was overshadowed by yet another scandal, the murder of William Desmond Taylor.