Wallace Reid - Silent Star of December, 1997

by Kally Mavromatis

Wallace Reid might have made the perfect F. Scott Fitzgerald character, a Dick Diver or even a Gatsby, an eighteen-karat-gold Princeton man -- flaming, gentle, beautiful, and doomed.

Wallace Reid was born into a theatrical family in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 15, 1891, son of actor and playwright Hal Reid. In 1909, Hal was hired by the Selig Company in Chicago as scenarist. Originally intending to be a cinematographer, Wally's All-American, handsome looks got him signed as an actor instead. In 1911 father and son joined Vitagraph until Wally left in 1912, having filmed Jean Intervenes, An Indian Romeo and Juliet, The Seventh Son and The Illumination (all 1912).

By this time, Reid Jr. was a popular leading man, and had starred in films for a variety of nickelodeon-era studios. In 1914 Reid worked for Griffith's Majestic Studios in such films as At Dawn and His Mother's Influence. His big break came in The Birth of A Nation, where he made his entrance as Jeff the blacksmith, carrying a large anvil. It has been estimated that by the time he appeared in BOAN he had been in over 100 films.

In 1915 he appeared in Griffith's Fine Arts production of Old Heidelberg, and later that same year landed at Universal, where he attracting the eye of Jesse Lasky who quickly signed him to a contract. For the next two years he costarred with opera star Geraldine Farrar in all but one of her Lasky films, including Carmen (1915) and Joan the Woman (1917), both directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

After the war Reid's handsome, clean-cut, straight-arrow nice-boy persona caught on with audiences, and Famous Players-Lasky, recognizing his popularity, worked and exploited him like the money machine he was.

From 1919 through 1921 Reid worked with director James Cruze in The Valley of the Giants, Hawthorne of the U.S.A., The Roaring Road, the Dictator, The Lottery Man, and The Charm School. Some of his biggest film roles starred him as a "male flapper," a daring young man who used the family car for thrills in such films as Watch My Speed, Excuse My Dust, and Double Speed, all 1921. In 1921 he went on to co-star with Gloria Swanson in The Affairs of Anatol, also directed by DeMille, and Forever with Elsie Ferguson, directed by George Fitzmaurice and based on the stage play Peter Ibbetson.

At the end of his first full year at Famous Players-Lasky he had made six features. The next year saw ten, and in 1922, when other stars of his caliber were only making two pictures per year, Reid had starred in nine. On average, over a seven-year period, he was appearing in as many as one feature film every seven weeks. It was a testament to his popularity and his ability to star in even the weakest of scripts that his box-office appeal never waned. Reid's influence was such that, after appearing in a film in 1922 without the stiff, detachable collar that most men wore with their shirts, he single-handedly put the collar companies out of business overnight.

Such a schedule would have been grueling for any actor, and Reid was no exception. Conflicting accounts abound as to the origins of his morphine addiction, but of general accord is that, after suffering an injury during location filming, he was given morphine to dull the pain and continue shooting. The morphine also killed the exhaustion from such a rigorous schedule, and it was later intimated that the studio continued to keep Reid supplied, in order to keep him productive. Regardless of its cause, the end for Wallace Reid was heartbreaking. According to Henry Hathaway, then an assistant director, "He sort of fumbled about, and bumped into a chair, and then just sat down on to floor and started to cry. They put him in a chair, and he just keeled over. They sent for an ambulance and sent him to the hospital." The hospital was really a sanitarium, when Reid vowed he would "come back cured or not at all." Sadly, so weakened was he that his body was unable to fight off the influenza that finally killed him January 18, 1923.

Despite his ban on all references to narcotics, Will Hays did allow Reid's widow Dorothy Davenport to make a propaganda film, Human Wreckage, directed by John Griffith Wray and starring Mrs. Wallace Reid and Bessie Love, to expose the evils of drugs and drug addiction.

But Reid's death was only the beginning of a string of scandals that rocked Hollywood. At the same time, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was on trial for the "involuntary manslaughter" of Virginia Rappe, and the murder of William Desmond Taylor, with its whispered connections to the drug trade, all contributed to the nationwide hue and cry to "clean up Hollywood."

Sadly, despite his immense popularity Wallace Reid is little remembered today. Any discussion of his status of "screen idol" is overshadowed by the circumstances of his death. Likable, modest, and hard-working, Reid has become little more than a footnote in film history.

Glen Pringle / pringle@yoyo.its.monash.edu.au
Kally Mavromatis / only1kcm@yahoo.com
Copyright © 1997 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431