He was one of Hollywood’s leading male stars. Young, handsome, with sex appeal and talent to burn.
But he died young, and apparently drugs were involved.
The year was 1923.
The actor’s name was Wallace Reid, and he was a huge movie star—sadly now all but forgotten, and many of his films lost or just turned to dust.
Reid appeared in his first motion picture when he was 19-years-old in 1910 in Chicago. He quickly moved on to the Vitagraph Studios where he hoped to direct, but because of his incredible good looks he was quickly pushed in front of the camera.
The public, especially women, reacted favorably to Wally Reid.
Reid worked for Allan Dwan in 1913 at Universal Pictures. His career flourished and soon he had featured roles in Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) both films directed by the great D.W. Griffith.
It was in the new genre of daredevil auto movies—automobiles were changing American life, and that change was reflected in motion pictures—that Wallace Reid gained his greatest popularity. Fast cars roared along narrow, winding roads; sometimes there was a race with a speeding locomotive; at other times a grueling, dust-choking cross-country rally. But always, there was a girl’s heart to win at the end of the race. His adoring public worshiped this brash, but basically aw’ shucks all-American speedster. Reid’s auto pictures included The Roaring Road (1919), Excuse My Dust (1920) and Double Speed (1920).
Wallace Reid, Ann Little, The Roaring Road, 1919
Watching Reid’s film work I’ve always been struck by his delicate good looks, yet at the same time there’s nothing feminine about him. He’s a rugged, clean cut all-American kid. It’s easy to connect with Reid. You like him, don’t feel threatened by his chiseled jaw and bottomless dark eyes. He’s not the heavy-lidded, mannered Valentino movie star type that caused men to recoil. You sense that Wally Reid’s just a regular, unpretentious guy who likes beer and football—and he won’t steal your girl.
So popular had Reid become that he was dubbed: The Screen’s Most Perfect Lover.
Reid tried to enlist to fight in World War I—he was in great shape and a fine marksmen—but his studio, Famous Players , exerted massive pressure on him to stay home. Instead, Reid sold Liberty Bonds and opened his fine home to veterans.
In the old days, the studios cranked out silent films on an industrial basis. It was exhausting labor. A normal day on-set was usually fourteen to sixteen hours in some of the most inhospitable locations you could possibly imagine. Those were the days before actors were pampered in deluxe trailers with highly paid handlers, agents and lawyers catering to every whim and fancy. No, this was the wild west of motion pictures, and Reid, though making very good money, was working at a soul-killing pace.
While making a film called “The Valley of the Giants” (1919), Reid was severely injured in a train accident while on-location.
The picture was nearly finished, but there was no way of shooting round Wally. He just had to be there, in front of the camera. So the company, not wanting to lose the investment entirely, sent the studio doctor, with an ample supply of morphine, to the location, where he injected Wallace to the extent that he could feel no pain whatsoever and he was able to finish the picture. But afterwards he was thoroughly hooked. Normally he could have been sent to a sanitarium, to a cure, but he was altogether too good box office. There was too much more to be gotten out of Wallace Reid. So in order to keep the services of this most popular of leading men, they kept him supplied with more and more morphine.
Addicted and in need of increasingly larger doses of the drug to feed his cravings, the studio physicians fed the helpless actor with more and more morphine over the next few years.
Reid fell into a deep depression, and always fond of liquor, his intake increased. The combination of morphine and booze was deadly to Reid’s body and to his spirit. The cycle was deadly: shooting one picture after another was sapping what little strength Reid possessed, and it took every ounce of energy to hide his rapidly declining physical and mental condition from his legion of fans. Of course, there was massive strain on his marriage, and what guilt he must have suffered as a father for he and his wife Dorothy had a son, Wallace Jr., and daughter, Betty, whom they had adopted when she was 3-years-old. Reid’s life spiraled into a living hell.
Reid with wife Dorothy Davenport
Addiction was little understood in those days, viewed only as a moral stain to be denied and hidden. Treatments were primitive—often fatal.
In 1922 Reid was working on a film called Thirty Days. He was in bad shape, and everyone in the cast and crew were aware of Reid’s problem. Some days Wally was barely able to stand up and perform when the cameras were rolling.
He sort of fumbled about, and bumped into a chair, and then just sat down on the 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.
Wallace Reid’s career was finished.
Reid’s loyal wife, actress Dorothy Davenport placed Wallace in a sanitarium.
Before entering the sanitarium, Reid told director Cecil B. DeMille, “Either I’ll come out cured, or I won’t come out.”
On January 18, 1923, Wallace Reid died in his wife’s arms. He was 31-years-old.
Wallace Reid: Silent Film Star. Some lovely photos.
Wallace Reid: Classic Films. Here’s an excellent site with quite a bit of information about Rei
d, his career, his tragic addiction, and his lovely wife Dorothy Davenport. There are also fascinating news clips of the time covering the Reid story from Variety, The N.Y. Times, and the L.A. Herald. A heartbreaking time capsule.
Wallace Reid: IMDb. Complete Filmography.
Wallace Reid Double Feature DVD: The Roaring Road and Excuse My Dust.
The Affairs of Anatol, DVD starring Wallace Reid and Gloria Swanson, Directed by Cecil B. Demille.
Wallace Reid: The Life and Death of a Hollywood Idol, by E.J. Fleming.
Wallace Reid: His Life Story, by Bertha Westbrook Reid. This volume by Reid’s mother was penned in 1924. I am clueless.
Congo: Every month 45,000 people die. Since 1998 5.4 million people have died since the war began, nearly half of the dead children younger than 5-years old. In the last year alone more than half a million refugees. True refugees living in mud, and squalor, dying of starvation and disease.
But keep talking about Israel and the so-called Palestinians.
Top EU Official speaks. Wait, is this, er, for real?