Wallace Reid

Born: 15 April 1891, St. Louis, MO
Died: 18 January 1923, Hollywood, CA

Three scandals rocked Hollywood in the early 1920s: the Fatty Arbuckle case, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, and the drug-related death of matinee idol Wallace Reid. In 1919 and 1920, Wallace Reid was the most popular movie star in the United States, and #1 at the box office. Sadly, by the early 1920s Reid - long an alcoholic - was also addicted to morphine. His tragic death became one of Hollywood's early cautionary tales.

The son of Hal Reid, a writer-theater producer-director-actor, Wallace Reid joined his parents' stage act at age four. But he actually spent very little of his childhood onstage. Instead, he was sent to private schools, where he excelled at music and sports. In 1910, his Hal Reid moved to Chicago to join the Selig Ployscope, and early film studio. Inspired, young Wallace decided he wanted to be a cameraman. But his athletic good looks proved irresistible to film-makers, and Reid found himself more often in front of the camera than behind it.

Reid's first film role was as the younger reporter in The Phoenix (1910). And still he preferred to be a cameraman, a writer, a director...anything but an actor. He took his father's play The Confession to Vitagraph, hoping to write and direct the film; he ended up acting in it.

After making dozens of movies, he slowly graduated from bit parts to being Florence Turner's leading man in several more films. He moved to Reliance - where he both acted and wrote screenplays - thence to Hollywood. There, he was hired by director Otis Turner at Universal to be Turner's assistant director, second cameraman, gopher, and scenario writer. In short, exactly the kinds of work he wanted to do. But it wasn't long before his face damned him to a place in front of the camera yet again.

In 1913, twenty-year-old Reid - still an unknown as assistant director - was married to Universal's star, Dorothy Davenport, with whom he'd worked as director and actor. Though only seventeen, Davenport was already a seasoned veteran of stage and screen.

By his 25th birthday, Reid had appeared in over 100 films (!), and his roles were getting steadily bigger. But in 1915, he took a momentous step (and a salary cut): he accepted the small role of Jeff the blacksmith in D.W. Griffith's milestone film Birth of a Nation (1915).

Jesse L. Lasky saw Reid in the film, and decided on the spot that he had to sign the young actor to Famous Players. It was with Lasky's studio that Reid would become a huge star at last...and his dreams of directing and writing would receive their coup de grace.

Reid's first film for Famous Players was The Chorus Lady (1915). He went on to star in over sixty films with the studio before his untimely death. In most of his roles, he typified the ideal all-American male. In 1916, Griffith hired Reid again, for Intolerance (1916). The Squaw Man's Son followed in 1917. But it was his daredevil car movies that clinched Reid's spectacular popularity. With their flashy automobiles, treacherous roads, and heart-stopping races with speeding locomotives, Reid's car pictures - like The Roaring Road (1919) and Double Speed (1920) - were guaranteed to terrify and delight thrill-seeking audiences.

When the U.S. entered the Great War in 1917, Reid - twenty-five years old, 6'1", and a crack shot - longed to enlist. Predictably, Lasky pressured him not to. Reid had become one of Famous Players' hottest properties, and his departure could spell financial disaster for the company. And, as much as he hated to admit it, Reid did worry about losing his status as matinee idol.

Reid also had family responsibilities to consider: he was supporting not only his wife and newborn son, William Wallace Reid Jr., but also his mother and Davenport's parents. And he probably realised, in his heart of hearts, that his chronic alcoholism would make him him a less than ideal candidate for the army. Still, he assuaged his guilt over not serving by donating a lot of his time to selling Liberty bonds, and he often opened his house to veterans.

Although Reid's career was a success, his personal life was anything but. He was profligate in his spending, and his long-standing alcoholism only worsened during his years in Hollywood. Popularity was a mixed blessing for Reid, because with it came the pressure to make film after film. The studio thought nothing of keeping him working for months at a time without a break. That is, until disaster struck.

While making The Valley of the Giants (1919) on location in Oregon, Reid was in a train wreck. The pain of his injuries was so great, he felt he couldn't finish the film. But Lasky was unwilling to stop shooting. Instead, he sent the studio physician to Oregon with a supply of morphine to dull Reid's pain enough for him to work. The film was wrapped, but Reid was committed to immediately start another - and the studio was accommodating enough to keep up his morphine supply. Unsurprisingly, he was soon addicted.

By 1922, Reid had checked into and out of a succession of hospitals and sanitariums. In August of that year, Reid and his wife adopted 3-year-old Betty Mummert. While making his last film, Thirty Days (1922), he was barely able to stand up, let alone act. After finishing the film, he checked himself into yet another sanitarium. It proved to be his last. On 18 January 1923, Wallace Reid, thirty-one years old, died in his wife's arms.

Wallace Reid, called "the screen's most perfect lover" by Motion Picture in 1919, played a type of lead that was indigenous to the late teens and early twenties. Richard Kosazarski defines him as "the final heir to the 'Arrow Collar' tradition of motion picture stardom", by which he meant
strong-jawed, all-American figures [that] exuded stability, friendliness, optimism, and reliability. he was at home in overalls or evening clothes and did very nicely in a uniform when the occasion arose. Their imitators were legion and, to modern eyes, indistinguishable. Few silent-film historians spend much time on these men or their films, but occasional lip service is paid to the last and greatest of them, Wallace Reid.
Reid, an unpretentious and likable actor, came from a show business family, and brought an ease to the business of performing that stood out among less comfortable, flashier actors. Although he came to epitomize the "all-American", he was also a matinee idol. The fan magazines described him glowingly as beloved by his mother - an expert swimmer, boxer, and dancer - an artist who was adept in oils - a daredevil who could drive a fast motorcar (and repair it). In an early Photoplay, Laurence Quirk said that the camera "caught a lovable quality in the man and reflected in on screen". Reid married Dorothy Davenport, a young woman who also came from a prominent acting family, and the Reids were a glamorous couple about town. Reid became so popular during the period from 1915 to 1922 that he appeared in an amazing number of features - six in 1916, ten in 1917; he has been identified as having appeared in over one hundred films prior to his role of Jeff the blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation.

Most historians feel that Reid might not be remembered, however, if he had not become the protagonist of one of Hollywood's earliest and most dramatic tragedies. In 1919, he was injured when a special train carrying a company to a location shooting was wrecked. In order to enable hiim to keep working until the movie was finished, a studio doctor prescribed morphine, and continued the dosage long past the safety point. Reid became an addict, and then started drinking to hide the addiction. he kept on working, making nine features in 1922, but finally collapsed during production, and the truth leaked out. Run-down and ill, Reid contracted the flu, went into a coma, and died on January 18, 1923, at the age of thirty and at the top of his fame. Later his widow made his story known in order to educate others, and she kept his name and reputation alive for later generations. Reid, in fact, left behind and large and respectable filmography, including Carmen, Joan the Woman, Affairs of Anatol, and The Birth of a Nation, but when he is remembered at all today, it is largely for the scandal surrounding his secret addiction.

Jeanine Basinger: Silent Stars (New York: Alfred A. Knopf - Copyright © 1999 by Jeanine Basinger)

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION: Actress Lila Lee (born Augusta Wilhelmena Fredericka Appel) became a child star in 1917. She went on to appear in countless films during the 1920s and '30s, including Another Man's Wife, The Adorable Cheat and The Little Wild Girl. Such suggestive movie titles notwithstanding, Lee was not exempt from the conservative moral standards of the time. In this 1959 interview with Columbia University's Oral History Research Office, Lee discusses the social mores of early Hollywood and the scandals that surrounded stars like Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Question: What do you recall about Wallace Reid?

Lila Lee: Well, I suppose there isn't any woman who's ever looked at him that doesn't think he's the handsomest man who ever lived. He really was. Along with that, just as sweet and nice as he could be. I was devoted to him. I was heartbroken when he died. He was very young when he died, only around 30.

Q: There was some kind of scandal attached to it. What is your version of that particular situation?

Lee: I don't know too much about it. I know that he had become a drug addict - whatever the reasons, I wouldn't have the vaguest idea.

Q: The story we get is that he had an accident.

Lee: I believe that, too. I know that he used to have very bad headaches. Also, you must remember that many years ago people weren't as much aware of these things. If what happened to Wally had happened now, probably he would have been perfectly all right. I know that he was brilliant. He was a wonderful musician. He could play any instrument. I don't think he ever had a lesson. He played banjo, drums, piano, violin--I won't say that he played them all magnificently, but he played them well enough - and he loved music. He was a good father, a good husband.

Columbia University Oral History Research Office: "Scandal and the Silver Screen: Lila Lee on Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle"

Dorothy Davenport Reid was born in Boston in 1895 into a theatrical family; her father, Harry Davenport, is a familiar Hollywood character actor. Dorothy made her stage and movie debuts at about the same time, when she was 16. In 1912, she costarred with Wallace Reid in a Western called His Only Son and they soon embarked on a series of films together. "Everybody took a crack at writing in those days. A writer got $25.00 for every scenario reel. At Universal, films were never longer than two reels, but Wally and I often did two films a week. Most of us never even saw the pictures we made." Wallace Reid worked as a writer, director and actor for Universal, and soon fell in love with his co-star. They were married in 1913, after a day's work at the studio, and returned to the set the next day to continue shooting The Lightning Bolt.

Wallace became famous as a bare-chested blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation, and his popularity grew with every film. Dorothy took some time off from movie making to have two children, and the Reids moved into a home on Sunset Boulevard, supposedly the first movie star mansion with a swimming pool. But, in 1919, Wallace was in a train wreck on location and was badly injured. He recovered, but the pain lingered. He was a valuable movie star, and the studio wanted him in front of the cameras as soon as possible. A doctor gave him morphine, and kept on giving it to him. Dorothy said, "His source was neither illicit, or illegal - it didn't have to be. Wally could charm any doctor into giving him the tablets he wanted. He knew just enough about medicine to convince doctors that he knew exactly how many grams he could safely take every day...It was worse, in a way, with Wally, because he had always been the picture of health, and he was confident that he know enough about medicine to believe that addiction wouldn't happen to him. But it did." By January, 1923, he was dead at 31.

Dorothy Reid became a crusader against drug addiction.

Copyright © 2000 by moviediva


Wallace Reid's Struggle Against Drug Addiction

Wife Pens Dramatic Story of Wallace Reid's Drug Ruin

The Life Story of Wallace Reid: The Tragedy of an American Idol

Miscellaneous Press Coverage

Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story

by David W. Menefee

(Foreword by Robert Osborne)

Wallace Reid still rouses excitement today as Jeff, the blacksmith in D.W. Griffith's famous film, The Birth of a Nation. Audiences thrill to the rip-roaring brawl between Jeff and a band of villainous renegades. The fight was largely real, and many people saw Wally for the first time in that immortal film. They said he became a star overnight - but he had appeared in more than a hundred films before.

In Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story, the truth is fully told for the first time how he was "born in a trunk" to an actress mother and a famous playwright father, and how he barely survived the infamous St. Louis cyclone, when the storm tore that city apart. Wally emerged from the carnage to grow into a popular student, athlete, and early film hero. His handsome looks inspired directors to place him in front of cameras, but his ambitions were to be a writer and director. When director Cecil B. DeMille picked him to appear opposite opera diva Geraldine Farrar in her first films, his aspirations became lost in the dizzying idolatry of worldwide audiences.

Wally's popularity soared to a height rivaled only by Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, but his pedestal of fame stood on shaky ground. Genuine tragedy fell upon Wally and his film crew when their train derailed in an isolated Sierra Mountain location. His injuries were treated with morphine, and his family and friends watched helpless as he became caught unaware in the deathly grip of the drug. Dorothy Davenport, his wife and a beautiful star in her own right, remained faithfully by his side, while he wrestled with the demons that threatened to take his life.

Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story draws from many original sources, major archives, and his family members to show how he was received in his time and the importance of his role in the development of motion pictures. The entertaining and informative book contains an extensive biographical treatment, a detailed filmography, and more than 200 rare photographs, posters, advertisements, and lobby cards that capture the glamour of Hollywood's Golden Years. Available at www.bearmanormedia.com

Wallace Reid on the Web



Wallace Reid (1891-1923)

Wallace Reid

Wallace Reid - Silent Star

Silent Gents Wallace Reid Galleries

The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone, Featuring: Wallace Reid

Mr. Wallace Reid (Silence is Platinum blog)

The Death of Wallace Reid

Wallace Reid: The Tragedy of an American Idol

Wallace Reid: Filmdom Mourns Star (Turner Classic Movies tribute page)

Early Tour Bus Stop: Home of Wallace Reid, Silent Era "King of Paramount" - First Big Star Felled by Addiction

Wallace Reid on Wikipedia

Wallace Reid Facebook page

photo of Wallace Reid, Jr., and Dorothy Davenport-Reid

Complete Wallace Reid Movies on YouTube

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) - credited as Wallace Reed

D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916)
Intolerance with a different soundtrack
Cecil B. DeMille's Carmen (1915) - also starring Geraldine Farrar

Cecil B. DeMille's Joan the Woman (1916) - also starring Geraldine Farrar

Cecille B. DeMille's The Affairs of Anatol (1921) - also starring Gloria Swanson

Complete Wallace Reid Movies on the Internet Archive

D.W. Griffith's Enoch Arden (1911) - also starring Lillian Gish

D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916)