Thursday, January 04, 2018

Wallace Reid (1891-1923)

Birth name: William Wallace Halleck Reid
Birthdate: April 15th, 1891
Location: St Louis, Missouri, USA

Died: January 18th, 1923
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Cause of death: Renal suppression and pneumonia caused by morphine addiction

Best known for: American silent film star labelled "the screen's most perfect lover" by Motion Picture Magazine who appeared in more than 200 productions, including D W Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), as well as The World's Champion (1922) and Across the Continent (1922).

Born into a showbiz family (both his parents were actors or playwrights), Wallace Reid was an accomplished athlete and outdoorsman, but slipped into the film industry when his father began working for motion pictures rather than theatres. Wallace's first appearance on film was in the 1910 short The Phoenix, and although he initially preferred to remain behind the scenes, directing rather than acting, the studios soon latched onto his matinee idol looks and turned him into one of the greatest sex symbols of the silent era.

Nevertheless, between 1912 and 1917 Wallace directed a total of 69 productions, and wrote 26 scripts between 1912 and 1916. In 1913, while working for Universal Pictures, the 6ft 1in performer met the actress Dorothy Davenport, who he married the same year and had two children with (Wallace Jr, and Betty, who was adopted but who it is believed was Wallace's daughter via an affair).

Wallace with his son Wallace Jr
at Christmastime
His films were often action adventures in which he was paired with a beautiful young actress, such as Ann Little, in auto-thrillers such as The Roaring Road (1919), Excuse My Dust (1920) and Too Much Speed (1921). In early 1919 he was filming the romantic drama The Valley of the Giants in Humboldt County, California, with co-star Grace Darmond and director James Cruze. One day's shooting was on location in Oregon, and while en route to the location, Wallace was injured when the train he was travelling in careered off a bridge near Arcata in California, rolling 15ft and landing on its side. Wallace was seriously injured by a deep laceration to the scalp, a gash in his arm to the bone, and severe injury to his back.

In order to keep up with the filming schedule he was prescribed morphine for pain relief, but he soon became addicted to the drug. His addiction got worse and worse at a time when drug rehabilitation programmes were virtually non-existent, and the studios decided that the best way to preserve Wallace's box office bang was to feed him more and more morphine to keep him alive! His addiction ate into his health, and Wallace began to waste away, lose his teeth and become moodier.

A 30-year-old Wallace Reid
in his final film, Thirty Days
Being a young man, it's puzzling why Wallace struggled so much with his addiction, but it all begins to make sense when you consider one of the cures Wallace attempted while still at home. Called the Crebo Method, it involved a programme of daily injections, pills and enemas consisting of a cocktail of substances, including ephedrine, adrenaline, philocarpine hydrochloride, luminal and even a South American plant compound called curare which was used to poison arrow tips and asphyxiate and paralyze animals in the space of 120 seconds! All this was injected into Wallace's chest, leading to some nightmarish side effects, including exhaustion, twitching, cramping, thirst and dysentery.

While making his final film, Thirty Days (released in December 1922), Wallace was barely able to stand, let alone act, and reviews from the time describe him as looking tired and haggard (sadly, the film is now lost, so we can't see it for ourselves). Despite his condition, Wallace was cast in another film soon after, entitled Nobody's Money. Assistant director Henry Hathaway later recalled Wallace's last day on set: "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 hospital."

Wallace with his wife Dorothy, son
Wallace Jr and daughter Betty, circa 1921
In and out of various sanitariums throughout his final years, when he was sent by a Dr C B Blessing to a hospital in LA, he told director Cecil B De Mille: "Either I'll come out cured, or I won't come out." Dr Blessing's method of attempting to "cure" Wallace consisted of a controversial mixture of other, unidentified pills, which essentially boiled down to getting him off one drug by getting him addicted to another. Wallace was there for six weeks until his wife Dorothy moved him to a private sanitarium where he was placed in a padded room to "dry out". His condition only worsened, via a series of influenzas, kidney failures and respiratory issues.

Mrs Wallace Reid inspecting a fortune in
drugs and narcotics at the opening of her
film Human Wreckage in San Francisco
in the summer of 1923.
Sadly, Wallace died of renal suppression and pneumonia in a sanitarium in LA while attempting to recover, on January 18th, 1923, cradled in his wife's arms. He was just 31 years old, and left a 27-year-old widow and two children, then aged six and four. He was interred at the Azalea Terrace of the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Pallbearers at his funeral included William Desmond, Noah Beery, Ed Brady, William S Hart, Eugene Pallette, Benny Frazee (Wallace's chauffeur), Victor H Clark, Jack Holt, Antonio Moreno, Conrad Nagel, Theodore Roberts and Sam Wood.

After Wallace's tragic early death, his widow Dorothy (as Mrs Wallace Reid) toured the US publicising the film Human Wreckage, released in June 1923 - just five months after his death - which told the tragic tale of drug addict Jimmy Brown, played by George Hackathorne. At the end of each performance of the film, Dorothy would address the audience directly, imploring them to help in her crusade to wipe out the menace of narcotics. Obviously, her mission was far from accomplished, and sadly no prints of this film are known to have survived.

Wallace appeared briefly in one film posthumously as one of many cameos in the now lost film Hollywood, released in August 1923 and also featuring Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Astor, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, ZaSu Pitts, Gloria Swanson and Ben Turpin.

Wallace Reid's urn at Forest
Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery
Wallace Reid received a commemorative star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960 (located at 6617 Hollywood Boulevard), while his widow Dorothy lived until October 1977, when she died of natural causes at the age of 82. She actually outlived her adopted daughter Betty Mummert, who died in early 1967, aged just 48. Wallace and Dorothy's only biological child, their son Wallace Jr, died in 1990, aged 73, after having appeared in a handful of films himself in the 1930s and 40s, and later forged a career as an architect of apartments and condos.

Wallace was recalled by co-stars and colleagues in the epic 1980 documentary series Hollywood, by Kevin Brownlow (episode 3: Single Beds and Double Standards), and in 2007, E J Fleming wrote an autobiography called Wallace Reid: Life and Death of a Hollywood Idol.

Wallace pictured in 1912 (aged just 21) in
a publicity still for a Western short.

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