The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
him was just like finding a 180-pound diamond,” is how one of the earliest movie
moguls, Jesse L. Lasky, described Wallace Reid, a film star that would, in
seemingly record time, earn his reputation as “King of Paramount.” Wallace Reid
lived hard, worked harder, and died well before his time. In 31 short years, he
became one of the most influential players in the silent movie era, representing
the best and worst of a legendary time. While any photograph of Reid will
readily attest to his boyishly handsome, almost impish good looks, the plethora
of websites devoted to him today mark him as one of the true greats of cinema.
Born in 1891 in St. Louis, Missouri, Reid certainly doesn’t fit the standard
rags-to-riches story evident in so many of the other biographies in this series.
His parents were both in the theatre, and he joined them in bit parts by the age
of four. He took some time away from performing, however, to attend a prep
school, and became distinguished in the arts of poetry, music and painting – he
was also an accomplished athlete, and clearly a well-rounded student. His
ability to excel in many different areas would soon serve him well in his
newfound passion: the movies.
By 1910, while in his late teens and after living the life of a cowboy on his
father’s ranch, Reid made his film acting debut in The Phoenix – the film was
made in Chicago at the Selig Polyscope Company studios, where his father was
working as a screenwriter at the time. Not content to confine himself to acting,
and not yet a widely known face to the public, he began screenwriting as well,
and within two years, he was emerging as a writer, director and actor of note.
One year later, in 1913, he married one of his beautiful co-stars, Dorothy
1915 was a big year for Reid – that was when he transformed from hard working,
diligent and multi-talented film industry worker, to full-blown star. The main
impetus for this meteoric rise was his small role in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth
of a Nation, an enduring classic and groundbreaking cinematic triumph. Jesse Lasky happened to be among the first audiences of the film and he was so taken
with Reid’s magnetism that he signed him to Paramount immediately and refused to
lend him to any other studio. In a time when a studio contract meant guaranteed
stardom, Reid was suddenly cream of the crop. And with good reason – his
onscreen charisma and perfect physique were undeniable.
bigwigs at Paramount knew they had a gem on their hands, and tailor-made Reid
into one of the earliest American Idols. One of his first starring roles was the
classic Carmen (1915), which co-starred blossoming starlet Geraldine Ferrar.
Other notable early appearances were in the films To Have and To Hold (1916),
The Woman God Forgot (1917), and Believe Me Xantippe (1918). But Reid wasn’t
just another pretty face. He was a gifted comedian and wrote many of his scripts
as vehicles for himself; he also continued directing as much as his busy acting
schedule would allow.
Women loved Reid for his charm and his unbearably romantic personas, and men
flocked to the theater to see him perform his own stunts as a racecar driver – a
skill he learned during his prep school years. Some of his most famous and
best-remembered films, in fact, are the “racecar films”, such as The Roaring
Road (1919), Too Much Speed (1921) and Across the Continent (1922). Wallace – or
Wally, as he was sometimes, fondly, called – became a pre-product placement era
advertiser for the hottest new racecars on the market, as well as an established
matinee idol. The world was in the palm of his hands.
Unfortunately, Reid suffered an on-set injury in 1919 – this was also an era
before stuntmen were regularly used, and special effects were still in their
infancy – and he became seriously addicted to his prescribed painkillers, and
eventually morphine (some things never change in the showbiz world). The
downward spiral this addiction set off got worse as Reid turned to alcohol,
although his onscreen presence and public image were still completely intact.
By 1922, his condition was worsening, but the studio kept this all a secret, and
him star in eight feature films – one of them would be his last: Thirty Days,
co-starring Wanda Hawley and Charles Ogle. It was apparent to everyone on set
that Reid was teetering on the brink of self-destruction, and was losing the
control he had mastered so well all his working life. One of his co-stars of
that era, Gloria Swanson, told the press later that she was genuinely afraid for
him because of his behavior on the set of their films.
It seemed during these last years of his career that Reid was doomed to
destruct, and in 1922 he checked in to a private sanitarium to undergo
detoxification. He couldn’t handle the pressures of withdrawal, however, and
died on January 18, 1923. Among those in attendance at his funeral were
"Fatty" Arbuckle, Pola Negri, Harold Lloyd,
Charles Chaplin, Bebe Daniels,
Mary Pickford, and
Douglas Fairbanks. The way he died was a major media scandal
(although the official, publicized cause of death was influenza), and was one of
the primary causes – along with Fatty Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial and the
mysterious death of director William Desmond Taylor – for the petitions to
“clean up” Hollywood and censure its image and film content.
Reid, then, left a dual legacy: as a drug addict (his wife Dorothy dedicated
much of the rest of her life to going public against drug abuse) who helped
inaugurate the world of Hollywood scandals; and as one of the true bedrocks of
the movie industry. No mere star, Reid was a talented writer and director who
gave vitality to the early, independent motion picture companies, grew up with
the nascent studio system, and helped shape the medium of film for generations
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in
The Movie Profiles &