Silent Star of the Month for January 2017

It’s a new month (has been for a while) and December’s featured star, Cleo Ridgely, will pass the crown to a new performer. This month’s star was a charming leading man whose death has overshadowed his talents in some circles.

The featured star is…

Wallace Reid!

Wallace Reid (1891-1923)

Wallace Reid’s shocking, drug-related death in 1923 was one of the biggest Hollywood scandals of the decade. Later that same year, his widow, director and actress Dorothy Davenport, produced and starred in Human Wreckage, a film pleading for stronger anti-drug laws.

What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is Reid’s smashing career before his early death. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Reid got his start in the movies in 1910 and worked steadily through the nickelodeon era but his career flourished in feature films.

“We know he shows especially well in the water. We’ve been watching him with binoculars.”

Reid got attention thanks to some minor roles in D.W. Griffith features but his career really took off under the Lasky banner. He won the role of Don Jose opposite Geraldine Farrar’s Carmen and the DeMille-directed silent opera was a smash hit. Farrar got Reid again for Joan the Woman (and several films in between) but he also played leading man to Dorothy Gish, Cleo Ridgely, Ann Little and others.

In the late-teens and early twenties, Reid specialized in race car adventure films (and some of them survive, unlike much of his other work) and was marketed as an all-American outdoorsy type. A little brash, a little wild but a good chap underneath. The Roaring Twenties suited his persona just fine and his early death leaves us all with questions of what might have been.

Why you should love him

Wallace Reid was a triple threat as a leading man: he was equally adept at drama, adventure and comedy. While some of the romantic actors of the 1910s can be politely described as stodgy, Reid was a boyish breath of fresh air. However, he could also go to very dark places, as his breakdown in Carmen proves.

For the most part, though, Reid preferred to keep things light and let his charisma do the heavy lifting. Buying a ticket to a Wallace Reid picture is generally a guarantee that a good time will be had by all.

Oh, and I have mentioned this before but a little bit of myth-busting bears repeating:

Wallace Reid’s Wikipedia entry names the transition from shorts to features as a factor in his morphine addiction. (“Reid soon became addicted but kept on working at a frantic pace in films that were growing more physically demanding and changing from 15–20 minutes in duration to as much as an hour.”) Um, guys, Reid’s addiction is generally reckoned to date from 1919 (during the production of Valley of the Giants) and features had been commonplace in American film from 1912-1913. Reid appeared in feature films exclusively from 1915 onward. Oh, and plenty of features were longer than an hour.

Congrats, Wikipedia. You’re the best. (Sarcasm.)

Where you can see him

A good number of Reid’s films are lost as Lasky/Paramount, his main studio, has a terrible preservation track record. Director Cecil B. DeMille liked using Reid as a leading man and personally preserved his own films, which accounts for their unusually high survival rate, and so this list is pretty DeMille-centric as a result.

Carmen (1915): This smash hit showcases both opera diva Geraldine Farrar and Reid to perfection. Farrar is flashier but Reid’s descent into murderous jealousy is not to be underestimated. One of my favorites.

The Golden Chance (1915): Reid plays Prince Charming in this modernized take on Cinderella. The film is all grit, smoke and shadows.

Joan the Woman (1916): Playing Joan of Arc’s love interest is always going to be a thankless task but Reid does what he can.

Hawthorne of the U.S.A. (1919): An American wins a big jackpot and uses it to save a decaying monarchy from anarchists. Not Reid’s best but Harrison Ford (no, not that one) steals the show as his annoyed BFF.

You can also taste Wallace Reid (oh my!) as a devotee created a salad in his honor. It’s pretty darn tasty too.


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22 Replies to “Silent Star of the Month for January 2017”

  1. I love Wallace Reid and am so glad he’s your Star of the Month. I was thrilled by your choice of Cleo last month, too! I particularly love them in “The Golden Chance”, and would love to see the other films they made together. I might add to your list of films to view, “The Affairs of Anatol”. His character is a bit of a jerk, but he’s always good and the film is chock-a-block with stars including Gloria Swanson and Elliott Dexter (another favorite of mine).

    1. So glad you’re enjoying! I’ve seen Anatol but haven’t had a chance to review it yet. (I am being rather more stingy with reviews of DeMille silents as I am starting to run out.) But I’m sure I’ll have a review up eventually.

  2. The entries in Wikipedia are editable; You might consider registering an account, and correcting any misinformation you find along the way.

  3. Yeah that you picked Wallace Reid who is so forgotten even though he was so popular. From what I read he became injured in a train accident for a picture and he even helped other people. He was given morphine for the pain and became addicted…is this correct?

    1. Yes, the story is that he was injured on the set and pumped full of morphine in order to keep him working. While this is entirely possible, we don’t really know for sure and likely never will.

  4. Love me some Wally Reid! I’ve only seen him in two films, but they’re both a lot of fun:

    EXCUSE MY DUST! (1920)

    I’m interested to know your thoughts on those!

      1. I have that same double feature! I think reviews of them would make an ideal addition to your blog this month, what with Wally being Star of the Month and all…well, just a thought. 🙂

  5. Oh, Wallace Reid is one I have wanted to see more of! What I have seen of his work I like, but I really want to learn more about him, he intrigues me. I’d love to see a movie with him and Dorothy Gish, Are there any surviving?

    1. Old Heidelberg exists and is on DVD! It’s on Amazon and also available from Grapevine (this isn’t advertising, just saying where you can find it). It’s not one of his best but it’s a nice afternoon’s entertainment.

      I LOVE Wallace Reid – I wish more of his films were available for viewing. Yes, a lot of them are fluff but that’s true of all heartthrobs and action types I guess – give the people what they want, eh! I wonder if he’d have gone into directing or screenwriting eventually had he lived? He said he preferred being behind the camera and did write several scripts in his early days.

      Have you read either of the biographies? I prefer Fleming’s but the pictures in the Menefee one are great. I also have his mother’s book about his life which is very sad, although also quite funny in places. I feel sorry for his family, especially his wife – she does come across as a bit humourless but to see your career eclipsed by your husband’s, end up adopting a child who was likely his illegitimate daughter, and live with the reality of his addiction and partying, all while keeping up a front that everything is fine, must have been horrible. So respect to Dorothy!

      1. Thanks! I have Old Heidelberg on DVD and will probably cover it eventually. (Possibly as a double feature with the Novarro/Shearer/Lubitsch take on the same story.)

        While I’ve read coverage of Reid’s life, I haven’t done the bio thing yet. Yes, I think there is a tendency to overlook Dorothy. I would be a bit humorless too if I had to put up with half of what she had to!

  6. i really hate to say this but a star with “provenance” such as wallace reid is never going to escape the appeal accrued due to said provenance. maybe i’m just a morbid girl. i did visit olive thomas’s grave site (it’s right near my school so how could i not) and no one remembers her for her acting…i think wally at least has a bit more going in his eternal reputation than that.

    1. Well, in all fairness, Reid has a far more extensive surviving body of work than Thomas. It’s extremely difficult to judge her career from her few surviving films.

      One actor who is escaping the “morbid” camp is John Gilbert. First, we had the myth about his voice and then we had the opposite myth that his voice was sabotaged. Now that more of his films are available, people are appreciating him for his talent. Basically, once the fans outnumber the gawkers and rubberneckers, the performer has been redeemed. The same process is currently underway with Joan Crawford, whose performances are being appreciated apart from the Mommy Dearest allegations. Again, it takes time but the momentum is in the right direction.

      1. i don’t think gilbert is a morbid story…tragic maybe but not morbid. i think his story (the high pitched voice/louis b. mayer punch one) has become an exhibit a for silent movie actors…you know, for the people who think lina lamont was an actual person. gilbert does have fans who know him as a dashing leading man from the 20s and i feel like you can have a discussion based on that without necessarily discussing what happened next. with wally, and certainly with olive, it’s inevitable – their stories end not just early in their own lives, but early in cinema really. a lot of silent era stars faded out with the talkies and the reasons varied greatly. the “voice” thing is really a “lina lamont” myth (obviously i am preaching to the choir but it can’t be said enough).

      2. I’ve run into quite a few people who open any conversation about John Gilbert by either portraying him as Mickey Mouse voiced buffoon or a suffering saint. As I stated before, Olive Thomas’s tiny surviving body of work makes her rehabilitation almost impossible (unless more films are discovered) while Wallace Reid’s comparatively rich filmography gives him a fighting chance, especially if more of his work is screened/broadcast. And just to be clear, I am not saying that a star’s early death cannot be part of the conversation, I just don’t want it to be the only conversation.

  7. Before his stint with Lasky, Reid worked as writer and actor in dozens of films for Vitagraph, Reliance, Nestor, IMP, Bison, Powers, Rex, American, and Flying A, and then hit big as writer, director, and star in a long series of one- and two-reel films for Universal (many also starring his wife, Dorothy Davenport). His work with D. W. Griffith followed, and not long after THE BIRTH OF A NATION, he began his work with Lasky/Paramount. By that time, he was still being seen in hundreds of those older shorts that were widely circulated in prints that bounced around the various exchanges until they were battered and discarded along with the original negatives. The majority of his work is now considered lost. He possessed a fine voice and starred in several stage plays. He also could sing, played all the instruments in a band, and fronted his own band during WWI. Unfortunately, he never made any recordings.

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