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 (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.
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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