1/18/1923 - Once upon a time, just a little over a century ago, movie making is a brand new art form still defining itself ... there are no blockbusters awaiting summer releases or special camera effects, going out to the movies is just becoming a national past-time, and the concept of the "film star" is in its infancy. Film star ... before Charlie Chaplin even steps in front of a motion picture camera, before Douglas Fairbanks makes his first swashbuckler, before William S. Hart brings the Wild West to the nation's movie palaces, William Wallace Halleck Reid is a huge star (one day to become the Silent Era's "It Girl," Clara Bow will wait for eight hours to see the man at a Brooklyn personal appearance) of the new industry ... and as such, tragically, a template for all the young actor and actress deaths caused by alcohol and drugs yet to come.
Reid is born into a St. Louis entertainment family on 4/15/1891 ... his mother, Bertha Westbrook, is an actress, and his father, James Halleck "Hal" Reid, has worked a variety of theatrical jobs and mostly supports the family by writing plays and traveling the country as an actor. As a boy, Reid is on stage early (at four years old), but puts the world of entertainment on hold while he is educated at the Freehold Military School in Freehold Township, New Jersey, and then at the Perkiomen Seminary in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania where he develops into a gifted musician able to play the piano, banjo, drums, violin, and guitar (he will later keep one of his neighbors up playing his saxophone ... an unhappy actor named Rudolph Valentino), prepares himself to practice medicine, enjoys writing poetry and painting, plays a variety of sports, and runs the school newspaper. Spending time in Wyoming, he also becomes an avid outdoorsman. Ready to make his mark on the world in any number of fields, Reid is drawn into the new picture making business when his father transitions from the theater to acting in "flickers" and his son gains employment helping behind the scenes.
Drawn to writing, directing, and camera work, Reid's good looks and muscled 6'1" inch frame are soon noticed and it is not long before he is spending more time in front of the camera, instead of behind it. In 1910, he makes his first credited screen appearance in The Phoenix for the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago. Then he gets a job for Vitagraph Studios ... writing stories and dialogue, directing actors, cranking the camera, and playing the violin for appropriate mood and timing needs ... and he also continues to act, following the industry out to the west coast, and Hollywood.
Reid's First Studio
In Hollywood, Reid's career takes off and he quickly moves from small roles to leading parts (before he is done, the actor will appear in over 200 films), he works with movie pioneers William Selig, Allan Dwan, Cecil B. DeMille, and D. W. Griffith (he will appear in the director's two masterpieces, Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), romances film beauties like Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Bebe Daniels, and Gloria Swanson (while finding time to marry 17-year-old actress Dorothy Davenport ... a marriage that will produce one son, Wallace Reid, Jr.), and creates a popular new genre of movies, the race car picture (in which Reid does his own stunt work and driving). Off set, he spends time with his family, collects cars ... and likes to party with the city's elite, developing a drinking problem that his studios mask (it is rumored that he kills a father, and injures the man's wife and son, in a Pacific Coast Highway accident that is hushed up by his movie studio ... an accident in which Reid's passenger, director Thomas Ince, breaks his collarbone).
Movie Magazine Cover
The Reid Family - 1920
Taking a cut in salary, he becomes the movie's first matinee idol when he takes a pay cut to appear as the shirtless blacksmith Jeff in Birth of a Nation. Star, Reid becomes known as "The King" of Paramount Studios, movie mogul Jesse Lasky will call him "a 180 pound diamond," Motion Picture magazine will call him "the screen's most perfect lover," and writer Adela Rogers St. Johns will call the actor "... the greatest and most popular star the motion picture has produced." Top of the mountain, he is the man woman want to be with, and the man men want to be, but it will all begin falling apart in March of 1919, when Reid takes a train to Oregon to begin location filming on his next movie, The Valley of the Giants (the movie is presumed lost for 90 years, until a copy is discovered in Russia in 2010).
With One Of His Toys
Traveling north, near Arcata, California, the train carrying Reid and the movie company goes off a bridge, rolls 15 feet down a hill, and comes to rest on its side ... amazingly, no one is killed, but there are many injuries, and one of the causalities in the event is movie star Wallace Reid, who suffers a gash to his arm, a deep laceration of his skull that requires six stitches to close, and a back sprain ... painful injuries all, that the actor works through by helping apply first aid to the train's other wounded passengers while awaiting rescue (which takes 12 hours to arrive)! Studio meal ticket incapacitated versus the show must go on mentality of Hollywood, Paramount rushes a doctor north to treat Reid and keep him going ... with copious injections of morphine ... and not surprisingly, by the film's completion, the movie star is a full blown drug addict (during his downfall, he will also dabble in cocaine and heroin, whatever he can get his hands on to ease his pains).
Reid And His Pooch
And so the routine becomes work on a picture, take drugs to get through the picture, try and kick the addiction after filming is completed ... and then do it all over again, and again, and again ... and Reid starts physically and mentally breaking down. Sensing they are losing their valuable assets, and wanting as much out of it as possible before it is gone, Paramount churns out a torrent of Reid pictures ... releasing eight in 1919 (while Mary Pickford, the #1 female movie star in the world releases only two), seven in 1920, seven in 1921, and ten in 1922. Finally it is too much, and in 1922, after collapsing on the set of one of his films (where he cries and cries and cries), Reid is taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, then moved to the sanitarium of Dr. C. B. Blessing, where he receives the "Baker Cure" in which a patient is nursed off one drug ... by taking another. In a time without Betty Ford clinics or AA meetings, nothing works (the actor tries the "Baker Cure" for six weeks), and Reid is transferred to another private sanitarium where he is placed in a padded room to kick his habits cold turkey. Cold turkey to cold corpse not a long leap, body severely weakened, the actor soon develops a deadly case of pneumonia, and in his wife's arms, passes away in Los Angeles, California on 1/18/1923 ... at the age of only 31!
On The Way Down
The Reid Urn - Forest Lawn Cemetery -
Glendale - The Great Mausoleum
1/18/1923 ... why today mattered ... Hollywood has its first drug casualty, losing movie star Wallace Reid!