Before Rudolph Valentino set the screen on fire with his smoldering good looks there was silent matinee idol Wallace Reid. He has been called the screen’s most perfect lover. He was a star of the early 1900’s and by 1915 he had made over 100 films. Not only was he an actor but a writer, director and cameraman as well. He could play drama, comedy, action and romance making him a huge money maker for the studio.
Reid came from a theatrical family. He could play several musical instruments, had a beautiful singing voice, was a painter and was known to be a generous man. When World War I broke out Reid wanted to enlist. Being such a huge asset to the studio, Famous Players, they pressured him not to enlist. To do his part he helped to sell Liberty Bonds. Reid was very handsome and he came to personify the all-American male. He never let show business go to his head and he was very well respected.
In 1915 Reid starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen. In that same year he played Jeff the blacksmith in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. It was a standout performance. In 1916 he was in Griffith’s Intolerance. By this time his star was shining bright. Reid was starring with some of the biggest actresses of the day like Geraldine Farrar, Lillian Gish, Bebe Daniels, and Gloria Swanson.
Some of his most popular films are his race car movies. Some of these include: The Roaring Road (1919), Double Speed (1920), Excuse My Dust (1920) and Too Much Speed (1921). Reid did his own race car stunts. He loved cars and even edited a race car magazine before becoming a huge star.
In 1919 while filming The Valley of the Giants, Reid and his film crew were involved in a train wreck. Reid was travelling by train to Oregon when the train fell off a tall bridge and crashed. Reid was so seriously injured he shouldn’t have gone back to work. However, the film was almost finished and rather than lose money on the film, the studio sent their physician to Oregon to give Reid high doses of morphine so he would feel no pain and be able to finish the film. After filming ended, Reid was committed to start another film immediately. The studio was all too happy to dull his pain. Unfortunately he became addicted. Being the studio’s biggest money maker they wanted to make sure they could get as much out of Reid as they could. They literally worked him to death. He kept up a frantic work schedule for the next four years.
In 1922 Reid’s addiction had finally caught up with him. While filming Nobody’s Money he was unable to function on the set. He couldn’t even stand up. His last movie was Thirty Days (1922).
On January 18, 1923 Wallace Reid died in a sanitarium while trying to recover from his morphine addiction. It is said that he died in his wife, Dorothy Davenport’s arms. He was only 31. Reid said he would come out clean or not at all.
Sadly Reid has been all but forgotten today. The circumstances of his death overshadow his brilliant film career. Many of his films are lost. The ones that do exist are hard to find. He was an absolute gem who made a significant contribution to early motion pictures.