Life and Death For a Go-Getter
I am so drawn to sad ghosts of the silent era, among which Wallace Reid stands tall. They say he was the first in Hollywood to have a private swimming pool. Women were nuts for Wally and stood hip deep outside Paramount gates hoping he’d pass. Reid was collecting three thousand a week during the teens. What made him sad was a morphine addiction with an alcoholic overlay. Otherwise, he seems to have been an exemplary family man. Wally’s on my pantheon with Roscoe Arbuckle and Mary Miles Minter. Black cats surely crossed their paths, and often. The price of fame got paid and repaid by these whose shadows grow ever dimmer with passing nitrate years. Reid’s fans have mostly joined him now. If not, they’d be pushing their second hundred years. I paid belated homage at Cinefest-ivities last week and watched Reid in The Dancin’ Fool. That one came out in 1920. He was way hooked by then. There’d been a (literal) train wreck the year before and studio doctors propped him up on hop so he could finish a show called Valley Of The Giants. I watched Wally close for signs of stress. He was clearly a good actor because the monkey never showed on his back. You might with hindsight call him Douglas Fairbanks lite. Wally was calmer and didn’t climb every telephone pole he passed like Doug. Reid had a foot in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was up-to-now (or then) in the safe sense of not ruffling feathers that mattered. His characters were gentlemen and ultra-motivated in ways young men were expected to be in such Horatio Alger-istic days. Wally’s boldest stroke might have been popularizing soft collars for men’s shirts. Not so much, you might say, but try strapping one of those celluloid numbers around your own neck, then give thanks to trendsetters like Reid who spared subsequent generations the agony of wearing such devices.
Insiders remembered Wallace Reid for a long time. His generation of stars all but crossed themselves upon mention of his name, lest Reid’s sorry fate be visited upon them. Conrad Nagel looked back from the sixties and extolled Wally’s virtues and utter lack of conceit. Reid was a guy who never deserved what chance dealt out so harshly. He’d driven himself in that dawn-to-midnight era when picture tasking was just that and more, with sundry skills expected of all that applied. Reid wrote, directed, starred, and moved scenery. Sometimes he brought a violin and supplied mood music for silent emoters. He’d crank out two or more pics a week. His alternating positions in front of cameras amounted to on horse and off. Who had time to go see all the pictures Wally made before he became a major name? Their sheer number was staggering but not untypical of pace such pioneers maintained. Reid got in chips once Paramount recognized his formula and welded him to it. He’d be youth-on-the-go, preferably in roadsters and putting to rout old fogies with outmoded ways. Wally could do the same story eight times in a year (his 1922 output of features) and still they’d come. Imagine that whilst feeling in the pink, then picture yourself pulling said hours on a morphine crutch. Reid and his image parted ways from aforementioned 1919 injury, but there was still three plus years to bleed out of what was left of him. Some, like director Karl Brown, blamed Paramount for exploitative policy and indifference to Wally’s health. I could buy that theory based on ways he was clearly overworked. Reid would not be Paramount’s only tangerine squeezed dry (other circumstances equally dire cut Arbuckle and Minter loose). Fans do bail eventually on any act repeated ad nauseum. Seven and eight doses per annum was piling it on heavy, even for folks used to attending movies several times a week. How many races were left for Wally to win? --- yet Paramount leaned on accelerators as he approached collapse, a policy not unlike ones they’d apply to sales and exhibition men in the field expected to bring back contracts for Reid films in current release (some of them here gathered and competing for placement on the studio’s "honor roll"). There was no company so ruthless as Paramount. They’d move like sharks through towns and starve out mom-and-pop theatres, sort of an early century’s Wal-Mart. Adolph Zukor was robber baron in chief, and to my eyes looks like the very devil in photos I’ve seen, or at the least ice-effing-cold. I’d hate to have been on this man’s payroll, let alone in compromised circumstances such as Reid experienced.
The Dancin’ Fool is deeper retro than even dedicated retro dwellers like to go. It’s altogether pre-modern, pre-deco, and barely post-horse and buggy. Sets are cramped and drab. You have to assume people danced and dined in "cabarets" depicted here where you expect Charlie Chaplin to come in and spill soup. Reid introduced a fresh ingredient by demonstrating how well he could twirl, with Bebe Daniels partnering. The two are likeable in ways that transcend ninety years and generations of negative decay elapsing since. I’d have been a Reid fan in 1920. His characters pointed ways toward success that may well have worked. As office boy for grouchy uncle Raymond Hatton in The Dancin’ Fool, Wally introduces a typewriter as labor-saving device, and that’s good for a reel of laffs. I’m guessing he functioned as role model for lots of youth. Reid showed how to go out and get your piece of the dream when white-collar ladders were just starting to go up. His hero may be just off the farm, but it doesn’t take him long to wise up and get with the urban program. Young men understood merit in that approach and emulated him. When off-screen truth revealed feet of clay, they applauded Reid’s name on credits and hoped for recovery. Directors who lived to venerable age recalled being there for his last, Thirty Days, finished but weeks short of Wally’s final entry to a sanitarium. He was led to the set and looked like a zombie, said Joseph Henabery, while Henry Hathaway remembered him sinking altogether into helpless tears. Reid’s death at thirty-one in January 1923 shocked and grieved a public with too few stars they could truly identify with. The scandal aspect took longer to congeal. Wally had avoided pusher and needle routes. His doctor delivered the stuff poolside and laws being soft as they were, it was no sweat. You could get morphine about as readily as jelly beans back then (it may well be an addict that finally invents time travel). I’d like to think Wallace Reid is poised for rediscovery, but with prints lousy as most of his survivors are (never mind a majority that are lost altogether), it’s not likely to happen. Never mind that he’s one of the more interesting personalities to come of those early films. Reid’s wife led a several decades fight against drug abuse following his death, but she’s pretty near forgotten too. Dewitt Bodeen interviewed her for a career profile he did on Wally in 1966 for Films In Review. It’s the place everyone goes to for information on the actor. Were it not for Bodeen and FIR writers like him, we’d have precious little first-hand data on that initial generation of picture people.