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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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 drove 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 same 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, as 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 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 applied 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 moved like sharks through towns to starve out mom-pop theatres perceived as competition, 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 surviving photos, ice-effing-cold. To be on this man’s payroll, let alone in compromised circumstances Reid knew, was perdition come early.

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. We assume people danced and dined in "cabarets" depicted here where you expect Charlie Chaplin to arrive in waiter guise 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 would have been a Reid fan in 1920. His characters pointed way toward success that may well have worked. As office boy for grouch Raymond Hatton in The Dancin’ Fool, Wally introduces a typewriter as labor-saving device, and that’s good for a reel's fun. I guess Reid functioned as role model for lots of youth. He showed how to go out and get your piece of the dream when white-collar ladders were just starting to go up. This 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 Reid. When off-screen truth revealed feet of clay, they would applaud his name on credits and hope 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 fixes poolside and the law being soft as it was, there was no sweat. You could get morphine readily as jelly beans then (it may well be an addict that finally invents time travel). I’d like to think Wallace Reid is poised for rediscovery, but prints that survive are lousy and the rest are lost altogether. Never mind his being one of the more interesting personalities to come of early films. Reid’s widow led a several decades fight against drug abuse following his death, but she’s forgotten too. Dewitt Bodeen interviewed her for a career profile 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.


Blogger Kevin Deany said...

John: Quite a few years ago a friend of mine saw "Inserts" with Richard Dreyfuss and was telling me how much he liked it. He said in the film there was a discussion about a silent film actor who died of drug abuse.

I said, "Yep, Wallace Reid."

My friend was stunned that I knew this. He thought Wallace Reid was made up for the movie.

I told him no and related the sad story (of the little I knew of him.)

But you're right about Mary Miles Minter. One of the most exquisite faces I've ever seen, some of her portraits are heart-stoppingly beautiful.

One of the best books I ever read on early Hollywood, and I'm sure familiar to your readers, is "A Cast of Killers" concerning King Vidor's attempts to solve the murder of William Desmond Taylor. The description of Vidor meeting MMM late in life is like an even more tawdry "Sunset Blvd". It was horrifying to read.

MMM's mother is like something you would hear about and say to yourself, "No way could someone be that nasty." But if we are to belive Vidor, she was. A real monster.

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful write-up on Reid, who has always intrigued me, though I've yet to see one of his films. The silent era fascinates me, and, like you, I seem to be drawn to those whose long-ago demons have been nearly forgotten. I have seen a movie that his widow either wrote or directed... "Road to Ruin", which runs on TCM occasionally. It basically tells about the horrors of drug use; not very sophisticated, but almost poignant when you think about the woman's personal understanding of the issue.

10:43 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Paramount may have been the most obvious of the star-killers, but they all chewed 'em up and spit 'em out. The next red-headed step child was just around the corner, waiting to be another face in a pillow for the men who ran the studios.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Lutgardo Fernández said...

I just discovered your blog and...LOVE IT!!!.
All those wonderful images,some of them really bizarre and amazing... .


Greetings from Madrid!.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Changing the subject, John: This has nothing to do with the poignant fall of Wallace Reid, but is about another star whose destruction was more directly self-induced. What I'm trying to say is, a million thanks for putting me (and no doubt others) on to Errol Flynn Slept Here. An amazing book and, I have to say, one of the saddest I've ever read. The moment that haunts me -- in every sense of the word -- is Rick Nelson's daughter's story of talking to her dad on the phone about someone being in the house while he was gone. "Oh," says Rick, "that's just Errol." Brrr!!

9:42 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

few things could be more horrifying than to have to last out an addiction to the end in a time when remedies were unknown..Like a Poe story come to life!..the horror of being in Dreams awake!

3:42 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks much for those kind words, Lutgardo. You too, Plato.

Paramount the star-killers, Vanwall! I like that observation. Would players say the same thing about them today?

Jim, I'm really glad you enjoyed "Errol Flynn Slept Here." Matzen and Mazzone will be at Columbus Cinevent with copies. Hope I'll see you there as before, and assume Conrad will attend as well.

5:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Reid's widow dare attack Paramount or corporate abuse of employees?

2:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The quotes I read from her did not assign blame to Paramount for what happened. It's been said, in fact, that the studio wanted Reid to take extended time off to recover and that he insisted on continuing to work.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I just read a mention of Wallace Reid in another actor's biography and wanted to learn more, and then came this post. Thank you very much for insight into this tragic Hollywood character.

6:04 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Yes, Conrad and I will both be in Columbus; looking forward to seeing you again (after too long). Thanks for the heads-up about Matzen and Mazzone; I'll remember to bring my copy for them to sign.

11:54 AM  

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