WALLACE REID, DISGRACED MATINEE IDOL & #1 at the BOX OFFICE [USA]
The cover had three single copies of the green ½d KGV plus one brown 1½d KGV head stamps and they were canceled with three PORT ADELAIDE/ 6 OC 20/ STH AUST postmarks. It was addressed to Wallace Reid, c/o Lasky Studios, corner of Vine Street and Selma Avenue, Hollywood, California, America (Figure 1).
Wallace Reid was born 15 April 1891 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Hal Reid, a writer, theatre producer, actor and director. Wallace joined his parents' stage act at the age of four. He actually spent very little of his childhood on-stage. Instead, he was sent to private schools, where he excelled at music and sports. In 1910, father Hal moved to Chicago to join the Selig Playscope, an early film studio. Inspired, young Wallace decided he wanted to be a cameraman. But his athletic good looks proved irresistible to film-makers, and Reid found himself more often in front of the camera than behind it. Reid's first film role was as the younger reporter in The Phoenix (1910) (Figure 2).
After making dozens of movies, he slowly graduated from bit parts to being Florence Turner's leading man in several more films. He moved to Hollywood, and was hired by director Otis Turner at Universal to be Turner's assistant director, second cameraman, gopher, and scenario writer, exactly the kinds of work he wanted to do. But it wasn't long before his face vaulted him to a place in front of the camera yet again.
In 1913, 20 y.o. Reid was still an unknown as an assistant director and he married Universal's star, Dorothy Davenport, with whom he had worked as director and actor. By his 25th birthday, Reid had appeared in over 100 films, and his roles were getting steadily bigger. But in 1915, he took a momentous step (and a salary cut) for he accepted the small role of Jeff the blacksmith in D.W. Griffith's milestone film Birth of a Nation (1915). Jesse L. Lasky saw Reid in the film, and decided on the spot that he had to sign the young actor to Famous Players. It was with Lasky's studio that Reid would become a huge star at last, and his dreams of directing and writing came to an end.
Reid's first film for Famous Players was The Chorus Lady (1915), and he went on to star in over sixty films with the studio. In most of his roles, he typified the ideal all-American male. In 1916, Griffith hired Reid again, for Intolerance (1916). The Squaw Man's Son followed in 1917. But it was his daredevil car movies that clinched Reid's spectacular popularity. With their flashy automobiles, treacherous roads, and heart-stopping races with speeding locomotives, Reid's car pictures: like The Roaring Road (1919) and Double Speed (1920), were guaranteed to terrify and delight thrill-seeking audiences.
When the U.S. entered the Great War in 1917, Reid, 25 years old, 6'1", and a crack shot, longed to enlist. Predictably, Lasky pressured him not to as Reid had become one of Famous Players' hottest properties, and his departure could spell financial disaster for the company. As much as he hated to admit it, Reid did worry about losing his status as a matinee idol.
Although Reid's career was a success, his personal life was anything but. He was profligate in his spending, and his long-standing alcoholism only worsened during his years in Hollywood. Popularity was a mixed blessing for Reid, because with it came the pressure to make film after film. In 1919 and 1920 he was the most popular movie star in the U.S. and #1 at the box office. While making The Valley of the Giants (1919) on location in Oregon, Reid was in a train wreck. The pain of his injuries were so great, he felt he couldn't finish the film. But Lasky was unwilling to stop shooting. Instead, he sent the studio physician to Oregon with a supply of morphine to dull Reid's pain enough for him to work, but Reid was soon addicted.
By 1922, Reid had checked into and out of a succession of hospitals and sanitariums. Making his last film, Thirty Days (1922), he was barely able to stand up, let alone act. After finishing the film, he checked himself into yet another sanitarium which proved to be his last. On 18 January 1923, Wallace Reid, thirty one years old, died in his wife's arms in Hollywood, California.