Sunday, January 3, 2010
It took me awhile to get around to researching Wally Reid, though he seemed to appear nearly everywhere else I was looking. You can't pick up a book about the silent era without running into his story and hearing about his tragic end. It didn't take me long, once I had embarked on my voyage into history, to become familiar with his name and the fact that he had died of drug addiction in a padded cell. Though he posed a perfectly suitable subject for my studies, still I kept him on the back-burner, not only because he is so forgotten that it is difficult to find information on him, but because it was clear that in journeying into his life, I was in for a tale of great heartache. I wasn't sure if I was emotionally up to the task.
Once I mustered up the courage, I was glad I did. For though Wally-boy did meet a tragic end, his life story is full of charm, humor, and the delightfully unexpected. Reading about him, one is introduced to a figure of great personality, humility, and intelligence; watching his movies, despite your greatest efforts, you unwittingly find yourself falling in love. Wally did not want to a be a movie star. This was not because of the great prejudice against film actors, and film in general, in those early days. Wally had no prejudices it turns out, against anyone or anything. In fact, he was very intrigued by the new artistic medium. He just wanted to be behind the camera, writing, directing, and shooting. He wore many hats at many different studios, but his position in the spotlight seemed to be the only home that would have him. So, inevitably, the handsome man-child from St. Louis caught the eye of the camera and thus the eyes of the entire world, who dubbed him time and again their favorite movie star.
In The Roaring Road
But, as quickly as they rise, they just as quickly fall. In the early twenties, Wally was in a train accident while shooting one of his films. Instead of being given time to heal, Jesse Lasky shot him full of morphine and pushed him in front of the camera. Wally's subsequent addiction and death made him the last member of the holy trinity of Movieland Martyrs, joining Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor. After the tragedies of all three men, the myth of Hollywood was broken, and suddenly the world was introduced to the fact that the golden Gods and Goddesses that they had worshipped from afar were mere mortals, subject to flaw, weakness, and sin. Those who were guilty of sex and debauchery were punished, and the studio system was born to keep unruly stars in check. Poor Wally died, leaving behind him the memory of only his gravest mistake. Today, no one remembers that he was able to play any instrument within minutes of picking it up, or that he used to go to nearby shops and buy countless things he didn't need just to keep the owners in business. Most sadly, no one remembers that his movies, including his famous and beloved car racing films, inspired and enlightened the lives of fans all over the world, who watched their All American Boy triumph in their honor in film after film. Charisma cannot be made, it just is. In the days of silent film, without uttering a word, Wallace Reid endeared the hearts of the entire world to him. They knew then, what history has erased. He was one hell of a guy, and to his friends and fans, he was the greatest.