Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After years of drug abuse and overwork, silent-film star Wallace Reid collapsed on set. His death during rehabilitation in a well-known sanatarium for the stars brought extensive and unwelcome publicity to the film industry and led to the development of production codes for filmmaking.

Summary of Event

In 1921, Wallace Reid was perhaps the most popular male film star in Hollywood. Fewer than two years later, he was dead, the result of years of morphine abuse combined with overwork. Although his death did not mark Hollywood’s first big scandal, it was, according to groundbreaking film director Cecil B. DeMille, the event that almost destroyed Hollywood. [kw]Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry (Jan. 18, 1923) [kw]Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry, Actor Wallace (Jan. 18, 1923) Reid, Wallace Davenport, Dorothy Lasky, Jesse L. Reid, Wallace Davenport, Dorothy Lasky, Jesse L. [g]United States;Jan. 18, 1923: Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry[00290] [c]Drugs;Jan. 18, 1923: Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry[00290] [c]Film;Jan. 18, 1923: Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry[00290] [c]Hollywood;Jan. 18, 1923: Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry[00290] [c]Medicine and health care;Jan. 18, 1923: Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry[00290] [c]Popular culture;Jan. 18, 1923: Actor Wallace Reid’s Death in Drug Rehab Shakes Film Industry[00290] Hays, William H.

Wallace Reid.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Reid got his start in film at a time when filmmaking was quick, cheap, and primitive. E. J. Fleming points out in his 2007 biography of Reid that about the time Reid made his first film, The Phoenix(1910), the biggest stars of the day were stage actors based in New York who frequently took their plays on tour to the small towns of the United States. Films, in contrast, were little more than “filler” material. That is, early films were six- to seven-minute entertainments that would be shown during the intermissions of live theater and variety acts.

Films were shot quickly and cheaply in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and other cities, usually taking no more than a day or two to outline, shoot, and edit. The independent filmmakers of the early 1910’s had little money to invest in film production; they set up cameras wherever something visually interesting (and free) was happening—like a parade or a house fire—and wrote film scripts enabling them to make use of the resulting footage. These filmmakers made hundreds of short films each year. Between 1910 and 1915, Reid appeared in almost 140 films; he also directed more than fifty films and wrote screenplays for twenty-five.

At the time, the most powerful organization in filmmaking was Thomas A. Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), based in New Jersey. Inventor Edison owned the patents for movie cameras, projectors, and even film stock, and he rigorously and unscrupulously harassed independent filmmakers. According to Fleming and other writers, independent filmmakers settled in Hollywood partly because it had an advantageous climate but mostly because it was out of the MPPC’s reach. By 1915, MPPC patents were vacated.

Over the course of the next decade, these legal changes, along with technological advances, allowed filmmakers in Hollywood to make longer, more involved narratives. However, longer films took longer to shoot and produce, requiring a larger investment of capital on the part of the producer or studio. The drive to recoup that investment created the star system in Hollywood. After receiving glowing reviews for an extremely small part in D. W. Griffith’s epic (and racist) film The Birth of a Nation (1915), Reid began appearing in other feature films.

After 1915, Reid worked primarily with film producer Jesse L. Lasky, who recognized that Reid was an exceptionally talented actor in a variety of genres; over the course of the next half decade, Reid appeared in thrillers, Westerns, racing movies, period dramas, comedies, and romances. His films turned a profit, and the studio he worked for did almost everything possible to ensure that he could continue to work. This included prescribing morphine for Reid to get him to complete a film, enabling what turned into morphine addiction, exploiting him as he declined physically, and then hypocritically capitalizing on his unsuccessful battle with drugs.

During the production of The Valley of the Giants (1919), Reid was injured during a stunt, leaving him with serious lacerations and intense pain in his hips and back. The drug of choice at the time for severe pain was morphine. A studio doctor, rushed to the scene of the accident, gave Reid morphine to enable him to shoot the picture. From 1919, Reid grew dependant on increasing amounts of morphine and its illicit derivative, heroin.

Derived initially from opium during the early nineteenth century, morphine had been used to treat everything from ghastly wounds in the American Civil War (1861-1865) to coughs and hiccups. Morphine stimulates two types of central nervous system receptors, relieving pain, producing euphoria, inducing sedation, and reducing anxiety, all without putting the user to sleep. Writer Jill Jonnes notes in her 1996 book on drugs and drug use that many Hollywood figures between 1915 and 1925 used morphine and other opioids regularly, sometimes in combination with cocaine, alcohol, or both. Long-term users rapidly become tolerant of the drug and physically dependent upon continued use. Tolerance means that long-term users must increase the dosage they take to experience therapeutic effects. It was an open secret in Hollywood that Reid was unable to function without enormous amounts of morphine, and that when he was unable to get it from studio doctors, he bought heroin from drug pushers who brought it to him on the set and at home.

Reid also became physically dependent upon morphine. Although the exact mechanism remains unclear, it is believed that morphine increases the number of opioid receptors in the brain and lessens the body’s ability to self-regulate pain and promote pleasure. As his biographer notes, Reid frequently experienced severe withdrawal symptoms that included anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and tremors.

Throughout the early 1920’s, Reid suffered from severe weakness, repeated illness, and substantial weight loss. He was given little chance to rest between films. A crass relationship developed between Reid and his studio bosses: He was exploited for his profit-making potential and he reportedly threw tantrums in return. Fleming said that while most actors could expect a week or two off between films, Reid received three to four days and sometimes as little as six hours. Initially his producers fed him morphine and kept him working. By the early 1920’s, however, Reid was a full-blown addict who would blackmail directors in the middle of film production; he earned more than one million dollars for his films and spent almost all of it on drugs.

Throughout 1922, Reid’s drug use had been increasingly alluded to in newspapers and magazines, although his name was not used. Eventually, Reid was desperately weak and, after pleading from his wife, actor Dorothy Davenport, he entered a well-known sanatarium for the stars. In 1919, he weighed 190 pounds. By the time he entered the sanatarium in December, 1922, he weighed less than 130 pounds. He could not lift his head from his pillow without fainting.

A particularly severe consequence of opioid addiction is the damage it does to the user’s immune system. Those who inject heroin intravenously, as Reid did, tend to lose the ability to fight off infections. From mid-December, 1922, to mid-January, 1923, Reid was frequently in a coma after suffering sustained fevers as high as 103 degrees. He died on January 18 from pneumonia. Even in death he was exploited: News of his grave illness and death was used to publicize his last films and the products he endorsed.


Along with other scandals of the time—including the suicide of film star Olive Thomas in 1920, the rape scandal involving comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Roscoe Rape;and Fatty Arbuckle[Arbuckle] Arbuckle in 1921, and the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor Taylor, William Desmond in 1922—Reid’s drug use and death was exploited by the news media. Newspapers covered these scandals but presented them as evidence of a pervasive moral rot in Hollywood. As one might expect, media exposés led to calls for reform, and studio executives heeded those calls to ensure the film industry’s survival.

In 1922, studio bosses invited former U.S. postmaster general William H. Hays to California to head a consortium called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now called the Motion Picture Association of America Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA). Fueling the effort, as usual, was a desire to make a profit by avoiding the making of films audiences would shy from. Americans wanted to see films dealing with topics other than the glorification of substance abuse and criminal behavior. In part, Reid’s death, and the scandals involving other celebrities at the time, helped fuel the changing mood of film audiences and prompted the formation of the MPAA.

Hays’s role, initially, was to advise studio bosses on what types of films not to shoot, leading to the development of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, better known as the Hays Production Code. The code, which was voluntary, began to outline the moral do’s and don’ts of filmmaking. A rating system (for example, PG, PG-13, and R) developed from this early production code.

Davenport, too, had a mission after her husband’s death. After enabling the addiction that led to his death in 1923, she spoke to the print media but misrepresented Reid’s illness. She claimed that he had become addicted in 1921—and not around 1919, as many already knew—while shooting a film in New York City. News stories suggested that Hollywood was not to blame for Reid’s addiction and death. Instead, his addiction and death were proof of the evils of morphine. Within six months of Reid’s death, Davenport was able to convert him from a symbol of excess into a symbolic victim of a national drug problem. Later in 1923 she released the film Human Wreckage and toured the country as Mrs. Wallace Reid, lecturing on the dangers of morphine addiction while showing her film as evidence. Hays gave her crusade his full blessing and support. Reid, Wallace Davenport, Dorothy Lasky, Jesse L.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. New ed. New York: Bell, 1981. A tell-all exposé of Hollywood excesses from the 1920’s to the mid-1970’s. Complete with lurid, and sometimes shocking, photographs. A classic work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleming, E. J. Wallace Reid: The Life and Death of a Hollywood Idol. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. Detailed biography that also offers a brief overview of Davenport’s work after Reid’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonnes, Jill. Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams: A History of America’s Romance with Illegal Drugs. New York: Scribner, 1996. Comprehensive history of drug use and abuse in twentieth century America. Also discusses Reid’s drug use and death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Menefee, David W. The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era. Albany, N.Y.: BearManor Media, 2007. An educational work exploring the male stars of silent film. Presents unusual details on the impact of these actors, including Wallace Reid, on film history.

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Categories: History