One of the tragic figures of the silent era is actor Wallace Reid, a top star whose indulgent offscreen lifestyle resulted in his early death.
Claiming to be the first full biography on the actor, E.J. Fleming's "Wallace Reid: The Life and Death of a Hollywood Idol" is an exhaustively researched, alternately fascinating and disturbing story that traces the actor's rise and fall in films and in his personal life. It is a newly-released softcover reprinting of Fleming's 2007 hardcover book.
Wallace Reid had far reaching talents as a young man, encompassing everything from athletics to music. When he gravitated toward the burgeoning motion picture industry, his interest was in writing and directing. Eventually, however, his good looks resulted in his becoming an actor. Early films like "The Squaw Man" (1914) and the D.W. Griffith epics "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Intolerance" (1916), as well as several short films, caused Reid's stardom to rise very quickly.
Reid's offscreen lifestyle was lavish and indulgent, with wild parties a regular activity. A drunken Reid was involved in a car crash in 1915, kiling the driver of the other car. Jailed for manslaughter, Reid was bailed out by D.W. Griffith. A 1919 train accident injured Reid to where he was prescribed morphine for his pain. He soon became addicted. His work became more demanding, his health continued to deteriorate, and he died in a padded cell in 1922.
Fleming's book is filled with information, and interesting rare photo illustrations. Little had been known about Wallace Reid, and this book offers a lot of detail, especially impressive in that motion picture's early years can sometimes be difficult to research, especially prior to 1915. Studio records were poorly kept if at all, several films have not survived over time, and newspaper accounts were sketchy. Fleming conducted the most extensive research possible for this period in film history, offering pages of footnotes that provide more information, and an extensive bibliography citing various sources.
There are times when the book lapses into other accounts from the era, mostly to embellish or enhance the study's focal point. For instance, in order to make a comparison/contrast to Reid's situation, the book also discusses the Roscoe Arbuckle trial. What makes this more tangential approach successful is that Fleming gives us a pretty thorough history of early cinema while telling the story of Reid, discussing other events connected to the filmmaking process that were going on at the time Reid was at his most active.
The details Fleming offers for some areas are quite impressive. His account of the filming of "Birth of a Nation," might be the most thorough of that controversial epic, while production information on "Intolerance" are also quite detailed and enlightening.
The fact that Wallace Reid was such a big star, and today is only known as an early Hollywood tragedy if at all, makes Fleming's carefully researched and detailed biographical account most highly recommended for anyone interested in movie history.