Death of a Movie Star (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

Unfortunately for Wallace Reid, actual treatment for drug addiction was still largely hit-or-miss in those days.  Many of the clinics that offered drug treatment were run by hucksters offering “cures” that tended to be worse than the disease.   In Reid’s case, he was sent to the Oakland sanitarium run by Doctor Charles Blessing.  What little information I was able to dig up on this clinic suggests that it probably wasn’t the best choice for someone trying to recover from a drug addiction.  Blessing happened to be a disciple of another doctor, Scott Barker, inventor of the “Barker Cure”.  This “cure” involved  giving recovering drug addicts a cocktail of unidentified pills and medications and a diet to “extract the poisons in the system”   The rationale for this “cure” appeared to be getting the addict off of one kind of drug by addicting them to another.  

The clinic had reportedly been recommended to Reid’s family by another Hollywood star, Juanita Hansen, who credited the Barker Cure for ending her addiction to cocaine and morphine.    Despite this testimonial, the treatment Wallace Reid received at Blessing’s clinic did nothing to improve his health.   In fact, he began wasting away, possibly due to the effects of the drug cocktail he was getting at the clinic.  

After six weeks, Dorothy Davenport had him transferred to a private hospital to start drying out completely.   Not long after Reid was removed from Blessing's clinic, Doctor Barker was arrested for supplying narcotics to his patients.  In one news story I found describing Barker’s arrest, colleagues reported that he had boasted of being offered $25,000 if he succeeded in curing Reid’s addiction.  Dorothy Davenport quickly attempted spin control by emphatically denying that her husband had ever been Barker’s patient.   In the meantime, Charles Blessing quietly went on the lam and his clinic was closed as well.

On January 18, 1923, not long after the story about Doctor Barker’s arrest broke, Wallace Reid died following a heart attack.   He had suffered from pneumonia in his final months and his body had apparently been weakened by years of addiction.   To keep him from being labelled as just another drug addict,   press agents at Reid’s studio portrayed him as a tragic hero and even released what were supposedly his last words to his wife, “Tell them Mamma, I have won my fight – that I have come back.”   

Dorothy Davenport, suddenly cast in the role of the grieving widow, was described as “engaging in the toughest fight a woman ever had.”   Her emotional breakdown after her husband’s death, along with pictures of her and her two children during Reid’s very public funeral all made for good press.  

In the meantime, Will Hays came under fire for his supposed role in allowing drugs to infiltrate Hollywood.  Newspaper editorials demanded that he “do something” about the problem of drug addiction to prevent further tragedies like Wallace Reid.  Some of these editorials claimed that there were millions of drug addicts across the United States and that police were helpless in dealing with the new epidemic of drug crime (nobody bothered to question these exaggerated figures).   Five days after Reid’s death, Hays announced that the drug investigation launched to deal with narcotics rings in Hollywood had concluded that the rumours were false.   

Since these reassurances did little to stem the anti-drug hysteria stirred up by the death of the popular Reid, both Hays and Reid’s studio insisted on more.   Within months of Wallace Reid’s death, a new film was released that was supposedly intended as a memorial to Reid.  Titled Human Wreckage, this new film was intended to warn about the dangers of addiction.  It also represented a model for the anti-drug propaganda films that Hollywood would be expected to release from that time onward.  

Dorothy Davenport starred in the movie as well as acting as one of the directors and she told reporters that it was meant to warn moviegoers about “the insidious, poisonous serpent that has wormed its way into the bosom of our nation.”  In the movie, she played the wife of an attorney who is victimized by drug dealers and manages to overcome addiction.  The movie began with a prologue showing opium being grown in Asia’s poppy fields and being smuggled through Mexico to be sold to soldiers and children (what this had to do with her husband, who supposedly received his morphine from legal sources, I’ll leave up to the imagination). 

The movie ended with Davenport pleading with the audience to support her and her campaign to wipe out the “narcotic menace in the United States.”  Along with some of the most prominent members of Los Angeles society, the movie also featured Wallace Reid’s children to show the human cost of drug abuse. 

Whatever you might think of the heavy-handed drug message of the movie today, Human Wreckage yielded a tidy profit for its producers while spreading the message that Hollywood was dedicated to stamping out drug abuse.    And so, the Hollywood spin machine had successfully turned Wallace Reid into a tragic hero and capped the rumours about drugs in the movie industry.   

As for Dorothy Davenport, or “Mrs. Wallace Reid” as she insisted on being known professionally after her husband’s death, she made a later career of making “message” films and generally capitalizing on her status as a tragic widow.  She never remarried and eventually went bankrupt after one of her films got her sued.  She died in 1977 and is buried with her husband in Glendale, California.

In the years following Reid’s death, new scandals would blow up over the drug and alcohol addiction of other stars including Barbara La Marr, Mabel Normand, and Alma Rubens within just a few years of Wallace Reid’s death.   These new scandals put pressure on Hollywood studios to release even more anti-drug movies highlighting the evils of addiction.  The standard formula, as laid down by the Hays Code and the Hollywood studios, was that drug addicts would be portrayed as either tragic victims or crazed dope fiends preyed on by evil drug pushers.

Many of these films have since become cult classics due to the often-shrill rhetoric and bizarre misinformation they presented to moviegoers.   These include Reefer Madness (also known as Tell Your Children), Assassin of Youth, The Cocaine Fiends, Marihuana: The Weed With Roots in Hell, and Narcotic (all produced in the 1930s).    

And this was the kind of message that would be relentlessly presented to movie audiences for decades after Wallace Reid’s death.   Though we may never be certain how much of an impact these movies had on drug attitudes across most industrialized countries, the Hollywood studio system ensured that the message met the standards laid down by Will Hays and his supporters.

Whatever the reality of drug abuse off the screen, any representation of drug abuse of being anything but destructive was completely taboo.   As for the stars who developed substance abuse problems in real life, they were left with the choice of either attending very discreet treatment clinics or finding themselves blacklisted by the studios.  Few, if any, of these stars would receive the kind of tolerant treatment that Wallace Reid had enjoyed.   

The Hays Code would remain in place well into the 1960s when drug movies finally made a comeback. It may well be a coincidence that this same era of more liberal drug movies also saw increasing acceptance of drugs, at least in some places.   On the other hand, maybe it isn’t.

Whatever else you might make of the media circus surrounding Wallace Reid’s death, Hollywood, and the world, would never be the same again.

           

Related Stories

  • Death of a Movie Star (Part One of Two)
  • The Heroin Miracle (Part Two of Two)
  • The Freud-Frink Fiasco
 

 
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