Monday, January 14, 2013

The Screen's Most Perfect Lover

The word ‘matinée’ is derived from the French word ‘matin’ meaning ‘morning’ and originally referred to a live theatrical performance, which took place during the day.  Prominent women who attended these plays on a regular basis picked up the moniker ‘matinée girls’.  You see, male escorts weren’t required before dark and the girls enjoyed their ‘ladies only’ jaunts.  Theater critics claimed that these ladies came to the theater just to gaze at their favorite leading men like the handsome Irish actor James O’Neill, a popular performer during the 1870s and 1880s, and father of playwright Eugene O’Neill.

O’Neill’s dashing roles, such as Edmond Dantés in The Count of Monte Cristo, which he played thousands of times, so endeared him to his female fans that a reporter once dubbed him ‘the patron saint of the matinée girls’.  Yet being idolized by these girls wasn’t exactly a compliment.  The actor’s talent wasn’t always key.  He just had to be two-parts handsome and one-part charming with a pinch of debonair mixed in.  With the evolution of movies, it was pretty much a given that matinée idols would soon be found on the silver screen. 

Silent screen superstar, Wallace Reid set the bar for Hollywood’s matinée idols.  Born into the theater on April 15, 1891 in St. Louis, Missouri, his father was an actor and playwright while his mother was an actress and singer.  As an adult, Reid never intended to perform in front of a camera.  He had his heart set on being a cameraman.  His good looks, however, dictated otherwise.  By 1912, Reid was in Hollywood working at Universal Studios as a writer, cameraman and assistant director—until pretty Dorothy Davenport needed a leading man.  Reid fit the bill—both onscreen and off.  In between filming, two pictures each week, the pair were married on October 13, 1913.

Eventually, Reid went to work for D.W. Griffith who cast him as the shirtless blacksmith in ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915).  The role was small, but seeing this tall, muscular man minus his shirt was all the public needed.  His career skyrocketed as spectators demanded more and Reid moved on to Paramount.  By 1918, Reid was at the top of his game.  He was the all-American boy, the nicest guy in pictures.  As the Jazz Age dawned, he met it head on playing the dancing male flapper, the young tycoon and the debonair playboy, but it was his films that featured the automobile that really thrilled the audience.  Cars were still a novelty in the early 1920s and Reid found his greatest success in movies that showcased racecars and speed.  This was a new kind of excitement making him as popular with the men as he was with the women. 

By day, Reid worked hard—his schedule grueling.  Over seven years, he averaged a movie every seven weeks.  He made nine pictures in 1922 alone.  Hi roles were often physically demanding—especially the dangerous racing scenes he made so popular.  He bounced from film to film without so much as one day off.  By night, Reid played and drank hard—his home filled with laughter and good times.  With his ‘open door’ policy, he liked nothing better than to party until dawn. 

The beginnings of Reid’s drug addiction are obscured now.  One account tells of the actor being in a train wreck while another story describes a head injury due to some sort of freak accident.  Either way, all accounts agree that he was given morphine to alleviate the pain and keep him working.  Before long, Reid was hooked and, in 1922, his wife was forced to commit him to a sanitarium.  With his body deteriorating from his addiction, ‘The Screen’s Most Perfect Lover’ succumbed to the flu on January 18, 1923 at the age of 31.


  1. He died at 31?! Wow, that is so young.

    Also, thanks for explaining the origin of "matinee".

    1. Reid was very young and very popular--a real tragedy for his family too. Glad you enjoy the blog.