Wallace Reid

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written in 2005.

William Wallace Halleck Reid (15 April 1891–18 January 1923) was born into a show business family in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, Bertha Westbrook and James Halleck “Hal” Reid, were both actors travelling the country.

Though Wally appeared onstage as a small child, his acting career went onto the back burner after he enrolled at Freehold Military School in New Jersey. He graduated from Perkiomen Seminary in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania in 1909.

As a teen, Wally also spent time in Wyoming, where he acquired many outdoorsman skills. Other passions were sports and music. Wally was a pianist, drummer, violinist, and banjoist.

Following his father’s lead in moving from stage to film, Wally made his film début in 1910, for Chicago’s Selig Polyscope Studios. He then approached Vitagraph Studios with a script his dad wrote, hoping to become a director.

Though executives let him direct, he was also cast as an actor. They couldn’t let his dashing good looks go to waste behind a camera!

Wally gracefully accepted his new role as an actor, though was just as happy to direct, shoot, and write. He and his dad co-starred in several films, and before long rose to the attention of venerable director, producer, and screenwriter Allan Dwan.

While acting and directing for Dwan at Universal in 1913, Wally met and fell in love with Dorothy Davenport, who came from a long line of actors. They married that October, and made over 100 films together during 1914.

Wally began rising to greater attention after he appeared in a small role as a fighting blacksmith in The Birth of a Nation. He quickly became typecast as a handsome, clean-cut, all-American man, and frequently starred as a racecar driver. His leading ladies included Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Florence Turner, Geraldine Farrar, and Elsie Ferguson.

His real-life, full-time leading lady Dorothy gave birth to their first child, Wallace, Jr., on 18 June 1917. Dorothy took a hiatus from acting to become a full-time mother. In 1922, she and Wally adopted a 3-year-old daughter, Betty Anna.

Wally was such a huge financial asset to Famous Players-Lasky Studios (now Paramount), he was forbidden to enlist for service in WWI. He compensated by selling Liberty Bonds and frequently opening his home to vets.

Wally’s life changed forever in summer 1919. While en route to Oregon for his latest film, The Valley of the Giants, Wally was seriously hurt in a train wreck. He got six stitches for a three-inch scalp wound, and morphine to ease back pain.

Just like what the scummy slavedrivers of Columbia Studios did to poor Curly Howard a generation later, Wally was not only forced to keep working through obvious ill health, but seriously overworked.

Doctors gave Wally more and more morphine so he could continue meeting the demands of his contract. Wally became addicted to it, and began deteriorating. To try to hide his drug addiction, he began drinking as well.

By the time of his last film, Thirty Days, he could hardly stand up, yet they kept overworking him. Wally went in and out of hospitals and sanitariums, in an era before substance abuse rehabilitation programs.

Wally collapsed during the making of Thirty Days, and was rushed to a sanitarium, where he contracted flu and slipped into a coma. He died in Dorothy’s arms, aged only 31.

Dorothy, widowed at only 27, became a crusader against drug addiction. She co-produced and starred in Human Wreckage (1923) to bring national awareness to this scourge. She followed it up with two more films warning about the dangers of social ills, Broken Laws (1924) and The Red Kimono (1925).

Lidia, Letizia, and Isabella Quaranta

Lidia Gemma Mattia Quaranta (6 March 1891–5 March 1928) was born in Turin. Her little sisters Letizia and Isabella (twins) were also actors. Lidia got started acting in the legendary Dante Testa’s theatre company, which performed in Piedmontese.

In 1910, Itala Film hired Lidia and Letizia, though Lidia made her film début for Aquila Films, a short called L’ignota (The Unknown Woman in English). Most Aquila films were mystery- and crime-themed, and promoted very sensationalistically. Their strong ties with French and British distributors enabled commercial success abroad.

Lidia débuted for Itala Film in 1911, with Cleo e Filete, and made over a dozen films for them, mostly shorts. She also acted for several other early Italian film companies.

Her breakthrough role came in 1914, when she was cast as the title character of epic production Cabiria, set in Sicily, Carthage, and Cirta (now Constantine, Algeria) during the Second Punic War. This grand film spectacle runs almost two and a half hours.

Cabiria also introduced long-running film character Maciste, who appeared in over two dozen films during the silent era, and was revived for 25 more films from 1960–65. Two final Maciste films followed in 1973.

Lidia became a superstar, and acted in sixteen more films between 1914–20. She earned an unheard-of salary of 10,000 lire a month at her popularity peak, making her Italy’s highest-paid female actor.

Lidia’s work became more sporadic after 1920. Her final film was in 1925.

She contracted pneumonia in Turin in early 1928, and passed away the day before her 37th birthday.

Letizia Beatrice Giuseppina Angela Quaranta (30 December 1892–9 January 1977) was the next-most prolific of the three Quaranta sisters. She began acting in 1913, through Lidia’s influence, and became very popular.

One of her directors, Carlo Campogalliani (10 October 1885–10 August 1974), was so impressed by her, he married her in 1921. They moved to Rome, and later to Argentina. For the rest of her life, Letizia only acted in films directed by Carlo.

Several of her films were Maciste films.

Isabella Maria Rosa Teresa Quaranta (30 December 1892–3 April 1975) was the least-prolific of the three sisters. In comparison to superstar Lidia and frequently-requested Letizia, Isabella only acted from 1912–17.

In spite of her rather short career, Isabella nevertheless starred in some significant films, such as Romanticism (1915), directed by her famous brother-in-law, and A Masquerade in the Sea (1917).

When she was hired in 1912, Itala Film described her as “a brilliant actress.”

Marie Prevost

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Marie Prevost (née Mary Bickford Dunn) (8 November 1898-23 January 1937) was born in Sarnia, Ontario, to Hughlina Marion Bickford and Arthur “Teddy” Dunn. Sadly, her railway conductor dad died when she was an infant, from gas seeping into the St. Clair Tunnel.

As a toddler, Mary acquired a stepfather, Frank Prevost. In 1900, her halfsister Marjorie was born.

Frank moved the family to Denver soon after the marriage. He was a surveyor and miner who frequently forced them to move in pursuit of get rich quick schemes. Eventually, they settled in L.A., and Hughlina and Frank divorced.

Marie attended Manual Arts High School, which was then a vo-tech school. In 1915, she became a secretary for a law firm representing Keystone Film Company. It was through this job she scored a bit part in a Keystone film.

Mack Sennett was so impressed by her, he demanded she be brought to his office, and signed her to a $15 a week contract.

Marie initially played minor comedic roles as a sexy innocent, and became one of Mack Sennett’s famed Bathing Beauties in 1916.

Marie’s first lead role came in 1919, with WWI propaganda film Yankee Doodle in Berlin. Her popularity was immediate, so much so she soon desired to change studios to make the most of her potential. She felt Sennett only cared about making money, not quality and creativity.

Keystone released her, and she signed a $1,000 a week contract with Universal in 1921. Wonder boy Irving G. Thalberg, pre-MGM, helped to make her a star by giving her lots of publicity.

Among the publicity stunts he arranged was sending her to Coney Island to publicly burn her bathing suit, symbolising the end of her Bathing Beauty days.

Marie starred in light comedies during her time at Universal. When her contract expired in 1922, she signed to Warner Brothers for two years, $1,500 a week. Her future second husband, Kenneth Harlan, was also signed to Warner, and they co-starred as the lead roles of The Beautiful and Damned.

Jack Warner drummed up publicity by saying they’d marry on-set. In response, thousands of fans sent letters and gifts.

A less positive response came from The Los Angeles Times, who discovered Marie’s first husband, Sonny Gerke, had just filed for divorce. They ran the damning headline “Marie Prevost Will be a Bigamist if She Marries Kenneth Harlan.”

Jack Warner was furious Marie hadn’t told him she was legally married to someone else, though the publicity stunt was his idea.

The scandal didn’t sink Marie’s rising career at all. She gained great reviews for The Beautiful and Damned, and legendary director Ernst Lubitsch chose her for a starring role in The Marriage Circle, opposite Adolphe Menjou.

The New York Times highly praised her acting, inspiring Lubitsch to cast her in two more of his films.

Marie and Kenneth Harlan quietly married in 1924, after her divorce was finalised. Warner Brothers chose not to renew their contracts in 1926.

Tragedy struck when Marie’s mother was killed in a car accident on 5 February 1926. To try to cope with her great emotional anguish, Marie turned to alcohol and took on a grueling work schedule.

Her melancholia increased when she and Kenneth separated in 1927. A 1928 affair with Howard Hughes ended in another breakup, which compounded Marie’s depression even further.

Marie’s depression began manifesting in overeating as well as excess drinking, and she gained a lot of weight. This led to being cast only in secondary roles.

She signed to MGM in 1930, but wasn’t given any leading roles. However, she still received good reviews, and transitioned well to sound.

Marie made her last MGM film in 1933. Struggling with finances, she jumped at any film she was offered by other studios, no matter how small the role. To keep these jobs, she crash-dieted.

Her final film was in 1936.

Marie died of acute alcoholism at age forty. Her death was discovered two days later, after neighbours started complaining about her Dachshund’s excessive barking. Joan Crawford paid for her funeral at Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.

When Marie’s estate was found to be all of $300, her fellow actors were inspired to create the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. They were also motivated by several other sad fates of former stars.

Olive Thomas

This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written around 2005–07.

Olive Thomas (née Oliva R. Duffy) (20 October 1894–10 September 1920) was born in Charlerol, Pennsylvania, the first of James and Rena Duffy’s three kids. When her steelworker dad was killed in a work accident in 1906, the family moved to nearby McKees Rocks.

Olive and her brothers were largely raised by their grandparents, and their mother worked in a factory. Later, they acquired a stepfather, Harry M. Van Kirk, who worked on the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad. Their halfsister Harriet was born in 1914.

At fifteen, Olive dropped out of school to help with supporting her family. She found a job selling gingham at Pittsburgh’s famed Joseph Horne’s department store (which merged with Lazarus in 1994, and then was gobbled up by Macy’s in 2005). Olive made $2.75 a week ($73.95 in 2018).

At sixteen, in April 1911, she married 21-year-old Bernard Krug Thomas, a Pressed Steel Car Company clerk. During her marriage, Olive was a clerk at Kaufmann’s, another famed Pittsburgh department store (which Macy’s also gobbled up in 2006, and later closed and sold).

After separating from Bernard in 1913, Olive moved to New York and moved in with a relative. She began working in a Harlem department store. Her long-burning dream of becoming famous began taking shape when she won artist Howard Chandler Christy’s Most Beautiful Girl in New York City contest in 1914.

Olive became an artists’ model, posing for many famous artists of the day, and was frequently featured on magazine covers. Her star rose further when she joined The Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, followed by Ziegfeld’s very risqué Midnight Frolic.

Olive continued modelling during this time. Among the artists she sat for was Alberto Vargas. She was the first Vargas Girl (i.e., a partially-naked pinup girl).

Olive’s affair with Florenz Ziegfeld ended when he refused to divorce Billie Burke. Her own marriage legally ended 25 September 1915.

In July 1916, Olive signed a contract with International Film Company. Her screen début was in the tenth episode of the Beatrix Fairfax serial. Later that year, she met actor Jack Pickford (Mary’s little brother). They eloped on 25 October.

Olive’s first feature was Paramount’s A Girl Like That (1917), after which she signed with Triangle Pictures. Her relationship with Jack became public knowledge soon afterwards.

Olive’s popularity steadily grew while she was at Triangle, but she left in 1918. That December, she signed with Selznick Pictures, Jack’s company. Not only did she desire more serious films, she also felt she’d have more influence on her projects at her husband’s company.

The move paid off, as Olive became more and more popular, with roles very much to her liking. Olive networked her brothers into Selznick jobs too. William became a cameraman, and James an assistant director.

She became the first actor to portray a flapper lead character, in the first film depicting the flapper lifestyle. (Big surprise, this 1920 film is called The Flapper!)

Olive was at the pinnacle of success when she and Jack took a second honeymoon to Paris. Tragedy struck when a tired, inebriated Olive, in a darkened bathroom of the Hotel Ritz, mistook a bottle of mercury bichloride for aspirin or sleeping pills.

Jack rushed to Olive’s side when he heard her screaming, and frantically did everything he knew how until the ambulance arrived. He stayed by her bedside at the American Hospital of Paris until she passed away five days later.

Olive was only 25 years old.

Rumours persist about Olive’s tragic death, but a rational look at the evidence makes it obvious this was a heartbreaking accident, and that Jack behaved the exact opposite of maliciously.

Mercury bichloride, while a common syphilis medicine, was also a very common disinfectant, often found in bathrooms. It was also used as a blemish remover and skin lightener.

Olive was one of hundreds upon hundreds of people who died from accidental mercury bichloride poisoning every year in that era.

Had Olive lived, she may have become a superstar and eventually transitioned well into the sound era. Poor Jack also may not have had so many personal problems and his own early grave if he hadn’t lost the love of his life.

Nita Naldi

This is edited and greatly expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire site, written in 2005.

Nita Naldi (née Mary Nonna Dooley) (13 November 1893–17 February 1961), one of the great silent Vamps, was born in a Harlem tenement. She was the third of Patrick and Julia Dooley’s six children, and the first who survived infancy. Her next-youngest brother, Daniel, was the only other Dooley sibling to live past infancy.

The upwardly mobile Dooleys, wanting their daughter to get ahead in life, sent her to Holy Angels Academy across the river in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mary took a ferry every Monday and boarded at the school till Friday, when she travelled back to New York.

This Catholic girls’ school provided a full, equal education, going above and beyond what many other schools offered girls in this era. Many of its alumni went on to careers in the nascent film industry and theatre.

Mary began acting around 1915, though dates and details are currently obscured in a fog of mystery. We do know she was on Broadway by 1918, performing by the Winter Garden. In 1918–19, she was in The Ziegfeld Follies.

She reinvented herself as Nita Naldi, taking her new surname from roommate Maria Naldi, whom she passed off as her sister. Since her dark features were the opposite of the then-popular ice-cream blonde look, she also falsified her origins as Italian, sometimes Spanish or Irish. Nita claimed her parents were widely-travelled diplomats.

Most of her fellow actors neither believed Maria Naldi were her sister, nor that Nita were Italian or Spanish.

By the late 1910s, Nita was an established stage Vamp (i.e., a femme fatale), and got many great reviews. Around this time, she also appeared as an extra in a few films.

Her rise to stardom began when she was cast as a dancer in John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). Though she wasn’t the film’s star, she nevertheless earned a lot of attention, and with it more film roles. Concurrently, Nita continued acting onstage by night.

Among her co-stars in these early films was Harry Houdini, pictured below in The Man from Beyond (1922).

In 1922, Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount) signed her to a single-picture contract for Blood and Sand, in which she co-starred with Rudy Valentino. Nita and Rudy have incredible chemistry in this film, and many consider it her greatest role.

That July, Nita was signed to a reported five-year contract. Unfortunately, the great momentum wasn’t followed up properly. She was cast in supporting roles, her awesome Vamp potential wasted.

One of her films from this period was Cecil B. DeMille’s original version of The Ten Commandments (1923). Nita and Rudy also co-starred again in A Sainted Devil (1924), one of the lost films I most passionately long to be found, and Cobra (1925).

Nita was dropped from the studio in late 1924, and The Hooded Falcon, a grand epic she and Rudy were to have co-starred in, never came to be. When this dream project fell through, she turned back to single-contract films mostly wasting her potential.

One of her films during this period, The Mountain Eagle (1925), was the second film Alfred Hitchcock directed.

Nita retired from film in 1928. Her final U.S. film, What Price Beauty?, co-stars Myrna Loy in the role that boosted her to stardom. This film also co-stars Rudy’s second wife, Natacha Rambova.

Nita’s last two films were made in France and Italy.

By 1923, Nita had gotten involved with J. Searle Barclay, a wealthy, married playboy 24 years her senior. They married soon after his 1929 divorce, and spent two years in France. Upon their October 1931 return to New York, they settled in the Plaza Hotel.

Nita returned to the stage during the hard years of the Great Depression, but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. She filed for bankruptcy in 1933. In 1940, she and her husband moved into Times Square’s Wentworth Hotel.

Upon being widowed in January 1945, Nita resumed stage acting. Though money problems continued plaguing her, she became quite popular on the theatrical social scene, and earned many TV, radio, and newspaper interviews.

Nita died of a heart attack at age 67.

Nita’s official website