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Influence of Hollywood Scandals of The Twenties on Society Article Discussion

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Mark Lynn Anderson, Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America (Berkeley: UC Press, 2011) 1 The Early Hollywood Scandals and the Death of Wallace Reid Just after the First World War, the word junkie entered into American parlance to describe a population of heroin addicts—a visible and growing population of male derelicts in and around New York City—who supported their drug habit by scouring that city’s junkyards in search of scrap metal, which they then sold to junk dealers. As medical historian David Courtwright has noted, the emergence of the term junkie at the beginning of the 1920s marked an historical transition in the general demographics of narcotic addiction in the United States. No longer was the typical addict a white, middle-aged, middle- or upper-class rural housewife, whose addiction had begun when her physician administered therapeutic doses of morphine to relieve pain. The new addict was more likely to be a young, white male who decidedly belonged to the urban underclass and whose addiction was more likely to have started when he began sniffi ng heroin with his friends at cheap dance halls. Yet junkie also rather neatly describes the transformation, in both popular and medical understandings of narcotic addiction, from a notion that morphinism was an organic disorder of the individual that resulted from medical treatment, to the view that narcotic addiction was a type of social disease, an unfortunate by-product of a modern industrial society and thus a pressing public health issue. It was within the context of such a transformation that the popular film star Wallace Reid died in January 1923 at the age of thirty-one, due to complications resulting from an attempted withdrawal from narcotic addiction. Reid’s death is generally considered one of the three most significant scandals of early Hollywood, along with the criminal trials of the film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in 1921 and 1922 and the sensationalized murder of director William Desmond 15 16 Twilight of the idols Taylor in February 1922. Reid was remarkably handsome and had been a very successful matinée idol from the mid-1910s until his death. Like other popular male stars of the period such as Douglas Fairbanks and Thomas Meighan, Reid typified a rugged, all-American virility that was a compelling version of psychological and physical health for young white men. Often reported to stand at 6′ 3″ and to weigh approximately 190 pounds, Reid was usually portrayed in the fan magazines as a happy and playful giant. He was also represented as somewhat of a dilettante with scattered interests in music, painting, chemistry, automobile racing, book collecting, golf, and a host of other pastimes. A man of many accomplishments, Reid was presumably so full of wonder at the world that he could not be bothered to devote a great amount of time or attention to any single activity. Although younger than Fairbanks by almost a decade, Reid was part of the same generation of fi lm stars who, like Fairbanks, emerged in the mid-1910s to become public representatives of the newly formed movie colony in southern California. Unlike the newcomer Fairbanks, however, Reid had been working steadily in the fi lm industry since 1910, making over one hundred fi lms as a featured player for the Vitagraph, Universal, and Majestic fi lm companies. When Jesse Lasky signed Reid with his company in June 1915, Reid was already a wellknown and established performer, though Reid’s popularity rose rapidly after Lasky paired him with Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar in a couple of prestige pictures directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Reid’s masculinity also differed from the “vim, vigor, and vip” of Fairbanks by departing from the latter’s insistence upon rational self-discipline. While Fairbanks’s healthy manliness resulted from the adoption of a youthful mental attitude which valued carefully planned and regimented physical activities, Reid’s boyish charm rested more on a naturally robust physique and a much more spontaneous athleticism. Although his many fi lm performances and even the scandal with which his name is linked are largely forgotten today, in the early 1920s, when it appeared as if the film industry itself was in danger of imminent collapse, Reid’s drug addiction was a significant moment in the history of the star system and in the consolidation of Hollywood as a mass cultural institution. Reid’s death afforded the fi lm industry its first opportunity to explain how good stars can go wrong. The industry succeeded not only in containing the scandal of Reid’s drug use, but in reinterpreting his death as both a private tragedy and a great public sacrifice. In this chapter I outline some of the specific strategies of this coverage, indicate its stages of development during and in the aftermath of the scandal, and draw some conclusions about the ways fi lm audiences were encouraged to understand Reid’s stardom and their own relationship to his death. Because the Reid affair had a more or less direct relationship to the continuing threats of external controls over the fi lm industry, it is first necessary to lay out the larger historical and cultural contexts of the Early Hollywood Scandals and the Death of Wallace Reid 17 early star system and fi lm regulation practices of the period before examining the media’s attention to Reid’s narcotic addiction. T H E B I R T H O F A N AG E N C Y Historical accounts of U.S. fi lm censorship often note that the star scandals of the early 1920s aided in the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America (MPPDA), the most important regulatory agency to emerge within the fi lm industry. Film historians are quick to add, however, that the MPPDA’s other less publicized functions were to stave off federal antitrust interventions, to maintain the prevailing relations of production within the industry, to arbitrate costly litigious conflicts between distributors and exhibitors, and to control public information about Hollywood business practices. The industry’s responses to star scandals are, then, often considered publicity diversions behind which the more important exercise of managerial power was concealed. Nevertheless, part of the MPPDA’s implicit public charter was to guarantee the moral quality of the industry’s products and its personnel, particularly its stars and leading players. When prominent Republican politician Will Hays accepted the film industry’s offer to head the newly formed MPPDA in early 1922, one of his immediate tasks was to reassure the many church groups, women’s clubs, and other reform organizations then seeking federal oversight of the industry that the major Hollywood studios were seriously committed to improving the moral quality of their pictures. He was also charged with halting the further creation of any more state or local fi lm censorship boards. Six states already had fi lm censorship boards when Hays took up his post, and thirty-two additional states would consider new film censorship legislation in 1921 and 1922. Hays attempted to placate the moral and educational critics of the industry by appearing to patiently listen to their concerns and by promising stringent internal reforms. With Hays at the helm, the MPPDA successfully defeated new proposals for state censorship boards through extensive organized political action in individual states. At the time he took up his post, Hays was President Harding’s postmaster general, and he had served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 1920 convention. Studio executives hoped that his supervision of the fi lm industry through the auspices of the MPPDA would do for Hollywood’s beleaguered reputation what the hiring of federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had done for major league baseball two years before. Because of the number of public scandals involving fi lm personalities in the years 1920–1922, Hays and Hollywood faced a relatively new type of demand for fi lm censorship. Most movie reform efforts of the late 1910s had targeted fi lm content as in need of improvement and had sought some way of censoring the so-called sex picture, as well as fi lms depicting illegal acts or criminal behavior. 18 Twilight of the idols In the early 1920s the demand for cleaner pictures was soon joined by the demand for cleaner stars. The identity of the motion-picture performer had become a site for possible regulation and, at least for the year and a half following the arrest of Arbuckle in September 1921, the identity of the performer was one of the principal concerns of censorship efforts outside the fi lm industry. Arbuckle, who had been arrested for the murder and rape of fi lm actress Virginia Rappe, posed a relatively new set of problems for the smooth functioning of the star system, and it took Hays and fi lm industry executives quite some time to develop effective strategies for controlling and avoiding the type of damage to Hollywood’s image that had been caused by this and by other early scandals. By the time Reid’s drug addiction was publicly revealed at the end of 1922, the industry’s ability to manage star scandals had greatly improved. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1922, U.S. Senator Henry Lee Myers introduced into committee a bill calling for the establishment of fi lm censorship in the District of Columbia and another requesting a federal investigation into the motion picture industry. On the floor of the Senate he argued that fi lm censorship measures were needed since “many of the pictures are pernicious” precisely because of the immorality of “those who pose for them,” and he went on to mention Fatty Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe, William Desmond Taylor, and Rudolph Valentino by name. Like many contemporary critics of Hollywood, Senator Myers used the notoriety of a limited number of sensational scandals to question the moral integrity of the entire filmmaking community and to suggest that its members spent their enormous salaries on “riotous living, dissipation, and ‘high rolling.’ ” Representatives of the industry defended Hollywood by pointing out that the excesses of a few certainly did not mean that such behavior was indicative of the many. Several stars assured the press about the utter normalcy of their everyday lives and the wholesomeness of their habits, while others criticized the newspapers and tabloids for perpetuating false representations of Hollywood as a vice colony and for fueling the fanciful imaginations of fanatical reformers. D. W. Griffith attempted to expose the hypocrisy of the industry’s moral critics by asking them, “Shall we attack the banks when a banker gets into the newspaper, or the church when a minister gets into the newspaper?” Such questions may have had a certain amount of rhetorical force, but the comparison of fi lm stars to bankers and ministers did not likely ring true for the vast majority of the filmgoing public. Film stars represented the fi lm industry in ways that bankers or ministers could never represent the banking interests or the churches of America. This was in part explained by the mass public appeal of fi lm stars as compared to the relative invisibility of the financial world and the smallness of the traditional parish. 
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