Mary Mallory: Hollywood Heights – ‘Human Wreckage’

July 6, 1923, "Human Wreckage"
July 6, 1923: “Human Wreckage” opens in Los Angeles.

Human Wreckage
Photo: Mrs. Wallace Reid, left, and Bessie love in “Human Wreckage.” Credit: The Bioscope.

Jan. 19, 1923, Wallace Reid Note: This is an encore post from 2011.

There are many lost silent films desired by film historians because of their casts, history, and story, and the film “Human Wreckage” is one of the most eagerly sought after. The first film to seriously deal with the issue of addiction, “Human Wreckage” was created by actress/writer/director Dorothy Davenport Reid as a tribute to her late husband Wallace Reid’s struggle with the disease. Like Betty Ford over 50 years later, Davenport wanted to show how universal the problem was and the steps to be taken in overcoming it. She intended to show that addiction was an illness, not a mental defect.

Dorothy Davenport, the daughter of actor Harry Davenport (Dr. Meade in “Gone With the Wind”), had acted in films since around 1910. She met young Wallace Reid in 1912 on the set of a Universal film, and they married in 1913. Both worked together until Reid was hired by Famous Players-Lasky in 1915, and Davenport retired to raise a family.  Soon they had two children, a son, and a daughter they adopted.

During the making of a film in 1919, a large rock fell and hit Reid in the back of the head, knocking him out and requiring 11 stitches to close the gash in his head. Morphine was administered to heal the pain, but he soon became addicted,  Reid also suffered from an addiction to whisky. He struggled for over two years before entering a sanitarium in the fall of 1922 to arrest his addictions.

July 7, 1923, Human Wreckage Reid succeeded in overcoming his demons, but his health was seriously compromised. Suffering from influenza and kidney failure, Reid died at the age of 31 on January 18, 1923, with his wife at his side. His last words to her were, “Tell them, mamma, I have won my fight – that I have come back.”

Within days, Davenport stated that she would make a film publicizing the trials of addiction and how to overcome it. All profits from the film would help build a sanitarium to help others break the terrible hold of addiction and demonstrate that it was an illness, not a mental condition. As she told “The Los Angeles Times,” “If a man has typhoid fever he is not forever shunned. Narcotic users are not moral lepers. The stigma attaching to the use of narcotics is the greatest boon the traffickers in drugs have, because it hinders investigation. The drug situation must be faced. Everyone must know of the evils and the cure of narcotic addiction. If my husband’s name can help in the victory over narcotics, his name will be used.”

Reid’s family, however, denounced Davenport’s decision and wanted to sweep the matter under the rug. They didn’t want such an intimate issue broadcast to the public, wanting Reid to be remembered for his great successes.

Producer Thomas Ince gave enormous support and encouragement to Davenport in making the film. He eagerly opened his studio for production, allowing writer C. Gardiner Sullivan to help Davenport shape the script and hiring John Griffith Wray to direct the picture. Successful actors George Hackathorne, James Kirkwood, and Bessie Love were signed to star, along with Davenport. As Ince stated in the press, “There are many of us in the industry who would be glad to give of our time and experience in the building of a picture story that would at once hold the attention of all America and yet would drive home a warning against this terrible drug traffic which appears to be the most serious menace that has ever confronted the American people.”

The story revolved around a busy attorney who received help from a drug-taking physician, and soon became addicted himself. He heals himself, and asks city leaders to help him wipe out dealers and end the drug scourge. What was most remarkable was that real social and political leaders, such as Louis J. Oaks, Los Angeles’ police chief; George E. Cryer, Los Angeles’ mayor; Father John Clifford, head of the Los Angeles Diocese for the Catholic Church; and R. B. Von Kleinsmid, president of USC, appeared in the last scene of the film to discuss the dangers of addiction and the selling of narcotics and how to stop it. Women’s social clubs banded behind the film.

The film was very explicit, showing addicts shooting up, using drugs, and suffering the consequences. One of the scenes presented a “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”-like set that reflected the drug users’ hallucinations. Other scenes presented addicts drying out in the hospital.

Davenport traveled with the film around the world, spreading the word to other counties about how to confront the disease and its users. “Human Wreckage” played for weeks at the Grauman’s Rialto theatre in Los Angeles, as well as at social fundraisers where Davenport and friends spoke to the crowds and raised funds.

Davenport continued acting, directing, and producing films into the late 1930s, but never achieved such great success again. I haven’t been able to determine if the clinic and sanitarium were built, but Davenport bravely put a face to the cancer of addiction, paving the way for Alcoholics Anonymous.


About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1923, Crime and Courts, Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mary Mallory: Hollywood Heights – ‘Human Wreckage’

  1. Benito says:

    See also HEROES FOR SALE 1933


  2. Eve says:

    Have you ever read Wally Reid’s mother’s book about him? She hated Dorothy Davenport. HAAAATED her.


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