Dorothy Davenport's Message Movies


Actress Dorothy Davenport traveled west with the Nestor film company just as the movie industry and the feature-length film was taking form in Hollywood. A prominent player when Nestor was absorbed by Universal, she married fellow actor Wallace Reid in 1913. The good-looking, affable Reid skyrocketed to matinee idol status after leaving Universal for Jesse Lasky’s company and took leading roles in films by Cecil B. DeMille. The year Davenport made Mothers of Men, she had already acted in more than one hundred films, including another feature about capital punishment directed by her father-in-law Hal Reid, The Girl and the Crisis (1917). With the birth of their first child Wally Jr., she took a semi-hiatus, appearing in only three films. But her domesticated life ended after her husband’s death and subsequent scandal. Injured on the set of The Valley of Giants in 1919, Reid became addicted to painkillers. Although he eventually conquered his habit, his health was destroyed and he died in 1923 at age thirty-one. By this time Davenport was already billing herself as Davenport Reid. As one newspaper noted when she added her husband’s last name, it “will be a great shock to the women who are new-fashioned enough to think that every member of the feminine sex should carve her career under her own name—especially when she has one as well known as Dorothy Davenport.” After Reid’s death, she took on the mantle of widow and reformer, listing herself in credits as Mrs. Wallace Reid. The exact nature of her participation is still unclear but she was the impetus behind her films, whether producing or directing or writing, sometimes taking starring roles, sometimes small parts, or appearing in prologues to advocate for her positions on social issues of the day.

Sponsored by the Los Angeles Anti-Narcotic League, Davenport Reid’s first film after Wallace Reid’s death took on her late husband’s affliction. The film was granted a “special dispensation” from Will Hays’s censorship office, which objected to drug-taking as subject matter. To prepare for the role of the lead junkie, Bessie Love visited a sanitarium and was shown by one eager inmate how to inject morphine. To dramatize the fraught world of the dope-fiend, Human Wreckage used a Caligari-style nightmarish, off-kilter street scene. A mixture of melodrama and message, the film was a hit. Motion Picture Classic reported favorably on the film: “There is nothing cheap or sensational about it.” Davenport took it on the road, making a plea for public awareness that addicts suffered illness, not moral turpitude, and needed help, not punishment. With the film’s profits, she set up the Wallace Reid Foundation Sanitarium and her own independent production unit under Thomas Ince.

Writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, a Davenport colleague and friend, contributed this “spare the rod spoil the child” morality play about a mother who is too indulgent with her young son. He grows up to be an irresponsible delinquent, keeping bad company (i.e. flappers) and driving too fast, until one night he runs over someone on his way home from carousing. Davenport starred as the mother who dreamed the whole plot and, upon awaking, gives her boy, still thankfully just eight years old, a good spanking. “People who have a message are usually great bores,” the reviewer in Picture-Play wrote. “But Broken Laws is an excellent study of family life as waged in the Great American Home.” Directed by Roy William Neill and produced at Ince, the film was billed as a Mrs. Wallace Reid Production.

When Rogers St. Johns was a newspaper reporter she covered the real-life trial of Gabrielle Darley who was acquitted of murdering her philandering husband in 1915, and the story later became good fodder for Mrs. Wallace Reid Production’s “Sins of the World” series. A small-town teacher marries a dandy and they move to New Orleans. Abandoned by him in Storyville, the city’s notorious red-light district, Gabrielle gets by the only way she can. When she finds her husband buying an engagement ring for another lover, she shoots him dead. When the real Gabrielle Darley saw the film, she sued for $50,000 or $60,000 (depending on the source). According to Variety the suit was settled out of court in 1932. Scenario by Dorothy Arzner, who directed her first film, Fashions for Women, in 1927. Director Walter Lang, who was later nominated for an Academy Award in 1956 for The King and I, also directed two other Davenport films, The Earth Woman (1926) and The Satin Woman (1927).

LINDA (1929)
Based on the 1912 novel by Margaret Prescott Montague, winner of the first ever O. Henry prize for short fiction, Linda is Davenport’s first official director credit. About the daughter of a brutal backwoodsman who marries an older man to escape her father’s violence but then falls in love with a young doctor, the film merited an “excellent” in Film Daily, which went on to call it “nicely gaited for the family trade.” Scholar Mark Lynn Anderson says the film is “an interesting portrayal of strong female friendships and loyalties” even as it “looks toward the exploitation films Davenport Reid would direct for independent producer Wills Kent in the early 1930s.”

In addition to codirecting, Davenport also took a small role as Mrs. Merrill, who’s in charge of female “sex delinquents” at the local precinct. When a high-schooler and her platinum-blonde bestie head down the road to ruin paved with steamy romance novels, cigarettes, and booze, they end up across from Davenport’s character who obliquely tells the girls they have to be tested for venereal disease and then counsels “intelligent sex education.” The film earns its exploitation repute for a strip poker scene with lingerie-clad girls followed by a dip in the backyard pool but is also a heartfelt, if heavy-handed, portrayal of the tragic consequences of a back-alley abortion. Davenport continued to work in films throughout the next two decades, taking credit as simply Dorothy Reid.

— The Editors

Read more about Dorothy Davenport at Women Film Pioneers Project