Dorothy Davenport (Mrs. Wallace Reid) and The Noble Art of Exploitation

Wonderful happenstance that Dorothy Davenport’s birthday falls during Women’s History Month, for Davenport (1895-1977), was not just a pioneering director/producer/screenwriter/actress, but a mother or midwife of sorts of an entire genre, the sort of socially-conscious, issues oriented “women’s” exploitation films and melodramas that we nowadays associate with Lifetime. 

Born in Boston, Davenport was the scion of an important American theatrical family, daughter of Harry Davenport and Alice Davenport. Her stage debut was at age six, and in her early teens she worked in vaudeville and burlesque and with stock companies. She was only fifteen when she made her film debut in 1910 at Nestor Studios, which would be her home base for most of the silent period. Davenport acted in nearly 150 films, almost all of them between the years 1910-17. Her co-star for around 100 of those films was Wallace Reid, a newbie when he came to Nestor, and soon to be a matinee idol. The pair married in 1913. In 1917, their child, Wallace Reid Jr was born and Dorothy retired temporarily.

In 1919, Reid was injured in a train explosion while filming The Valley of the Giants. He was given morphine for pain and he became addicted. While he continued to star in a dizzying number of films through the end of 1922, the toll of the drug habit on his health killed him in early 1923.

Meanwhile, Davenport had returned to movie acting in 1920 with The Fighting Chance. Starting with The Masked Avenger (February, 1922) she began to use the screen name Mrs. Wallace Reid, a move I find highly interesting. You should know that back in the day it was from unusual for women in show business to take their husband’s name in this fashion. Famous examples from across the centuries include Mrs. Siddons, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Mrs. Sidney Drew. Davenport had been married to Reid for nearly a decade at this point, and there were distinct, palpable p.r. advantages to using the name Davenport, given all the distinguished and popular players in her family. It was her brand, and a premium one at that. Her decision to make the change at this juncture seems like a very public show of support for her admittedly famous husband, whom the world was beginning to whisper about by then. (My wife just espoused the theory, which I think I have head before, that the scene in A Star is Born — “This is MRS. NORMAN MAINE” — may be a nod to Davenport’s gesture here). While there may have been some noble motives attached the use of her husband’s name, there would also soon be more than an unsavory whiff of exploitation. That (and changing times) may be a reason why this age-old tradition seems to stop around the time of Mrs. Wallace Reid. (At any rate, the switch in midstream resulted in a multiplicity of screen names over the years, not just Dorothy Davenport and Mrs. Wallace Reid, but also, in later years, Dorothy Reid. For the sake of simplicity, when not otherwise specified, my default in this post will be her given name.)

To those who know what they are doing in show business, scandal is the lemon that makes lemonade. By the time of Reid’s death, the circumstances of his deterioration were widely known. Davenport used the opportunity to make an exploitation film about drug addiction called The Human Wreckage (1923), which she produced, starred in, co-wrote and co-directed as “Mrs. Wallace Reid”. NOW it should be noted that this genre was also not new at the time. There was a growing vogue for it. Ibsen had been the real pioneer, followed by Shaw. Nazimova was among the more famous who’d starred in vehicles like this. But there was something about Davenport’s using her real life like this, and making a new career of it, that seemed kind of unprecedented and perhaps a bit tawdry. After The Human Wreckage, came Broken Laws (1924). With The Broken Kimono (1925), which was about white slavery, she found herself the subject of a privacy lawsuit(she hadn’t bothered to change the name of the story’s real life protagonist. The Red Kimono starred Priscilla Bonner, my distant cousin, as did Davenport’s next film The Earth Woman (1926). Davenport next acted in two films The Satin Woman (1927) and Hellship Bronson (1928), before embarking on her next ambitious project, Linda (1929), a film she directed and produced. Linda was about a woman who puts her own dreams on hold in order to serve a man.

Hellship Bronson was her last film as a star, although she is third-billed in Man Hunt (1933) and has a supporting role in The Road to Ruin (1934), an exploitation film which she also directed and scripted, her only talkie credits as actress. But she continued to toil assiduously behind the scenes for over two more decades. In addition to The Road to Ruin, she wrote the story for The Racing Strain (1932), directed Sucker Money (1933), produced Redhead (1934), directed The Woman Condemned (1934), and produced and co-wrote Women Must Dress and Honeymoon Limited (both 1935). These melodramas were mostly low-budget productions for small, independent studios. Even so, we can’t help notice that her power seems to diminish after the strict imposition of the Production Code. The Woman Condemned was her last directing credit. She is an associate producer on Paradise Isle (1937), A Bride for Henry (1937), and Rose of the Rio Grande (1938).

But Davenport stayed at it! Throughout the ’40s and into the ’50s she worked as a screenwriter on about a dozen films for studios like Monogram. One notable effort from this era was Curley (1947), and its sequel Who Killed Doc Robbin? (1948), attempts by Hal Roach to reboot an Our Gang style kids’ series. Curious that she didn’t seem to flourish more as a screenwriter of melodrama during the heyday of mainstream “women’s pictures” starring the likes of Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, but at this stage she may been tarnished by her association with sexy B pictures, or just as likely, been considered too crudely old-fashioned.

Davenport’s last screenwriting credit was on the British thriller Footsteps in the Fog (1955). Her last screen credit of any sort was dialogue supervisor on The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) with Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing. She was clearly a woman with a strong work ethic — and a willingness to do whatever it took to keep working.

To learn more about vaudeville, where Dorothy Davenport cut her teeth, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube