Early Hollywood Drug Users

Long before TMZ was around to chronicle it, Hollywood was plagued by powders and pills. Today, we don’t typically think of the early 1900s as a time of debauchery and drugs, but since its inception, the film industry has had more than its fair share of substance use and abuse. Here’s a look at just a few of the early drinkers and druggers of the silver screen.

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Wallace Reid
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Wallace Reid
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Wally Reid was an early silent film star who made more than 200 pictures in his sadly abbreviated career. He played in Carmen, The Roaring Road, Double Speed and Excuse My Dust. He worked with Cecil B. DeMille, Bebe Daniels, Gloria Swanson, and many more. He was, by any measure, a star. But what brought about Reid’s demise was, as Kim Morgan writes in Huffington Post, a “horrifyingly literal” train wreck. 

En route to filming Valley of the Giants in 1919, Reid’s train went careening off a bridge. He ended up with some severe lacerations and ongoing pain—which doctors treated with high doses of morphine.

He picked up a habit which, by some accounts, the studios helped him maintain to make sure their leading man was in top film-making condition.

That only worked for so long, though. Eventually, the star’s health started to deteriorate. Gaunt and confused, he spent his last day on a movie set in 1922, leaving early by ambulance when he collapsed. 

Afterward, he tried to detox in sanitariums—but instead he died there, under unclear circumstances.

Picture-Play Magazine/Wikimedia

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Barbara La Marr
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Barbara La Marr
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During her decade of silent film dominance, Barbara La Marr was a never-ending font of crazy personal drama that would have been perfect tabloid fodder. 

Born Reatha Watson, she’d already been married three times by the age of 19—and would zoom through another two husbands before her untimely death a decade later. To the modern eye, La Marr seems pretty but not extraordinarily so—but to Roaring Twenties sensibilities, she was the epitome of sexy, a trait she put to good use. 

"I take lovers like roses—by the dozen,” she once said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

To go with her chaotic romantic life, La Marr had other vices—including cocaine and heroin. She first started using drugs after getting a prescription while recovering from an injury. Eventually, according to her son, she started doing smack and kept a container of coke on the piano for easy access. 

She died young, before her 30th birthday—and also before the advent of sound film, which is probably a large part of the reason she’s not more popularly remembered today. Despite her heavy partying, it wasn’t an overdose that felled the film vixen—it was tuberculosis.

Рекс Ингрэм (режиссёр)/Wikimedia

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Robert Mitchum
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Robert Mitchum
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Today, Hollywood actors smoking pot is not a big deal—and it’s certainly not front-page news. But in 1948, it was salacious, front-page, career-ending melodrama. 

Robert Mitchum, the sinister but sexy actor best known for his utterly evil role as a serial killer in the noir classic, The Night of the Hunter, was collared at a Los Angeles party with a few joints. 

The press had a field day with it. “Bob Mitchum, 3 others jailed after dope raid,” shouted one headline. “A MAN IN THE GRIP OF DEMON DRUGS,” read a photo caption. Mitchum was convinced it was the end of his career and introduced himself to reporters at the police station as a “former actor.”

Though it was essentially a minor arrest and he netted just 60 days in the clink for his misdeeds with marijuana, narcotics detectives spent a year investigating the A-list actor, according to biographer Lee Server. 

When they finally snagged the small amount of pot, police implied it was just the tip of the iceberg and that there were more dramatic drug arrests to come. 

“We’re going to clean the dope and narcotics users out of Hollywood. We don’t care who we have to arrest. There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ being used in Hollywood,” said a detective at the time. “We have a number of important and prominent Hollywood screen personalities under surveillance.”

However the yellow journalism of the day painted him, Mitchum maintained that he wasn’t much of a user. Years later, according to author Michael Starks, Mitchum said he’d started toking in 1945, but “it never got to be a habit with me.”

Fair use/Wikimedia

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Jeanne Eagels
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Jeanne Eagels
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Jeanne Eagels was a film star in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but—like many early silent film stars—today she is not commonly remembered. A Kansas City native, she was born in 1890 and was best known for 1929’s The Letter, a film about a cheating wife and a murder plot. 

Throughout her career she battled with alcohol and drug addiction and eventually wound up in a sanitarium. 

When she died at 35, contemporary accounts blamed it on a chloral hydrate overdose, according to the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, autopsy findings pinned it on heroin instead. 

After her death, Eagels landed a posthumous Oscar nomination for her role in The Letter, but she lost out to Mary Pickford.

Adolph de Meyer/Wikimedia

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Fatty Arbuckle
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Fatty Arbuckle
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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the earliest kings of silver screen comedy. He started his career in vaudeville and then switched to silent film in 1910, starring in some of the Keystone Cops films, renowned early comedies about hilariously incompetent police officers.

Then, in 1916, he developed a horrible boil above his knee—and a doctor prescribed him heroin for the pain. He became addicted to the stuff and checked into a hospital to get clean in time for an early 1917 publicity tour, according to The Home Front Encyclopedia.

But when he straightened up, he lost some of the weight that was a signature part of his on-screen persona and, humiliatingly, the studio forced him to wear a fat suit for the tour, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. By the end of the tour he was shooting up daily again—and when he couldn’t get his drug of choice, he drank heavily instead.

Despite his substance use, Fatty was bringing home the dough. In 1919, he signed a $1 million a year contract with Paramount, according to The History Channel. He continued pumping out comedies at a tremendous rate—until 1921. 

On September 11 of that year, he was arrested in San Francisco for the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. Eventually, he was acquitted after three trials—but the scandal effectively put an end to his career anyway. He struggled with alcoholism for the rest of his life and died of heart failure in 1933.

Wikimedia

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Buster Keaton
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Buster Keaton
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Just as Fatty Arbuckle was plagued by substance-related issues, so was his mentee, comedian Buster Keaton. 

Keaton had a rough and strange childhood, according to a recent article by Judith Sanders and Daniel Lieberfeld in Film Quarterly. His father was an alcoholic who beat him regularly, though Keaton subsequently downplayed the abuse. He was an accident-prone kid, dubbed "Buster" after he fell down a flight of stairs. 

He lost a finger in a clothes wringer and once got sucked out a second-story window by a cyclone. Eventually, his vaudevillian parents decided to bring him on stage with them so they could keep a better eye on their troublesome toddler. 

The three-year-old future comedian stood behind his father and imitated him the entire act—and audiences loved it. That was the start of an accomplished comic career. 

After 20 years with the Three Keatons, the future film star met Fatty Arbuckle and was introduced to the world of silent movie stardom, according to Turner Classic Movies. After a few movies with Arbuckle and a brief stint in the military in World War I, Keaton eventually went out on his own and released a slew of well-remembered films in the 1920s, including Our Hospitality and The General. Then, in 1928, he came under contract with studio giant MGM—and it ruined him.

On his own, Keaton had perfected a comedic formula. But under the strict studio system, he didn’t have the freedom he needed to thrive. By the start of the 1930s, he’d slipped into an alcoholic haze—and worse was yet to come. The Great Depression hit, his finances were failing, his talkies were bombing, his marriage fell apart in 1932 and he got fired from the studio in 1933. 

Though he struggled with the drink for the rest of his life, he had a happier marriage starting in 1940 and eventually made a showbiz comeback after his earlier work was rediscovered by movie lovers.

Library of Congress/Wikimedia