Monday, July 2, 2012
Souls for Sale (1923)
Despite its lurid title Souls for Sale is not an exploitation movie. This 1923 Samuel Goldwyn production is a light-hearted comedy/romantic melodrama which may be of most interest to modern audiences for its many glimpses behind the scenes of Hollywood in the 1920s.
Remember Steddon (Eleanor Boardman) is a small-town girl who has married a big city charmer. As they set off on the train to Los Angeles on their honeymoon she has second thoughts about the marriage (and as we will discover later her second thoughts are more than justified) and she jumps off the train in the middle of the desert. She is rescued by a handsome Arab Sheikh, but of course he’s not really a sheikh, he’s an actor playing the part of a sheikh. She has stumbled upon a location shoot for a movie.
The movie people are kind to her and they even get her a job as an extra on the movie. Remember then tries to get a respectable job at a hotel (her father is a clergyman who considers Hollywood to be a cesspit of sin) but when the hotel closes down for the winter she finds herself out of work. She drifts to Los Angeles and decides to make a serious attempt to break into the world she has already had a glimpse of, the world of movies.
She gets a few jobs as extras but when the production crew that she had encountered in the desert returns to Hollywood after completing location shooting on their latest movie she makes a desperate job effort to land a role in their picture. She gets a screen test. She is awful, but both the director (Frank Claymore, played by Richard Dix) and the star (Tom Holby, played by Frank Mayo) had become fond of her and the director decides he’ll make her an actress “if he has to break her heart and every bone in her body.”
She learns the ropes and eventually learns to be a real actress. She gets some minor parts and is regarded as something of a rising starlet. She has been warned that an actress must at all costs avoid scandal (the movie was made two years after the infamous Fatty Arbuckle scandal rocked Tinsel Town) and what she doesn’t realise is that scandal is stalking her.
Her husband, the one she ran away from, is in fact a notorious crook who marries women, takes out large insurance policies on their lives, and then murders them. On the track of his latest victim (who proves to be a bigger and smarter scoundrel than he is) he wanders into a cinema in Cairo and sees his wife up on the silver screen. He then heads for Hollywood. His motivations are somewhat mixed. Blackmail is certainly on his mind but now that Remember (known as Mem to her friends) is a rising star he decides he wants her, and this time not for the purposes of murder. His arrival in Hollywood will be a major threat to Mem’s burgeoning career.
And although she doesn’t know it Mem is about to get her big break. The star of Claymore’s latest picture, in which Mem has a supporting role, is Robina Teele. Robina is badly injured in an accident and it seems impossible that the picture can be completed. It’s a circus movie, and four rival studios have circus pictures in production. Frank Claymore decides to take a gamble - he will give Mem the starring role (which shows that the plot of the classic 1932 musical 42nd Street was already an established Hollywood cliché).
When it comes to shooting the climactic scenes under the Big Top a storm hits and creates chaos, and also creates a situation that will resolve all the elements of the plot since Mem’s criminal husband is in the audience.
While this movie has fun poking gentle fun at Hollywood this is not a cynical hate-letter to Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie. In fact quite the opposite - it’s an unashamed love-letter to Hollywood. Hollywood can steal people’s souls but it can also give them opportunities they could never have had otherwise. For Mem Holywood represents not damnation (as her father thinks) but salvation. And Hollywood people might be hard-boiled on the surface but they can also be kind and friendly and welcoming, and they can be decent and loyal.
A major highlight of the movie is provided by the cameos by many of the most famous stars and directors of the time, including Zazu Pitts, Charles Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim. There are also some intriguing looks at the film-making methods of the day.
The movie was not one of the classics of the silent era but was very popular at the time of its release. It’s obviously made on a fairly generous budget and features players who were quite big names in the 20s.
The existing print shows considerable print damage but it does preserve the tinting which was such a distinctive feature of silent films. The Warner Archive DVD-R release is quite watchable despite the flaws in the print.
This is not a great movie but it’s entertaining and it provides a look at the type of movie that the audience of the 1920s enjoyed with a mix of romance, comedy and spectacle. Worth a look.