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The title SOULS FOR SALE (Goldwyn Studios, 1923), directed by Rupert Hughes, might give some indication to anyone not familiar with this particular silent movie to be a horror tale about Satan worshipers at an auction block. It is, in fact, a Hollywood story. Not quite what is expected from the legendary "A Star is Born," yet something more to a "What Price Hollywood" theme centering upon actors who, figuratively speaking, selling their souls for the price of fame, and showing the frightening risk they make for the sake of their art. An interesting screenplay starring Eleanor Boardman (best known today for her performance in director King Vidor's contemporary drama, "The Crowd" (1928)), in her first leading role, director Hughes places the top-named celebrities of the day to cameo appearances, providing viewers an inside look of actual movies currently in production.
The story revolves around a small town girl named Remember (Eleanor Boardman), (a name not to forget), whose leaves her minister father (Forrest Robinson) and mother (Edith Yorke) to marry Owen Studder (Lew Cody), who, unknown to her, is a confidence man who marries, has his wife insured and murders them. While on a honeymoon train heading for Los Angeles to go on a boat to China, Remember suddenly finds herself fearing this man, and after the train makes a water stop, she climbs down from the observation platform, only to have the train take off, leaving her alone in the middle of nowhere. Fainting due to excessive desert heat, "Mem" awakens to find herself comforted by a sheik (no, it's not Rudolph Valentino), who happens to be Tom Holby (Frank Mayo), an actor from a motion picture company on location. After she regains her strength to go on, director Frank Claymore (Richard Dix) offers her extra work in the movies. After the company departs, "Mem," in need of work, comes to Hollywood where she makes her rounds to the casting offices at various studios, and in doing so, she gets to witness famous celebrities and directors at work. Meeting up with Claymore again, he offers her screen tests and bit parts until Robina Teele (Mae Busch), the leading lady in his upcoming circus movie, meets with an accident, having Claymore cast Mem in the lead instead. Claymore has fallen in love with Mem and wants to marry her, but can't because of her marriage to a man whose reputation might cause a scandal. More problems arise when Studder, now broke, who had seen Mem in a movie, decides to cash in on her success by wanting to come back into her life, much against her better judgment.
The supporting players consists of William Haines as Pinkey, the assistant director; Barbara LaMarr as Love LaMaire, "the screen's best hated vamp"; Dale Fuller, Aileen Pringle, Snitz Edwards, as well as 35 guest stars ranging from notable, forgotten and legendary performers of the day. Film enthusiasts will endure watching Erich Von Stroheim directing Jean Hersholt in "Greed"; Charlie Chaplin directing "A Woman of Paris"; along with the lesser known Fred Niblo directing "The Famous Mrs. Fair." Key scenes include the filming of a circus story realistically destroyed by a blaze of fire.
SOULS FOR SALE was one of many silent movies of the period to have become missing links over the years, with no known prints to survive. As luck would have it, a copy was discovered sometime in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia Eileen Bowser, film historian from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. While SOULS FOR SALE premiered on Turner Classic Movies on January 24, 2006, newly scored by Marcus Sjowall, its television broadcast history actually didn't begin there, but 27 years prior on a public television station in New York City, WNET, Channel 13, on a scarcely noticed series dedicated to the discovery of lost and found movies appropriately titled "Lost and Found" hosted by Richard Schickel, with Bowser as consultant, airing on eight consecutive Saturday evenings from June to August 1978. Following its 80 minute and music-scored presentation, an after film discussion took place with Schickel giving a profile on other movies with Hollywood related themes, including "Hollywood" (1923), "Merton of the Movies" (1924), both lost films; "The Extra Girl" (1923), "Show People" among many others, along with the discovery of SOULS FOR SALE. Aside from limited rebroadcasts and theatrical screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, SOULS FOR SALE remains a forgotten item from cinema history. Yet, some questions remain, "What becomes of movies, particularly silent ones, after it ends its run on television?" Some have been distributed to video cassette the way it was formerly shown, others with using different underscoring, some with no scores at all. "If these movies have already been scored, why go through the trouble of re-scoring them?" It's obvious that the staff of TCM had no indication that SOULS FOR SALE ever played on television before, since "Lost and Found" was not nationally syndicated nor did it ever go through the rerun process afterwards. As mentioned by TCM host Robert Osborne, TCM acquired a print but minus music score. "Couldn't a print be leased from the already scored copy from MOMA?" Quite possible, however, the 1978 TV presentation happened to be ten minutes shorter than the TCM showing, indicating missing footage now restored. One thing to be thankful for, that TCM appears to be the only cable channel to go through the bother of dedicating and bringing obscure silents such as this back from the dead, plus a chance to give young composers, such as Sjowall, a chance to display his God-given talent. His newly composed score fits every mood of the story to perfection.
A find blend of humor, drama and suspense, SOULS FOR SALE, for what it is, succeeds to be a watchable little item. One can only hope for further rebroadcasts (DVD distribution 2009 from TCM Archive) for SOULS FOR SALE to become better known today. (***)
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