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On board a train en route to Los Angeles, runaway bride Remember Steddon, believing now that she married in haste, abandons her husband, Owen Scudder, not knowing at the time that Scudder had previously married and murdered solely for money. Unprepared to be on her own, Mem, as she is known to her friends, accidentally stumbles across the outdoor set of a Hollywood movie directed by Frank Claymore. Mem is welcomed onto the set by the cast and crew. But as the shooting moves on, Mem decides to pursue other avenues, as she had been taught by her conservative parents that movie acting was a disreputable occupation. But needing work, Mem decides to try her hand at being an actress. This task is easier said than done, until she runs across Claymore again, he who is determined to make her a star. As her movie stardom does indeed rise, so does the admiration of adoration of legions, including her director Claymore, and her leading man Tom Holby. A further consequence of her stardom is that ... Written by
A fascinating look at Hollywood behind the scenes, in the silent era
Movie buffs and anyone interested in Hollywood history will find much to enjoy in the silent comedy/drama Souls for Sale, that is if they can find it at all. Last time I checked, this film is not available on video or in any other home-viewable format, and may never be unless some serious restoration work takes place: the print I saw at the Museum of Modern Art last year was badly tattered in places, with a confusing turn in the plot at one point which suggested that a chunk of footage must be missing. But even allowing for its battered condition, this is an enjoyable, unusual and engaging movie which offers a priceless time trip back to 1920s Hollywood for the modern viewer. It was directed by the multi-talented Rupert Hughes, who adapted the scenario from his own novel. The story concerns a young woman named Remember Steddon (known as "Mem"), who runs away from an impulsive marriage, finds herself in the movie capital, and eventually becomes a star almost by accident. Leading lady Eleanor Boardman, perhaps best remembered for her later work in King Vidor's The Crowd, makes a charming and attractive -- if oddly named -- heroine, giving a performance that is nicely understated for the era. Her character's failed screen test is a highlight, and also demonstrates genuine acting skill on her part: it isn't easy to simulate "bad" acting so convincingly.
The tone is melodramatic one moment and comic the next, yet somehow the shifts in mood feel natural and never jarring; author Hughes' witty title cards help keep the transitions smooth. Viewers familiar with Colleen Moore's 1926 comedy Ella Cinders may notice some similarities between the two films, each of which is a rags-to-riches tale with lots of backstage atmosphere and inside jokes. However, Souls for Sale distinguishes itself with an amazing parade of star cameos featuring some of the era's top personalities. Charlie Chaplin, without his familiar make-up, can be briefly glimpsed staging a scene from his landmark feature A Woman of Paris, and Erich Von Stroheim, looking suitably grim, is seen on the set of the wedding feast from his legendary drama Greed. Meanwhile, the featured performers constitute a veritable Who's Who of prominent screen personalities of the time, including Richard Dix, Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr, and a very young William Haines, in an early role as an assistant director. Lew Cody is especially memorable as a sleazy con man who turns out to be even worse than he appears. Also noteworthy for history-minded viewers are the satirical digs at the contemporary craze for 'Sheik' movies (poor Rudolph Valentino was much-parodied during his lifetime), and several oblique but unmistakable references to the sex scandals then rocking Hollywood. The story builds to an exciting finale on the set of a circus picture, but unfortunately the print I saw was especially choppy during this climactic sequence, and the action was difficult to follow at times.
P.S. January 2006: Good news for silent film fans! A beautifully restored, newly scored print of Souls for Sale has been broadcast on TCM, giving this undeservedly forgotten movie a new lease on life. The restoration gives us an opportunity to savor the exceptional cinematography of John J. Mescall, complete with period color tinting effects, while Marcus Sjöwall's score complements and supports the action admirably. Unfortunately, there is still a portion of lost footage at a key juncture in the story (we lack the moment when Mem learns about her husband's criminal past), but the wild and woolly circus finale has been properly reconstructed, and concludes the movie on a rousing note. The newly restored version of this film is a delight, and an absolute must for viewers interested in the silent era.
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