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Tonight "Souls for Sale" premiered on Turner Classic Movies with a wonderful new score by Marcus Sjowall, winner of the TCM 6th Annual Young Film Composers competition.
I cannot say if this is the best available print of this long-forgotten film, but it's (relatively) clean, and the hand-tinting ranges from obvious, (in the desert scenes), to moody and evocative, (in the train sequence that opens the film and the fire later on). Its director and screenwriter, Rupert Hughes, was the uncle of Howard Hughes. He based the screenplay on his own novel, and if any of the other six films he directed are as good as this, I'd like to see them.
Eleanor Boardman was a lovely actress, whose character in "Souls for Sale" is improbably named Remember Steddon, nicknamed "Mem." Boardman was adept at both comedy and drama, and tended to "emote" far less than was the style of the era. Compare her performance with that of Barbara LaMarr in this film, who was far better known at the time. (And LaMarr is a little more restrained than usual here.) Boardman has a dream role in "Souls for Sale": she literally tumbles off a train into the midst of a big budget Hollywood production being filmed in the desert, unexpectedly becoming an actress in the process.
This gentle lampooning of the Valentino sheik pictures sets in motion a series of send-ups of various Hollywood genres of the silent era: historical and costume dramas, burlesques and action films. Boardman's parts grow steadily larger while she gains more and more confidence in herself and her talents. It's a lovely transformation to watch as she grows from a sheltered, small-town minister's daughter to a queen of the silent screen.
Along the way, Mem rubs shoulders with countless Hollywood stars of the period and at least a half-dozen directors, including Charles Chaplin (filming "A Woman of Paris") and Erich Von Stroheim, who was filming "Greed." Since its earliest days, one of Hollywood's favorite subjects has been itself. Some movies about the Dream Factory come across as heavy-handed ("The Day of the Locust"), others as cynical and knowing ("The Player"), and still others as a pleasing blend of cynicism and comedy ("Singing in the Rain"). "Souls for Sale" seems to me to have all the best elements of a Hollywood on Hollywood movie. It's funny, warm, entertaining and engaging all the way, with a breathtaking climax.
More and more silent films are lost every year. Each time I discover one as good as "Souls for Sale," I know there are probably a half a dozen more films just as good that are gone forever. Thank heaven for the painstaking work of film preservationists. As a silent film enthusiast, I am so grateful for opportunities like the one TCM viewers got this evening.
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