Although it cost only $5000 to make, half coming from a silent partner, von Sternberg bought out his partner, giving him 100% profit on his 50% investment and sold 50% of the rights of "The Salvation Hunters" to Joseph M. Schenck of United Artists for $20,000. See more »
THE SALVATION HUNTERS (Josef von Sternberg, 1925) ***
One of Hollywood's most famously uncompromising directorial debuts, this immediately put Sternberg on the map; while his pictorial sense was thus evident from the start, here he had the luxury of real locations whereas he would subsequently meet the challenge of recreating a comparable atmosphere artificially i.e. within the confines of a studio-set.
The copy I acquired came with a brief 'prologue' explaining the film's history and continued relevance: how it was championed by the likes of Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks as a major artistic achievement but lambasted by others much for the same reason, that is to say, the pretentiousness of its approach to an essentially simple indeed universal theme (the pursuit of happiness). Still, the latter is punctuated throughout by unsavory but 'realistic' episodes illustrating child beating, incitement to prostitution and the suggestion of partner-swapping! Sternberg's admirably poetic scenario (he also personally operated the camera during the shoot), however, betrays this constant striving for meaning at the get-go by stating that the principal intention behind the film was not to present a typical situation but rather to "photograph a thought"! The overall effect, then, is one of keen observation relentlessly undermined by a naïve outlook (while also dramatically thin at just 60 minutes, it does incorporate a skittish fantasy depicting the protagonists enjoying the full extent of their craved-for prosperity).
The narrative takes our three protagonists (remaining nameless throughout, they symbolize Hope for all the malaises of Modern Society) from the muddy river banks, with its industrious but merciless machinery, to the no-less despairing harshness governed by poverty and unemployment in a boarding-house when the make-shift family moves to town and, finally, a stretch of open country (about to be obliterated by real estate wheeler-dealers) whose intrinsically idyllic nature does not however preclude a sudden eruption into violence. This scenery progression charts the key players' gradual transformation from so-called "Children Of The Mud" to those of The Sun (complete with Chaplinesque into-the-twilight fadeout!). Incidentally, the heroine of this one Georgia Hale would go on to star alongside "The Little Tramp" in THE GOLD RUSH (1925). She gives a strong, yet very naturalistic, performance here; leading man George K. Arthur is pretty bland in comparison nonetheless, he set up the picture with his own money and, returning to his native country of Britain years later, would produce such classic and award-winning shorts as THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD (1952) and THE BESPOKE OVERCOAT (1956)! As for Sternberg, he would himself be asked to direct a film for Chaplin (as a vehicle for his fading leading lady Edna Purviance): the result was A WOMAN OF THE SEA but, apparently unsatisfied, the producer pulled it from release after just one screening in 1926 and eventually had it destroyed (to either recover the losses or avoid paying taxes on the negative depending on the sources)!
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