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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 UCLA archives have a restored print of this film; they seem to have put more effort into it than the original director did.
Josef von Sternberg was an extremely pretentious man (the "von" was an affectation, and in his autobiography he lied about his reasons for using it), but he was also an exceedingly talented director. "The Salvation Hunters" was his directorial debut, filmed on a tiny budget as a showcase for his pictorial talents. Shortly after the formation of United Artists, three of its shareholders - Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford - attended a screening of "The Salvation Hunters" and were impressed enough to bankroll this film for general release. This was during the period when Gilbert Seldes and other highbrow critics were trumpeting Chaplin as an intellectual, so (purely on Chaplin's endorsement) "The Salvation Hunters" got a lot of highbrow attention which it didn't deserve. After the film flopped, Chaplin claimed that he had deliberately praised a bad movie just to fool all the critics. Sure, Charlie.
"The Salvation Hunters" is a SLOW film, very depressing, about a bunch of people who live in shanties in the California mud flats and have almost nothing to eat. There are many, many, MANY shots of a steam-dredger, scooping up gollops of mud, and moving them from one place to another. This is meant to be deeply symbolic of life's utter hopelessness, boo-hoo. In the movie's intertitles, all the characters in this melodrama are given allegorical names: The Boy, The Girl, The Child, The Brute. This practice was fairly common in silent days, but in "The Salvation Hunters" it's worse than usual. Eventually the Boy has to stand up to the Brute. Guess who wins.
George K. Arthur gives a fairish performance as the Boy. The Scottish-born Arthur later attained a measure of stardom in the late silent-film era, notably as one half of a comedy team opposite Karl Dane. When talkies arrived, George K. Arthur's Aberdonian accent limited his range of roles, and he moved into subsidiary parts and production work.
The depiction of poverty in "The Salvation Hunters" is so inept as to be laughable. In one scene, three people attempt to make a dinner out of one stick of chewing-gum! This is the sort of thing that Chaplin lampooned so well in "The Gold Rush". Both of these films have the same leading lady: Georgia Hale. She gives an inert performance in "The Salvation Hunters", but her good looks probably inspired Chaplin to cast her in "The Gold Rush", in which she gave a much better performance. It doesn't help "The Salvation Hunters" that all of the actors look too well-fed to be playing people on the brink of starvation. Otto Matieson acts like a walking statue: maybe he thought he was performing in a "Golem" movie.
Some of the frame compositions in "The Salvation Hunters" are excellent, and the film has some interest as early evidence of von Sternberg's great talent. But this movie is slow, slow, SLOW. I could chop 25 minutes out of this film without losing any of the story. I'll rate 2 points out of 10 for "The Salvation Hunters", mostly for Arthur's performance which shows some evidence of his acting ability.
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