Distributed by Goldwyn Pictures
Directed by Rupert Hughes
Cast: Eleanor Boardman (Remember Steddon), Richard Dix (Frank Claymore), Frank Mayo (Tom Holby), Lew Cody (Owen Scudder), Mae Busch (Robina Teele), Barbara LaMarr (Leva Lemaire), Snitz Edwards (Komical Kale), Forrest Robinson (Rev. John Steddon), Edith Yorke (Mrs. Steddon), Dale Fuller (Abigail Tweedy), Aileen Pringle (Lady Jane), William Orlamond (Lord Fryingham), Eve Southern (Velma Slade, an aspiring actress), William Haines (Pinky, the assistant director)
No, you're not being asked to remember anything - that's the heroine's name - and one you WILL remember! Why Rupert Hughes chose this name for the heroine of his magazine story is unknown, but it is appealing and memorable - and somewhat charming in its shortened form, Mem, as she is called throughout the film.
It seems to fit Eleanor Boardman, too, who made this entertaining ode to Hollywood's virtue rather early on in her career. In the early 1920's, Rupert Hughes, a highly respected playwright, novelist and historian, was "a one-man powerhouse at the Goldwyn lot" (1) producing, writing and directing. She was being groomed for stardom at the Goldwyn studio when Hughes noticed her in a secondary role in "The Stranger's Banquet" (1922) and thought her perfect for the role of Remember Steddon, which she was!
It's a great story about a small-town girl who unwittingly marries a crook and murderer, runs away from him and ends up being rescued by a film company out on location. The director Frank Claymore (Richard Dix) and the leading man, Tom Holby (Frank Mayo) both take a liking to her, and she soon becomes a star. The husband from whom she ran away, Owen Scudder (Lew Cody) reads about her in a movie magazine and finds her in Hollywood. Throughout the story she constantly hears the admonition that "a scandal" or "a bad marriage" are the two most damaging things to an actor's or actress's career, so, of course, she is constantly worried that Scudder may find her. Naturally, she keeps her marriage a secret.
The film is filled with stars - literally! The main cast is a who's who of some of the most memorable stars of the time - Richard Dix, Frank Mayo, Barbara La Marr, Mae Busch, Lew Cody, William Haines, and Aileen Pringle. Since this is a film about the film colony, Goldwyn and Hughes made sure there were many other "big" names that made cameo appearances - Charlie Chaplin, Erich Von Stroheim, Jean Hersholt, Fred Niblo, Zasu Pitts, T. Roy Barnes, Kathlyn Williams, June Mathis, Elliott Dexter, Barbara Bedford, John Sainpolis, Chester Conklin, Marshall Neilan, Claire Windsor, Hobart Bosworth, Raymond Griffith and others. Of course, these cameos are incidental to the storyline and are worked into the film, for example, by having Mem's parents stumble wrongly onto a set where Marshall Neilan is directing -- or Mem eating in the commissary where several of these stars are gathered. Nevertheless, it adds a level of realism and charm to the film - and certainly must have added box office value to the production at the time of its release.
And although the story of Remember Steddon certainly is strong enough to stand on its own, Hughes wrote a narrative that is unadulterated propaganda for the movie colony - most appropriately coming on the heels of both the Arbuckle scandal and William Desmond Taylor's murder - both of which occurred within the two years prior to this movie's release in 1923. As Harrison's Reports noted, "But no one either will deny that it is propaganda, pure and simple. . . The picture has been produced for the purpose of acquainting the people at large with the fact that Hollywood is not a hell-hole, but a respectable place, that the actors, who live and work there, are just as good as any people living in the United States, that there is no more vice, less in fact, in that city, than there is in any other city, and that if there is any vice and crime, this is brought in it from the outside." (2)
The intertitles sermonize about the hard-working, misunderstood people who make the movies and paint a picture of people who work long hours, many times at their own peril, to bring quality entertainment to moviegoers around the world. For example, the intertitle introducing Mem's arrival in Hollywood to seek work - "Hollywood, ridiculously abused and caricatured, seemed to Mem a paradise of homes and gardens and mountain vistas of the sea."
The rousing climax does, admittedly, portray dangers and hardships very well for the movie-makers - the real cold in which this sequence was filmed being readily apparent by the actors' "steamy" breath - in addition to the drenching rain (most certainly by hoses, but nonetheless chilling on this cold night) and the burning of the circus tent. We are introduced to this segment with, "To make their faces and bodies and souls interesting to the workaday world that buys them by the yards, the toilers of the screen endure every hardship, every hazard, night and day."
Even the closing intertitle leaves us with a short homily. "They are lonely players, after all; but they mean well and work hard, spinning pictures for the amusement of strangers. And they can never know until it is too late to change whether their toil will win them censure or applause.
The "casting couch" was well-known by this time in the evolution of the movies, as portrayed in one sequence. Hughes addresses the practice with the beautiful Eve Southern as an aspiring actress desperate for work. We see a clerk? (his title is never revealed) who sits behind a cage (resembling a teller in a bank) and screens applicants before deciding if they should be sent on to the casting director - everything from toothless old men to beautiful young girls.
Southern's character earns her way into the casting director's office by batting her eyes and flirting with this clerk. In an attempt to get a part in the new film, she takes the casting director's hand and rubs it against her face. "Say, are you trying to vamp me?" the he asks sternly. Southern replies, "I must have work. I know that I must pay 'the price'." He tells her, "You poor simp! Selling yourself to me wouldn't sell you to the director or the producer. It's the public you've got to sell yourself to - not to us!" Thus, movie audiences were to see both the desperation of young girls in Hollywood and the virtue of the people who work there, such as this casting director, who supposedly would not take advantage of such a situation.
There are other instances of this type of "propaganda," too, but, that aside, "Souls for Sale" is well-made, has a story that will capture your interest for the full 90 minutes, provides us a perfectly despicable villain, and gives us a leading character with whom we sympathize, agonize, cheer on, and fall in love with - all with a dash of humor thrown in very subtlely and appropriately.
One example of a fine bit of surprise humor occurs when Mem's parents come to visit her on an indoor stage where a trapeze has been set up. We are shown Mem in her skimpy outfit (which can best be described as a tutu) high on an acrobat's swing. Her parents are told that their daughter is on the trapeze, and, of course, they flinch . . . but even more so when they look up and see what appears to be Mem falling into the net below, then grasping the side of the net and doing a flip to the floor. This figure comes over toward the parents but with back turned. The father grabs the figure - dressed in tutu-like costume - by the shoulder hoping to swing his daughter around and give her a kiss. As he is within an inch of planting a kiss on the face, the stuntman strips off his wig, looks at the old man incredulously and says, "Say! What's the matter with choo?" - then backs up slowly watching with eyes wide as if he should be on his guard for another unwelcome advance.
As to the players, we must give the second greatest kudos (second to Boardman, that is) to Lew Cody, the ever dependable bad guy who was perfectly cast as the creepy Owen Scudder. Whether by direction from Hughes or of his own making, Cody uses a signature mannerism for Scudder throughout the film that enhances the character's "creepiness" intensely. With a limp-wristed gesture, he brushes across is mustache quickly as he is deep in thought. Waiting for Mem to turn around and discover him in her bedroom, he lifts the limp wrist to the side of his face, then to his ear and rubs like an animal ready to pounce. As he surreptitiously watches Mem and Claymore embrace in the garden, he lifts a limp-wristed hand to about chin level, moves his fingers as if clawing at something, then wipes his hand on his coat lapel, imaginarily removing whatever it is he was clawing at. This eerie behavior adds to the anxiousness we have for Mem's safety.
Cody's character is a complex one, too, and inconsistent, as well. His livelihood is marrying - or pretending to marry - women, then killing them for their insurance and/or bank accounts. We have no indication that Mem had either of these, so why he married her is somewhat of a puzzle. As the picture progresses, he professes love for her, but we feel it is similar to the love (or obsession) of a "stalker." When he confronts her in her bedroom one night after a long absence and she has become a star, he appears to be on the verge of choking her - as he has done his previous victims. But, suddenly, he kisses her neck vowing, "I love you! I love you!" Of course, Mem is repulsed and threatens to drive a letter opener into her heart if he doesn't leave. At this, he becomes almost hysterical. "Don't! I've killed other women, but I can't bear to see you die!" - and he leaves, although he vows to be close by, watching her with these other men.
At the end of the story, he is killed by jumping in front of a wind machine to save Mem from getting struck by the furiously spinning blades of the dangerous machine - although he is the one who started the machine and was driving it toward Claymore to kill him. "Souls for Sale" weakens at this point as, after creating such a despicable and somewhat mentally disturbed character, Hughes seems to be asking us to have sympathy for Scudder because he saved Mem from the wind machine. Scudder is dying in Mem's arms and says, "I was never right, head or heart . . . but I did one thing right for you. You were never really my wife. Don't tell. I won't." And we are supposed to see the fact that he never was truly married to Mem as a favor?? We must remember, until Mem escaped from the train on which they were spending their wedding night, he certainly expected all of the rights and privileges of a husband - and heaven only knows what his eventual intentions for her were! Hughes goes so far as to have Dix's character, the director Claymore, tell a worker to "Go take care of the poor devil who saved Mem's life." It's a little much to expect the viewer to spend 85 minutes hating the bad guy and then feel sympathy for him simply because his plan to murder Claymore backfired and he accidentally backed into the propeller trying to stop Mem.
Scudder's M.O. (modus operandi for those of you who don't watch cop shows) is displayed vividly after he escapes from the cops in handcuffs earlier in the narrative. Scudder happens upon the home of a spinster, Abigail Tweedy (very capably played by Dale Fuller), living by herself and playing the piano. He covers the handcuffs with his hat. When the hat falls, she recoils. He begins to explain. An intertitle notes, "Too bad we couldn't hear the story he told; it must have been a good one, for -" and, of course, we see her rubbing his hand in sympathy. When he kisses her hand, Miss Tweedy's eyes roll back in ecstasy. "You pore victim of humin injustice," she laments. While she goes to get a file, he notices her bank book on the table and takes a look. Suddenly he is interested in this woman. When she returns, she works and works until she had filed through the cuffs. She collapses in his arms. When he starts to leave, she begs him to stay - which is exactly what he wanted all along.
Next we see Scudder and Miss Tweedy about to leave on their honeymoon. An intertitle tells us he convinces her to take all of her money out of her bank account before they leave. He chokes her and leaves her for dead. To relieve a little of the brutality of this terrible act, we are later shown Miss Tweedy playing her piano but with a bandage of some sort around her neck. This is the type of villain we see Scudder characterized as in the film - a level of villainy, as noted earlier, that is difficult to forgive on the basis of one good deed at the end.
For an early starring role, Boardman was given a broad range of acting opportunities and certainly deserves top credit for the success of this film. Outside of Cody, the many other very popular and capable actors and actresses are really only minor support for Boardman.
For example, on her wedding night on the observation deck of the train, Scudder tries to become romantic with Mem as a small group plays a ukulele and sings beside them. Boardman doesn't exaggerate her revulsion, but, instead, stares almost blankly at this man she doesn't really know or trust, and, when he kisses her hand, she pulls it away quickly. When the singers leave and Scudder goes back inside for a moment, she sees her chance to escape. The fear, yet anxiousness on her face if very evident because the train is moving too fast, but she must leave. When it stops to take on water on a siding, she leaps off - fearful of the unknown into which she is leaping, yet more fearful of this man in whom she discerns a danger.
Sitting at the base of the water tank, she realizes there is nothing she can do in the darkness, so she waits. The next morning she walks until she is dehydrated, exhausted and ready to collapse. She falls to the ground - again with Boardman giving a convincing performance - restrained and believable. When Tom Holby, dressed as a Bedouin, finds her, she ravishes the canteen, eyes rolling back in her head at the relief she has found.
The scene in her bedroom when she returns and finds Scudder sitting on her bed - his return being the thing she has feared for so long - we feel Mem's fear and never once see Boardman overplay the part - even when she holds the letter opener against the wall and leans forward ready to plunge it into her heart if Scudder approaches her. Certainly this is melodramatic, but Boardman keeps it less so, but no less intense.
One of her best scenes is in the projection room. She has just been taken on by Claymore in his company, and he is trying to find a part for her. He tries her at comedy, and when she sees the rushes, she breaks down in tears realizing how ridiculous she looks. She is broke, alone and without any place to go - and now she realizes her chance at an acting job is lost. Boardman has us sympathizing with the pitiable Mem as she sobs with her face in her hands and hair falling out of place around her. We want so badly for her to get the part, but even we have to admit the rushes of her are awful. Variety said of her performance, " . . . after this picture, the name of Eleanor Boardman is going to mean a lot on the screen and in the box office, for if there ever was a screen find, she is one." (3)
Richard Dix, as the director, and Frank Mayo, as the handsome leading man, both vie for Mem's affections, Holby (Mayo) with more forthrightness than Claymore (Dix), who is reserved in his approach and appears to be the one who is more interested in her welfare than a romantic attachment. Of course, it is Claymore who wins her in the end. But, that is OK with us, because the company's first leading lady, Robina Teele (Mae Busch) has been in love with Holby for a long time. As the story closes, they are happily reunited. Of course all of these - Dix, Mayo and Busch - had long, successful careers in the film business.
Barbara La Marr plays a rare "good girl" part. She is probably Mem's biggest supporter urging Claymore to give this new girl a chance in his film. She also has little screen time and little to do with the plot, although there is a minor throw-away sub-story of the less than handsome little clown Komical Kale, played by Snitz Edwards, being desperately in love with her. She, however, cannot love anyone since her greatest love died, a stunt pilot who went down in a fiery crash. Another very recognizable name, William Haines, was not so recognizable in 1923. He portrays an assistant director and is only in a few brief scenes in the film - with real stardom at MGM being yet a few years away for him.
"Souls for Sale" was a moneymaker for Goldwyn, and critics were universally excited about the film. The New York Times called it "entertaining" in spite of some "impossible and exaggerated situations." The reviewer added, "An impressive part of the production is the burning of the great circus tent which is done with . . . realism. . . There are some bright titles in the production and very good ideas." (4) Variety gushed, "A big picture. It is big in a great many ways and certain to be big at the box office. It is going to have an unusual attraction for the average film fan. . . In production the picture has everything that could be asked for. It's final big punch is the wrecking by fire and storm of the big top in which a picture of circus life is being enacted. That furnishes about as much thrill as anyone could want." (5) Harrison's Reports said, "No one will dispute the fact that there is much entertainment in 'Souls for Sale.' There is human interest all the way through, many thrilling situations, and the action fast from the beginning to the end."(6) Although not forthcoming with the praise of the previously mentioned publications, Photoplay, nevertheless, chose it as one of the six best for the month in their June 1923 issue noting, " . . . it will fascinate those who have longed to visit a studio in operation - and, we suspect, their name is legion. . . The action is loose, the story reeks with heavy villainy, and the acting is never impressive - but the background of studio life puts it over." (7)
The print reviewed here is a production of Turner Classic
Movies, the DVD version being offered through Warner Archives
(wbshop.com). The print is not flawless, showing some scratches
and even some quick "jumps" that are likely not due
to poor editing but rather the condition of the surviving print.
However, according to the length listed in the American Film Institute's
Catalog of Feature Films, this print appears to be essentially
complete. The overall visual quality of the film, however, is
very good with what appear to be original tints. This print apparently
came from a foreign archive since it is obvious the intertitles
are not original. One scene appears to be out of sequence. Mem's
parents are walking through the studio and accidentally wander
onto a set where Marshall Neilan is directing a movie. They explain
that they are looking for their daughter, Remember Steddon, and
he directs them to the appropriate stage. However, the previous
scene was of the elderly couple visiting Mem's set. Wonder why
no one caught that? At any rate, the score by Marcus Sjowall is
superb - a full orchestration that adds much to the enjoyment
of the film. "Souls for Sale" is another one of those
films that deserves more recognition than it has received over
1. "Eleanor Boardman." Films in Review. December 1973.
2. "Souls for Sale" review. Harrison's Reports. April 7, 1923.
3. "Souls for Sale" review. Variety. March 29, 1923.
4. "Souls for Sale" review. The New York Times. April 9, 1923.
6. Harrison's Reports.
7. "Souls for Sale" review. Photoplay. June 1923.
Copyright 2012 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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