A behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood, circa 1923. Eleanor Boardman plays a kid with a dream of stardom. The biggest names in the silent film industry serve as her backdrop, everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Erich von Stroheim. The only fly in the ointment is that she kind of married a serial killer a while back. Whoopsy.
I have survived the gulags of Culver City…
Souls for Sale shares the same fate with countless other silent films. You see, when we talk about the majority of silent films being lost (that is, no copy is known to exist) what we actually mean is that they are mostly lost. One archive may hold reel 3, another has reel 7, a private collector has a 16mm print of the middle third… These assorted prints may be different cuts for different countries and different censor boards. The original intertitles may be lost. The difficulty is getting these fragments together (due to rules, regulations, conditional bequests and stubbornness) and then getting them cobbled together in a more or less cohesive manner.
The vast majority of fragmented silent films are not even in line to be reassembled. Some are too obscure to be deemed worth the effort. Some have portions that are unavailable due to access restrictions. However, a few fortunate films have been recovered this way. The previously lost 1924 version of The Sea Hawk was reassembled thanks to footage from the United States and Eastern Europe. The 1926 version of Michael Strogoff, in an epic bit of archive diving, was pasted back together from footage found across Europe, taking its runtime from a meager 40 minutes to an epic 160 minutes. Souls for Sale joined this exclusive club when it was finally stitched together and screened in 2006.
The Sea Hawk and Michael Strogoff are mega-epics with acclaimed performances and spectacle to burn. Why was this mid-budget film deemed worthy of restoration? Well, it is a look at Hollywood and the film industry from the inside. Some of the biggest names play themselves. We get to see Erich von Stroheim directing Greed, Charlie Chaplin out of makeup and in the director’s chair, and the stars definitely came out for the film.
The behind-the-scenes film is one of my favorite genres so I was quite excited to see this one restored and returned to the public eye.
The heroine of the tale is Remember Steddon (Eleanor Boardman in her fourth movie and first starring role), a respectable minister’s daughter. She has eloped with Owen Scudder (Lew Cody) but as the night approaches, her terror increases. She has no idea why she is afraid of her bridegroom but her fear is so overwhelming that she jumps from the train as it stops for water.
As it turns out, her intuition was correct. Scudder is a low rent Bluebeard. He marries women, takes them for everything they own and then strangles them. The law is after him but he has managed to evade them. Remember (who is called “Mem” by most everyone because Remember is a stupid name) escaped just in time but she is in a pickle. There is no town in sight.
Mem wanders the desert and finally collapses. Before she passes out, she sees… a sheik? Yes, she has stumbled onto a crew filming the latest tale of passion in the Sahara. We are introduced to a huge number of characters so here is a quick list:
Tom Holby (Frank Mayo): The leading man and a top star. He is also something of a player.
Frank Claymore (Richard Dix): The director, who is determined to finish his films no matter the cost.
Robina Teele (Mae Busch): The leading lady, a sweetheart on the screen and a pistol in real life.
Leva Lemaire (Barbara La Marr): The vamp, the wickedest woman on the screen but really is a sweet and gentle soul.
Komical Kale (Snitz Edwards): The comedy relief, he loves Leva from afar.
Pinkey (William Haines): The no-nonsense assistant director.
Whew! Pant, pant! That’s a big cast to get through. Anyway, they all feel sorry for Mem (well, except Robina, who is carrying a torch for Tom and doesn’t like the new rival) and patch her up. They also put her to work as an extra. Tom and Claymore immediately start fighting over her. Truth be told, they act like little boys tussling over a Hot Wheels car. Fortunately, immature seems to be Mem’s thing because she finds this charming.
Meanwhile, Scudder has evaded the police once again and finds himself in the company of Miss Tweedy (Dale Fuller), a spinster with a healthy bank balance. Scudder has her empty her account, chokes the poor woman and then hightails it to Egypt. Because… well, I have no idea.
Back in the desert, Mem turned down a job with Claymore and Co. because her father is a hellfire kinda guy and he hates motion pictures most of all. She gets a job as a waitress but it soon peters out. With respectable work hard to come by, she decides to try her luck in the movies.
Hold it! Are you seriously trying to tell me that it is easier to become a film star than a waitress? Okay then…
Anyway, after much shoe leather, Mem finally makes contact with Leva, who arranges for Claymore to give our would-be waitress a screen test. Claymore and Tom immediately resume their “it’s my Hot Wheels!” fight over Mem. She doesn’t mention that whole “married” thing.
At this point, the film turns from a weird genre mashup into a propaganda piece. Actors work hard! Harder than factory workers! They work their fingers to the bone and what do they get? Bony fingers, that’s what! Scandal? Feh! They are too tired to have scandals! Because they work hard! Gulag prisoners have nothing on film stars! Casting directors and executives taking advantages of desperate hopefuls? Ha! It’s those women forcing themselves on the poor, innocent executives with their sexy wiles. Stinking females. They oughta be ashamed. Did we mentioned how hard film stars work? Hard! Super hard!
Oh brother. Look, I understand this movie was made in the wake of the William Desmond Taylor murder, the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the drug-related death of Wallace Reid. It was meant to show that most movie people were just people. The problem is, they go too far. We are constantly reminded of how awfully hard these poor, poor people work.
The thing is, movie folk did have affairs, they did have drug issues, they did have wild parties. I don’t know how this compared to the public at large but it is ridiculous to pretend that they stayed home and played tiddlywinks (no, that is not a euphemism). And let’s not even pretend that film acting compared to ditch digging. Boys and girls did not run away from home to seek a glamorous life working the coal mines or toiling on a sewing assembly line. Certainly, movies are not easy to make but there are compensations. (This whole thing reminds me of the Northern Playwright Monty Python sketch. “And look what you’ve done to mother! She’s worn out with meeting film stars, attending premieres and giving gala luncheons…”)
Anyway, Mem gets her big break when poor Robina breaks a leg. Literally. A light falls and crushes her legs. Later, Mem almost falls a few stories when a faulty scaffolding gives way. Okay, I know movies were risky affairs but that’s just sloppiness. Claymore, fire your crew and get people who know how to make stuff.
Meanwhile, Scudder loses it all in Egypt when he runs into a con woman (Aileen Pringle), who claims to be the daughter of Lord Fryingham. Subtle. Now broke, Scudder has seen Mem on the screen and in film magazines and decides to pay his former wife a visit…
One of the biggest selling points of Souls for Sale is its insider look at the movies. We get glimpses of Erich von Stroheim directing Jean Hersholt in Greed. We get the see Zasu Pitts clowning in the cafeteria. We get to see Chaplin hard at work as a directors. We also get a look at the day to day lives of the people working on a movie set. Hospital tents, commissaries, bright lights, the pressure to perform…
The scenes involving Hollywood work very well (intertitles aside) but they weren’t enough to save the film.
Souls for Sale has a lot of fans but for the life of me, historical importance aside, I cannot see the appeal. The serial killer subplot keeps intruding at the most awkward times, causing a whiplash-inducing change of tone. For example, we get a zany scene of Mem reunited with her movie friends and then immediately a scene of Scudder strangling Miss Tweedy and then a zany scene of Mem’s screen test.
The preachy intertitles are unintentionally hilarious and the constant proclamations of “nothing to see here, move along” are undercut by the fact that our heroine is bigamously married to a man wanted for murder.
I also did not appreciate the tacky manner in which the film presented Leva’s back story. Less than three years before Souls for Sale was released, stunt pilot Ormer Locklear’s plane went down in flames as his fiancée, actress Viola Dana, watched in horror. Miss Dana’s husband, director John Collins, had died from Spanish Influenza two years before that.
Souls for Sale lifted the death of Ormer Locklear, renamed him and made him Leva’s former lover. We are even shown flashbacks of the plane going down in flames (twice!). I certainly hope that Viola Dana did not attend any screenings of this tasteless reenactment. Too soon, Souls for Sale, too soon.
*The movie really flies off the rails during the third act. (Spoiler paragraphs marked with an *) Mem is falling for Claymore but then Scudder shows up. The film has done an excellent job of establishing Scudder’s scheming nature. As he follows Miss Tweedy up to her bedroom, he checks her bank book one last time to make sure it is worth his while. But after Egypt, Scudder suddenly doesn’t give a fig for money. He is obsessed with Mem.
*Worse, director Rupert Hughes (uncle of Howard), seems to have instructed Cody to behave like a vampire with a twitch. Cody bares his teeth like a rat and walks around with one hand up, clawing at the air. It’s bizarre.
*There was a blackmail subplot waiting in the wings to be exploited but it is dropped. Scudder wants Mem back. She is his property. Mem refuses, she has worked too hard to throw her career away and she knows about his criminal past now.
*Later, Claymore pops the question to Mem but Scudder shows up with a gun and tries to shoot him. Mem and Claymore manage to overpower him but he vows to return. Mem convinces Claymore not to call the police because she fears a scandal. Honey, isn’t your life (or Claymore’s) more important than your career? Well, Claymore agrees. This is all ridiculous. Rudolph Valentino survived a bigamy scandal, I don’t see why Mem is so terrified. She could sell her story to Photoplay and be more popular than ever. (Wasn’t that the topic of the black comedy The Gazebo?)
*Then the film crew is shooting the finale for their circus film. It looks like one of those famous California hurricanes (sarcasm) is about to hit. Take down the tents? Ridiculous! Keep filming! What, the tents are on fire? Keep filming! Most of the cast is trapped inside the burning tent that has now collapsed? Keep filming! Yes, Claymore keeps his camera crew grinding away. Instead of, you know, helping to rescue people. I mean, even poor Robina has to hobble over on her crutches to try to pull Tom from the burning tent.
*This “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” thing only works if there are a) actual torpedoes or b) no real danger to anyone else. A director who risks his own life to make a movie? Well, that’s on him. A director risking other people? Not cool. And this kind of director was all too real in the silent era. It is one of the aspects of the era that I really dislike. Noah’s Ark and The Trail of ’98 left preventable deaths and injuries in their wake. I do not find such callous disregard for human life to be glamorous or commendable.
*So, as you can see, Souls for Sale has a questionable moral center. We are smugly informed that we, the viewers, are responsible for the risks that the film crews take. Hogwash! Ultimately, it is the director who is responsible for what happens on the ground and the producers who are responsible for signing off on the dangerous stuff.
One saving grace of Souls for Sale is its wonderful cast of character actors. Let’s give them a few moments in the spotlight.
Classic film fans probably know Mae Busch as one of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s sassier leading ladies. She was the (understandably) peeved wife in Sons of the Desert and had a hilarious turn as a rich black widow in the pitch dark Oliver the Eighth. With these Hal Roach produced comedies, Mae was returning to her roots.
Born in Australia, Busch entered the movies in 1912 and appeared under the Mack Sennett banner in 1915. Her beauty and sass won her attention but the most notable event of her tenure was an alleged fight with Mabel Normand over the affections of Sennett himself. Whether this is true or not, the women soon made peace, if they were ever at war at all.
Busch left Sennett and switched her attention to drama. She was directed by top talents like Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Maurice Tourneur. She shared the screen with Lon Chaney, Anita Page and Houdini. Her sauciness won her praise again and she was dubbed the Versatile Vamp.
Busch suffered from a nervous breakdown at the height of her popularity. She quickly made a comeback but never again attained the heights that she had once enjoyed. At this point, she returned to her comedy roots. It’s ironic that this step down (at the time) is what gained her lasting fame.
Busch worked right up to her death from pneumonia in 1946. Her ashes remained unclaimed until Laurel & Hardy fans heard about her plight in 1970 and arranged for a burial.
Mabel Normand was another talented comedienne who died far too young. At the time of her death in 1930 she was married to Lew Cody, Mae Busch’s frequent co-star.
Cody started in films in 1912. By 1915, the vamp fad was launching and Cody soon latched on. He played assorted cads, smoothies, charmers and seducers. In an unintentionally hilarious 1919 Photoplay article, he is dubbed a “male vampire” and delivers some nuggets of wisdom for women who hope to catch their man.
“Women today are doing their best to kill romance. They have grown too clever. Nothing kills a romance like brilliancy in a woman. She ceases to kneel gracefully. And yet, an intelligent man likes an intelligent woman. But the reason that so many intellectual men marry brainless dolls is because the clever woman flaunts her knowledge so brazenly. It doesn’t make a great deal of difference what a woman says if it isn’t humiliating to a man and she looks attractive while she says it.”
Would it be okay if I looked attractive while hitting you over the head with a croquet mallet?
The ever-idiotic Adela Rogers St. John described the male vampire and Cody thusly:
“He is a sort of chocolate-coated cave man, and after seeing Lew on his own vamping ground in screen versions from real life, a mere spectator is filled with gratitude for his creation.”
Hoo boy. Keep in mind, the man did this in Souls for Sale:
Chocolate-coated cave man indeed!
Okay, so this wasn’t exactly the finest performance of his career. In any case, he kept working steadily until his death in 1934.
Cody’s marriage to Mabel Normand is something of a cypher. I have heard it described as a practical joke, tempestuous, a refuge, never consummated… Whatever the reality, Cody and Normand remained married until she succumbed to tuberculosis.
If you have made any sort of study of silent film, chances are you have seen Snitz Edwards. The diminutive comedian appeared in such famous titles as The Thief of Bagdad, The Phantom of the Opera, Seven Chances, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Public Enemy. In the movies, strange little men are always in demand and such was the case for Edwards. A stage performer, he changed over to the movies in 1915. He was in his forties then but age was no obstacle as he was after character roles.
Just five feet tall, Edwards proved to be an ideal sidekick for bigger stars. His rubbery features photographed well and his pleasant personality ensured that his antics would remain in demand for the rest of his career. Edwards fell ill while filming The Public Enemy. It proved to be his last film. He passed away in 1937.
In an interesting footnote, two of his three daughters made their living in the movies. Cricket became a producer, Evelyn worked as a writer for RKO. The third daughter, Marian, married Rich Man, Poor Man author Irwin Shaw.
Remarkably little information about Edwards is available. My primary source was American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929.
Probably the least famous of the featured quartet, Dale Fuller had a long and solid career in the silents and talkies. While her name was never featured above the title, she had several memorable turns as a freelancer and as part of Erich von Stroheim’s stock company.
Fuller was usually cast as shrewish wives or lonely spinsters. Her small frame and plain features were made to order for these roles. Typecasting? Yes. But Fuller knew how to make the most of what she was offered. One of her finest roles was as the antagonistic sister-in-law of Mona Palma in The Canadian, an unjustly forgotten drama. Fuller’s pantomime is exquisite, her character is bitter but understandably so. If Oscars had been a thing in 1926, Fuller would have deserved one.
A California native, Fuller attended college and worked on the stage before setting her sights on the screen. She made her debut in 1915 and was soon working steadily at Keystone. Fuller went back and forth between stage and screen for the entirety of her career. After her stint at Keystone ended in 1918, she took a four year hiatus and finally returned in 1922 for a small role in Foolish Wives.
Fuller jumped from studio to studio but she tended to hover around MGM. Her credits include Lady of the Night, Ben-Hur, The King of Kings, The Cossacks and the very film featured in Souls for Sale, Greed. Her last film appearance was as an “Old Hag” in the 1935 version of A Tale of Two Cities. She retired and lived quietly until her death in 1948.
Like Snitz Edwards, not much information is available on Dale Fuller. My primary source was An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films: 1895-1930.
As you can see, Souls for Sale featured some intriguing supporting players. The leads were not exactly successful. Richard Dix’s Claymore comes off as a jerk. Mem comes off as a moron. Frank Mayo’s Tom is likable but the script takes a dislike to him and it is quickly obvious that he hasn’t a chance to win over Mem. (Could it be because the screenwriter was also the director? A bit of wish fulfillment?)
Souls for Sale is important as a historical artifact but the script is so bad that the hard work of the actors is undermined. Its preachy tone soon becomes annoying and its abrupt changes in tone are jarring. It’s worth seeing but hardly a masterpiece.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Souls for Sale has been released on DVD from Warner Archive. It features an excellent orchestral score by Swedish composer Marcus Sjöwall.
As I watched Souls for Sale, certain scenes gave me a sense of déjà vu. Where had I seen this before? Then it struck me. There was a little 1968 Soviet cartoon called Film Film Film that featured some very similar sequences.
(The DVD release for this cartoon is long out-of-print and very hard to get for less than $100.)
A humorous look at the trials and tribulations of a film crew trying to make a historical epic, the cartoon manages to both lampoon and celebrate the movie industry. And did I mention that it is silent? Yes! There is a score and sound effects but everything is conveyed by gestures and expressions. Happy me!
Fyodor Khitruk is the director. He achieved lasting fame for his brilliant re-imagining of Winnie the Pooh for Russian audiences. (Thanks to the House of Mouse’s stranglehold on copyrights for the character, we are not likely to see this superior version in wide release outside of Russia.) His animation is intriguing. It looks messy and rushed but is considerably more complicated on closer inspection. He is also a master of reaction and just enough bending of the laws of physics.
Khitruk was born in 1917, so it comes as no surprise that the film stars featured in the opening credits were the idols of his childhood. Pola Negri, Mae Murray, Buster Keaton… All set to very quirky rock music. (Hey, it was the sixties in Russia too.)
The story begins with my favorite character, the neurotic writer. He is soon joined by the pushy, pill-popping director, the buxom script girl, the eccentric set designer and more. The intrepid crew battles censorship, bad weather, good weather, missing cows and silly child performers in an effort to get their vision on the screen intact. More or less. Actually, less.
Two scenes that are very similar to Souls for Sale are the director demonstrating skipping to a little girl and real rain interfering with fake rain. It is possible that Khitruk saw Souls for Sale in his youth. Hollywood films were quite popular in Russia. Or he simply drew on similar experiences to find humor in the moviemaking process.
What results from all this is a story that is both universal in its appeal and thoroughly Russian in its morose acceptance of the inconvenience of life.
In the end, Film Film Film succeeds where Souls for Sale fails because it relies on gentle humor instead of constant proselytizing. At the end of the cartoon, we are convinced that making movies is difficult, frustrating and requires long hours of hard work. We are never told this, we come to the conclusion entirely through the actions of the characters.