April 9, 2015
Souls for Sale – US, 1923
Toward the beginning of Rupert Hughes’ Souls for Sale, the camera lingers on a wedding ring. This is important, for in 1923, a wedding ring carried with it certain connotations that it may not these days. To people at that time, it could indicate such divergent ideas as security, innocence, and decency. Respectable women, it was said, married; to do otherwise could be scandalous. In the film, the wedding ring belongs to a young woman named Remember Steddon (Eleanor Boardman), whom we learn from the intertitles has just married a man named Owen Scudder (Lew Cody). When we see them, they are on a train, presumably on their honeymoon. Thus, the ring should bring her great happiness, and yet Remember, or Mem as she is referred to for the rest of the film, seems to regard it as a chain. Sensing this, Owen lowers his head and kisses her hand softly, and for a moment, Mem is calm. Almost immediately though the fear returns to her face and eyes, so Owen tries the same tactic again. Only this time, Mem yanks her hand from him and recoils from his embrace.
It is tempting to see this act as Mem’s reclamation of her freedom. After all, the film was made just four years after the passage of women’s suffrage, and Mem’s subsequent act is to sneak off the train when it comes to a brief stop. That may be reading too much into it, though. In fact, fleeing the train is an act that puts her in great peril, an observation Hughes conveys when he shoots Mem in front of an isolated grave and further reinforces with his next shot, a wide pan of the harsh dry desert landscape surrounding her. There really is no place for her to go. Only the discovery of railroad tracks offers her any hope of salvation. Later an exhausted and dehydrated Mem finds herself looking up at a sheik riding a camel in the middle of a U.S. desert. The sheik dismounts and runs to her rescue, eventually giving her water from the canteen and offering her his assistance. It all seems so cinematic. In fact, all that’s missing are the words, “My hero!”
It will come as no surprise that the man is not a sheik. As luck would have it, he is an actor, and not just any actor, mind you. This one is Tom Holby (Frank Mayo ), one of the most famous actors in Hollywood, and he is soon assisted by Frank Claymore (Richard Dix), one of the biggest directors working in movies. When he asks her name, he is told, “Remember Steddon.” His response is as cliché as they come: “I always will.”
It isn’t hard to guess where the film goes from here. Hollywood will beckon eventually, and with contacts such as Holby and Claymore, her pathway to stardom should be all but guaranteed. Yet, one of the great things about the film is how long it takes to get to this point. The film is intent on showing viewers just how many people wanted to break into Hollywood and just how hard it was to accomplish this. This is a time when breaking in meant getting signed by a company, starting small, and eventually, with a lot of luck, rising from supporting to leading roles. Many didn’t even make it in the door. In one scene, we see a parade of men trying their best to impress a studio agent; we also see a few women adopt flirtatious attitudes in the hopes of gaining the favor of male studio agents – “selling their souls,” as the film describes it. In this film, these efforts are always unsuccessful; it seems that Hollywood’s “honest” depiction of itself only went so far.
I enjoyed this part of the film a great deal, for having once been interested in acting as a career, I remember pre-audition nervousness and walking out of an audition knowing I had blown it. And I could empathize with Mem as she watched her screen test. After all, actors can be their worst critic. With each false note and forced mannerism, her confidence seems to fall. Luckily, her tears lead her supporters to notice something: Perhaps she can do drama!
Hollywood went on to produce other movies with similar storylines. The A Star is Born films, Singing In The Rain, and The Artist come to mind, yet this seems to have been the first of them, and it was made at a time when Hollywood was not thought of very highly. The character of Reverend John Steddon (Forrest Robinson), Mem’s father, exemplifies this, and in an early scene he rails against Hollywood for leading the countries children away from tradition and into sin. While his perception is not supported by the friendly people that Mem encounters along the path to stardom, Hollywood also does not escape censure. It is depicted as being unsteady, irregular, and potentially hazardous. In what other industry would people have to work late into the evening as a deadly storm approaches?
Interestingly, the film does not abandon Owen Scudder, and this creates a great amount of intrigue. Just who is he, and why did he marry Mem? For that matter, why doesn’t he alert authorities when he discovers her missing? Finding out the answers to those questions is one of the joys of the film, and the more that is revealed, the more potential there is for tragedy later on. The problem with the extension of this storyline, however, is that is eats away a great deal of screen time, screen time which could have been used to further explore the love that blossoms between Mem and both Tom and Frank. Instead, viewers are just told they both love her and have to take it as fact.
The film includes a number of interesting cameos. Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin appear briefly in the film, and throughout the film, there are numerous appearances and references to other 1920’s film stars. I could only recognize a few of the names, but audiences back then would probably have been tickled pink at seeing so many famous people in one film.
Unfortunately, Souls on Board is saddled by a rather convoluted ending, one that can only be described as extremely “Hollywood.” However, even in these stereotypically chaotic moments, there are still glimpses into, and perhaps critiques of, Hollywood itself. Camera roll as people run for their lives, and the finished product seems to matter more to some of the characters than any lives that are lost in the process. Perhaps the message is that the show does indeed go on regardless. (on DVD as part of Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection)
3 and a half stars