Souls For Sale (1923)
Directed by Rupert Hughes
90 min.; U.S.A.; Black and White (tinted); Silent
"Are you real or a mirage?" Mem Steddon (Eleanor Boardman) asks The Sheik (Frank Mayo) who rescues her in Souls For Sale. "Neither," he replies. "I'm an actor."
There were some fine films released in the U.S. in 1923. The Covered Wagon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Safety Last are among the best. The first because it reestablished the western as a popular genre, the second because Lon Chaney’s performance is outstanding and the scale of the production is impressive, and the latter because Harold Lloyd goes to extreme lengths just to make us laugh. Although Rupert Hughes’ Souls For Sale (1923) can’t compete with the excellence of these movies it cannot be overlooked because it may tell us more about film history than anything else released that year.
Souls For Sale strongly mixes fantasy with reality in an attempt to make us forget that we’re watching a production that’s pure make-believe. Just as Remember Steddon (Eleanor Boardman) rises from obscurity to stardom through hard work and determination, so Goldwyn press releases tell us that Boardman had progressed from photographer’s model to feature film star in just two short years. After Steddon fails to charm a jaded casting director, and suffers through an embarrassingly awful screen test, she realizes how hard it will be to become a movie star. Lucky for her a director (Richard Dix) decides to take her under his wing.
It's all make-believe: Eleanor Boardman as fictitious performer Mem Steddon meets real actor Gibson Gowland playing Macteague on the set of Greed in the film Souls For Sale.
As Steddon climbs the ladder of success Hughes uncovers the craft of motion picture making as perhaps never before in a feature film: cameras and lighting equipment, sets crowded with extras and crew, studio cafeterias loaded with famous performers, dangerous stunts, animal wranglers, and the tough conditions actors must suffer through to make our favorite movies. More levels of make-believe reality are layered on as we see Charlie Chaplin and Erich Von Stroheim appear to be directing on their respective sets (for A Woman of Paris (1923) and Greed (1924)), and 35 other stars hard at work.
All of this behind-the-scenes stuff is much more fascinating than a weak sub-plot about Steddon's cruel Bluebeard of a husband (Lew Cody) which annoyingly intrudes on Hughes' faux-exposé. The director finally brings everything together in a thrilling melodramatic climax that sees a real (make-believe) hurricane wreck a (real) make-believe storm. In the end Hughes seeks to resolve both storylines and convince us of the moral integrity of those hardworking people who make movies at the same time.
There are a lot of (not very) persuasive arguments in this film designed to defend Hollywood from critics and reformers. In some ways Hughes' efforts to defend the movie metropolis with Souls For Sale reflects the work of the MPPDA, established a year earlier by industry leaders to respond to criticism and remove the taint of scandal threatening the American film industry. Hughes (who also wrote the original story published in Red Book Magazine, Sep-Dec 1921) tries hard to convince his audience that the studios are made up of good people who sacrifice a lot and work “factory hard” just to entertain us.
Chaplin playing "Chaplin" checks the shot on his "set" on the set of Souls For Sale.
Despite some successes at mixing fantasy and reality, and weaving the craft of filmmaking into the narrative, Souls is not a great film. The New York Times called it “hokum” (I love that word) and complained about the fact that no one Sells a Soul in the picture at all (this is true, though one hopeful, Miss Slade (Eve Southern), gives it a shot). Hughes even defangs screen vamps when “the wickedest woman in pictures” (Barbara La Marr) transforms into the sweetest woman in showbiz as soon as the camera is turned off. However, as a history the film is an overwhelmingly rich opportunity to get a sense of the time and place in which it was made. It reveals not only what movie sets looked like outside of the frame, and what jobs were performed by directors, assistant directors, cinematographers, electricians, and other members of the crew (or more correctly what Hughes and company want us to believe that sets and jobs look like), but also answers the question that apparently was on every moviegoer's mind in 1923: what’s Hollywood really like? Is it a scandalous playground of Jazz Age debauchery or a community of hardworking people doing their best to keep the rest of us entertained? Perhaps the truth is a bit of both but Hughes only argues for the latter.
Did I write above that Souls For Sale reveals more about 1923 than anything else released that year? Well...there is another film, Soul’s direct competition as a matter of fact, that also seeks to expose the truth about America’s filmmaking capital. It's titled Hollywood (1923), and it made the New York Times’ ten best films list for that year. Unfortunately, it's a lost film today so for a glimpse of what Hollywood looked like in the 1920s, or at least what Hollywood wants us to think it looked like in the 1920s, we’ll have to settle for Souls For Sale.