'Souls for Sale': Rare Peek at Hollywood on TCM

Eleanor Boardman in Souls for Sale by Rupert Hughes

This evening, Turner Classic Movies will be showing a restored print of Souls for Sale, a 1923 dramatic comedy written and directed by Rupert Hughes (uncle of magnate Howard Hughes), who also wrote the novel on which the film is based. The restored Souls for Sale will be accompanied by a new score by Marcus Sjowal, one of TCM's Young Composers.

Souls for Sale, the story of a young woman named Remember Steddon (no kidding) who becomes a major film star, has been rarely seen in the last 80 years – and even then only in battered prints. (I had the displeasure of suffering through one such print several years ago.) Though all but forgotten today, Hughes' satirical look at the American film industry of the early 1920s is quite remarkable.

First of all, at least in its satirical first half, the film offers a jaded – and quite witty – behind-the-scenes glimpse at early Hollywood moviemaking, featuring cameos by dozens of the biggest names of the time, among them Charles Chaplin, screenwriter-producer June Mathis (after Mary Pickford, the most powerful woman in Hollywood), actresses Anita Stewart (Louis B. Mayer Productions' biggest star), Claire Windsor, Bessie Love (who starred in the first talkie to win a best picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody), Florence Vidor, and Anna Q. Nilsson, in addition to directors Fred Niblo (whose most important film was the mammoth Ben-Hur), King Vidor (at the time married to the aforementioned Florence), and Erich von Stroheim (on the set of his masterpiece, Greed).

But more than a historical curiosity, at its best Souls for Sale is proof that silent films could be as sophisticated as the wittiest of our current comedies. (And those are quite rare.) As a plus, the film boasts a charming performance by its then rising star, former Kodak model Eleanor Boardman – best known for her dramatic skills in then-husband King Vidor's 1928 social drama The Crowd. (King and Florence Vidor were divorced in 1924. Vidor married Boardman two years later. They were divorced in 1931.)

Besides Boardman, the Souls for Sale cast includes Richard Dix (nominated for a best actor Academy Award in 1930-31 for Cimarron), Mae Busch (probably best remembered for her appearances in Laurel & Hardy comedies of the 1930s), Barbara La Marr (labeled “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful”), popular leading man Frank Mayo, frequent silent villain Lew Cody, actress and socialite Aileen Pringle, and a very young William Haines (who later in the decade became one of the top box office attractions in the U.S.).

Despite its descent into melodrama in its last third, Souls for Sale is a must for those interested in both film history and entertaining filmmaking.

Note: Even though Souls for Sale was a Goldwyn Pictures production, Samuel Goldwyn was not involved in it. Goldwyn had been ousted from his own company the year before. The following year, Goldwyn Pictures would cease to exist altogether, as it joined forces with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Note Part II: Here's hoping that Marcus Sjowal's new score will do justice to Rupert Hughes' vision for Souls for Sale. Some of the young composers' scores have actually detracted from the enjoyment of the restored films shown on TCM. The 1928 Marion Davies comedy The Patsy, in particular, comes to mind. The film's humor was all but destroyed by the relentlessly inappropriate score. (I've seen The Patsy accompanied by Robert Israel's delightful score at a UCLA screening. It was a real comedy then.)

More information on Souls for Sale at the TCM website.

From the TCM schedule (EDT):

8:00 PM Souls for Sale (1923) A young woman turns Hollywood upside down in her search for stardom. Eleanor Boardman, Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr. D: Rupert Hughes. 80 million.

9:45 PM A Woman of Paris (1923) In this silent film, when a young woman thinks her fiance has jilted her, she runs off to Paris and a life of sin. Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou, Carl Miller. D: Charles Chaplin. BW 78 million.

11:15 PM Greed (1924) In this silent film, lust for gold tears apart a dentist and his wife. Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt. D: Erich von Stroheim. BW & C 239 million.

3:30 AM Souls for Sale (1923) A young woman turns Hollywood upside down in her search for stardom. Eleanor Boardman, Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr. D: Rupert Hughes. 80 million.

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