How to Sell Your Soul: Must-See Long-Thought-Lost Classic Resurfaces in Restored Print

Souls for Sale Eleanor Boardman Barbara La Marr: Hollywood targeted + censorship fearsSouls for Sale with Eleanor Boardman and Barbara La Marr. Long before Hollywood became the target of relentless political attacks for being out of touch with the values of God-fearing, mom-loving, apple-pie-eating Americans, Sodom-on-the-Pacific was the favorite target of U.S. religious and “conservative” social leaders – which could have resulted in federal censorship laws spelling doom to the Los Angeles-based American film industry. Despite its titillating title, Rupert Hughes' Souls for Sale attempted to show that the answer to the question “How to sell your soul?” was not an outraged “Go Hollywood!”

How to Sell Your Soul? Turner Classic Movies presents restored version of historically significant, Hollywood-set comedy-drama 'Souls for Sale'

How to sell your soul?

Depending on your concept of soul-selling, you'll need fateful twists and turns, a pretty face, and the attentions of two influential movie men, as can be attested by prolific author-playwright-screenwriter-director Rupert Hughes' all-star, Hollywood-set, 1923 dramatic comedy Souls for Sale, to be broadcast – in restored form – twice this evening, Jan. 24, on Turner Classic Movies.

No hyperbole: this is one of the cinematic highlights of 2006 anywhere on the planet. This amusing, historically important glimpse into the American film industry of the early 1920s – a time when Hollywood and its denizens were facing a barrage of attacks for their “immoral” conduct and product – was thought lost until battered prints began popping up about two decades ago.

How to Sell Your Soul? Go Hollywood

Once again: How to sell your soul?

Back in the early 1920s, you'd be advised to set up shop in Hollywood.

In 1920, wild rumors surrounded the (officially accidental) deadly poisoning of popular actress Olive Thomas, the 25-year-old wife of Mary Pickford's troubled brother Jack Pickford. That same year, more rumors surrounded the (officially accidental) gunshot death of 27-year-old Robert Harron, known for his roles in numerous D.W. Griffith shorts and features.

In 1921, star comedian Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was put on trial for rape and manslaughter following the death of minor actress Virginia Rappe at a San Francisco party. The following year, director William Desmond Taylor was shot dead in his bungalow near downtown Los Angeles. Top stars Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter were eventually dragged into the tabloid storm that ensued.

In January 1923, handsome superstar Wallace Reid, a sort of Tom Cruise of the 1910s and early 1920s, died at age 31 while trying to kick his morphine addiction.[1]

Regenerative 'Souls for Sale'

It was at that scandal-plagued time that Rupert Hughes' lightly satirical 1922 novel Souls for Sale came out. In its first paragraph, the heroine's father, a Christian pastor, fulminates about Los Angeles, “The Spanish missionaries may have called it the City of Angels; but the moving pictures have changed its name to Los Diablos!”

But Hughes, one of Goldwyn Pictures' “Eminent Authors” (and the uncle of future movie producer/Spruce Goose pilot Howard Hughes), is eager to reassure the world that – apart from its denizens' fame, fat bank accounts, better-than-average looks, and unusual occupation – Hollywood was a town like any other.

His film adaptation fulfills that same function, chronicling the outlandish adventures of the peculiarly named Remember Steddon, a small-town young woman who, after abandoning her scuzzy husband shortly after their marriage, ends up becoming a movie star.

O Hollywood! Hollywood!

The first two-thirds of Souls for Sale pokes harmless fun at both the film business and those outraged by it. “O Hollywood! Hollywood!” rants the righteous Reverend Steddon, “Thou movie-Mammon that leadest our children astray and teachest them wickedness!”

The final – less effective – third veers into melodrama, as Remember finds herself torn between a movie actor and a movie director while her non-movie husband, who turns out to be a less-than-savory character, reenters her life.

Following the (literally) incendiary climax, social and individual equilibrium is restored. Wholesome Remember finds love and success as moviemakers go on making movies, thus bolstering Hughes' message that Los Angeles' movie-Mammonites are no more immoral or hedonistic than pig farmers, baseball players, or Christian pastors.

Eleanor Boardman: Kodak model was 1 of most accomplished silent film actressesEleanor Boardman. Regarding former Kodak model Eleanor Boardman's landing the lead role in Souls for Sale, the trade publication Motion Picture News exulted, “Miss Boardman's promotion to leading roles has been very rapid, and is due to her native gift for acting and to her beauty and charm.” Unfortunately, Boardman's film career suffered an equally rapid decline: following a trio of early talkie bombs, she was gone from motion pictures in 1931, the year she and top MGM director King Vidor were divorced.

Remembering Eleanor Boardman

Remember is played by the now largely – and unfairly – forgotten Eleanor Boardman in her first lead role. A former Kodak model and “new faces” contest winner, the talented, unassumingly pretty, 24-year-old Goldwyn Pictures contract player delivers a refreshingly naturalistic characterization as the coveted-but-virtuous Souls for Sale heroine, generally avoiding the over-the-top mannerisms that plagued most movie acting of the period.

When the Samuel Goldwyn-less Goldwyn Pictures – the independent mogul had been forced out of his own company in 1922 – merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, Boardman became one of the new studio's assets. Usually cast in modestly budgeted programmers (Sinners in SilkThe Circle, Proud Flesh), she succeeded in leaving her mark in a trio of major box office hits:

  • King Vidor's period romantic drama Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), as John Gilbert's love interest.
  • George W. Hill's blockbuster military comedy Tell It to the Marines (1926), as a Navy nurse opposite tough sergeant Lon Chaney and amorous private William Haines.
  • Vidor's working-class classic The Crowd (1928), in which Boardman, as the wife of office worker James Murray, creates one of the greatest film portrayals of the silent era.

Leaving MGM + marriage to Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast

With the studios going through difficult times during the Great Depression and after a trio of MGM bombs (Redemption, The Squaw Man, The Great Meadow), Eleanor Boardman's movie career came to an abrupt halt in 1931.

She would make one brief comeback in Argentinean-born filmmaker Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast's little-seen and little-known The Three Cornered Hat, shot in Spain and apparently released in that country in 1935.

Five years later, Boardman and d'Arrast, whose handful of big-screen credits included Laughter and Topaze, were married. The couple would remain together until his death in 1968. At age 93, Boardman died in her sleep at her Santa Barbara, California, home on Dec. 12, 1991.

'Souls for Sale' cast

Also teaching you how to sell your soul:

  • Hollywood leading man Frank Mayo (Wild OrangesThe Perfect Flapper) as the Hollywood leading man who falls in love with Remember – and who, the previous year, had been the target of a real-life bigamy investigation. (His second wife, Dagmar Godowsky, daughter of pianist Leopold Godowsky, has a cameo in Souls for Sale; her 1921 marriage to Mayo would be annulled in 1928.)
  • Future Best Actor Academy Award nominee Richard Dix (Cimarron, for the period 1930–1931) as the filmmaker who also falls under Remember's apple-pie spell.
  • Movie heel Lew Cody (Within the LawRupert of Hentzau) as Remember's heel husband.
  • Popular leading lady Mae Busch (The Devil's Passkey, Foolish Wives) as a movie star who, through a twist of fate à la 42nd Street, gives Remember her chance at stardom.
  • Three years before her death at age 29, movie vamp Barbara La Marr (The Three MusketeersTrifling Women) as a movie vamp – one who happens to be a nurturing motherly type in “real life,” giving bits of sage advice to the inexperienced Remember: “Beware of scandal, my dear” and “Don't forget that you're an actress! Your own emotions must wait!”
  • As a titled Englishwoman who outsmarts Remember's husband, actress-socialite and future James M. Cain wife Aileen Pringle – later in the decade Lew Cody's co-star in several (supposedly upscale, apparently lost) MGM comedies (e.g., Adam and EvilWickedness Preferred).
  • Future MGM star – and Eleanor Boardman's Tell It to the Marines romantic interest – William Haines (Brown of HarvardWay Out West) as an assistant director.
How to Sell Your Soul? Dump husband + go Hollywood + replace incapacitated starHow to Sell Your Soul? As seen in Souls for Sale, in case you're a Faustian complex sufferer, steps on How to Sell Your Soul include fleeing your husband, getting dehydrated, being rescued by a movie star in sheik garb, having a big-time movie director fall in love with you, and ensuring that an accident leaves a famous star incapacitated so you can smoothly step in and replace her. Not everyone was impressed with the “how to” lessons. In The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-1923, Robert E. Sherwood dismissed Souls for Sale as “a highly melodramatic story … [that] reeked with propaganda.”

Hollywood on film & star cameos

Besides its clever humor, “how to sell your soul” tips, and Eleanor Boardman's first-rate work, Souls for Sale is also notable as one of the earliest features set in movie-making Hollywood[2] – a mere decade old at the time – and for its extensive list of celebrities in cameos, among them (see full list further below):

  • Future five-time Best Director Oscar nominee King Vidor (The Champ, War and Peace, etc.), who would later direct his own Hollywood romp, Show People (1928), and his then-wife Florence Vidor (Doomsday, The Patriot). Coincidentally, King Vidor and Souls for Sale star Eleanor Boardman would become husband and wife in 1926. They were divorced in 1931.
  • Screenwriter-producer June Mathis – after Mary Pickford, the most powerful woman in Hollywood. At the time, Mathis was working on Goldwyn Pictures' planned movie version of Ben-Hur to star George Walsh, who's also seen in a cameo. (After Goldwyn became part of MGM, both Mathis and Walsh were fired from the project; Ramon Novarro ultimately played the Jewish hero.)
  • Marshall Neilan directing Claire Windsor (initially announced for the role of Remember Steddon), Raymond Griffith, and Hobart Bosworth on the set of the now-lost The Eternal Three.
  • Erich von Stroheim directing Jean Hersholt on the set of his masterpiece, Greed, which MGM would release in truncated form in 1924.
  • Charles Chaplin on the set of his only 100 percent dramatic silent feature, A Woman of Paris.

Both Greed and A Woman of Paris are also going to be shown on TCM this evening. See below.

Lastly, here's hoping that the score by Marcus Sjöwall, one of TCM's Young Composers, will do justice to Souls for Sale. However well-intentioned, the Young Composers program has been hit-and-miss. The King Vidor-directed 1928 Marion Davies comedy The Patsy, for instance, has been stuck with a woefully inappropriate new score.

An aside: another all-star, Hollywood-set 1923 release, James Cruze's Hollywood, remains lost.

Update: Since 2009, Souls for Sale has been available on DVD (made on demand) via the Warner Archive Collection.

'How to Sell Your Soul' Parts II & III: 'A Woman of Paris' & 'Greed'

Sandwiched between TCM's two Souls for Sale presentations are A Woman of Paris and Greed, two radically different movies about soul-salesmanship.

How to Sell Your Soul Part II: A Woman of Paris is a great dramatic showcase for frequent Chaplin leading lady Edna Purviance (Shoulder Arms, The Kid), who rises to the occasion in this accomplished soap opera about a small-town young thing who, after seemingly being jilted by her would-be husband, finds herself living a life of sinful Parisian abandon.

How high is the price for the young woman's soul? Lots of furs, jewels, fancy hats, and Latin Quarter parties. How high is her share of the closing costs? She must shack up with yucky Adolphe Menjou.

How to Sell Your Soul Part III: One of the greatest films of the silent era, this adaptation of Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague offers an unflinching portrayal of the manifold dark sides of human nature, with early talkie era comedienne ZaSu Pitts simply superb as one of the personifications of the titular deadly sin.

TCM's “reconstructed” version of Greed includes photographs in place of now-lost scenes.

How to sell your soul at the movies: TCM Jan. 24 evening schedule

8:00 PM Souls for Sale (1923). Cast: Eleanor Boardman. Frank Mayo. Richard Dix. Mae Busch. Barbara La Marr. Lew Cody. Aileen Pringle. Edith Yorke. Forrest Robinson. Snitz Edwards. William Haines. Dale Fuller. Eve Southern. William Orlamond.
Cameos: Kathlyn Williams. Claire Windsor. Elliott Dexter. Anita Stewart. Florence Vidor. George Walsh. Erich von Stroheim. Blanche Sweet.
Elaine Hammerstein. Alice Lake. Anna Q. Nilsson. ZaSu Pitts. Bessie Love. Barbara Bedford. Jean Hersholt. King Vidor. Milton Sills. Charles Chaplin.
Patsy Ruth Miller. Hobart Bosworth. Raymond Griffith. June Mathis. Dagmar Godowsky. Marshall Neilan. Mabel Ballin. Fred Niblo. Hugo Ballin.
Johnnie Walker. Robert Edeson. Claude Gillingwater. T. Roy Barnes. William H. Crane. John St. Polis. Chester Conklin.
Dir.: Rupert Hughes. B&W. 80 min.

9:45 PM A Woman of Paris (1923). Cast: Edna Purviance. Adolphe Menjou. Carl Miller. Dir.: Charles Chaplin. B&W. 78 min.

11:15 PM Greed (1924). Cast: Gibson Gowland. ZaSu Pitts. Jean Hersholt. Dir.: Erich von Stroheim. B&W & Color. 239 min.

3:30 AM Souls for Sale rerun.

Wallace Reid: Tom Cruise-like superstar death fueled outrage scandal-plagued HollywoodWallace Reid. One of the most popular early film stars, Wallace Reid (The Roaring RoadThe Affairs of AnatolThe Ghost Breaker) is now best remembered for his death, which became one more scandal in the scandal-plagued Hollywood of the early 1920s. Not long before Reid's passing, former Republican National Committee Chairman and U.S. Postmaster General Will H. Hays was appointed to the presidency of the recently founded Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, whose goal was to protect and to serve the interests of the captains of the American film industry.

Wallace Reid & 'Human Wreckage'

[1] Following a train accident during the filming of James Cruze's The Valley of the Giants (1919), Wallace Reid began suffering from severe headaches. Morphine was reportedly prescribed as a painkiller.

At the time of his death, Reid was married to actress Dorothy Davenport, who, billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid, would co-produce and star in the now-lost 1923 anti-drug drama Human Wreckage, directed by John Griffith Wray, and featuring Bessie Love, and on-screen dope addicts James Kirkwood and George Hackathorne.

'The Crowd': Modest profits

[2] Despite its seemingly modest settings, The Crowd, in production for more than three months, was a costly endeavor: $551,000 to be exact. As a result, despite $996,000 in worldwide (net) revenues for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, profits were a mere $69,000 (approx. $810,000 in 2006).

That's quite a bit less than the profits for Eleanor Boardman programmers such as Sinners in Silk (budget: $126,000; profits: $96,000), Wife of the Centaur (budget: $116,000; profits: $104,000); and The Silent Accuser (budget: $101,000; profits: $116,000).

That helps to explain why The Crowd is frequently – and incorrectly – referred to as a money-loser for MGM.

Turner Classic Movies website.

Souls for Sale cast info via the IMDb.

The Crowd and other financial info via the Eddie Mannix Ledger found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library.

Eleanor Boardman and Barbara La Marr Souls for Sale image via the TCM website.

“How to Sell Your Soul: Must-See Long-Thought-Lost Classic Resurfaces in Restored Print” last updated in August 2018.

How to Sell Your Soul: Must-See Long-Thought-Lost Classic Resurfaces in Restored Print © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
Text NOT to be reproduced without prior written consent.

Leave a comment about 'How to Sell Your Soul: Must-See Long-Thought-Lost Classic Resurfaces in Restored Print'

NOTE: *Thoughtfulness* and *at least a modicum of sanity* are imperative. Abusive/bigoted, trollish/inflammatory, baseless (spreading misinformation, whether intentionally or not), spammy, and/or just plain deranged comments will be zapped. Links found in comments will generally be deleted.