03 May 2010

Souls for Sale (1923)

I recently watched Souls for Sale for the second time. Many of you might have seen it as well; it was featured quite recently on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights, as it has been before. By and large, it's an enjoyable picture about the unlikely ascent to motion picture stardom of Remember Steddon (played by Eleanor Boardman). Mem -- as she is known to intimates and confidantes -- is married to the ever-so-sketchy Owen Scudder (Lew Cody), but something about her new husband does not sit well with her, so she escapes from him by hopping off a train and disappearing into the desert of Southern California. As it turns out, Mem's suspicions well-founded -- we learn early on that Scudder (isn' that a great name for a villain?) has a history of marrying women and later murdering them for insurance money (I'm not sure how that's supposed to work out legally, but such details are apparently beside the point).

Whilst wandering in the desert, Mem happens across a film crew doing location shots for an Arab Nomad film (such films being very much en vogue in the wake of Rudy Valentino's The Sheik) in which she is given a bit part. The obligatory love triangle ensues when Mem catches the attention of both director Frank Claymore (Richard Dix) and the matinee idol leading man Tom Holby (Frank Mayo). Although initially hesitant to pursue a life in pictures -- in an earlier scene, we see Mem's father, a preacher, denounce Hollywood as a new Babylon -- Mem eventually finds her way to tinsel town, where she is reunited with the film crew after unsuccessfully attempting to find work on her own.

Scudder, meanwhile, having been given the slip by Mem, embarks on his own series of misadventures. Scudder evades the police, swindles the mousy and lovelorn Abigail Tweedy out her savings and winds up in Egypt, where he is bamboozled by a pair of British con artists. Scudder learns of Mem's success in pictures when he sees her in film in an Egyptian cinema, and heads back to the United States to pay his wife a visit. Once in Hollywood, Scudder blackmails Mem by threatening to reveal that she is his wife -- a scandal that would bring her career crashing down around her ears. Mortified, Mem agrees to pay him the hush money after a brief scuffle.

It is during this confrontation between the estranged spouses, however, that the picture's biggest problem arises -- at one point Mem threatens to commit suicide, and Scudder begs her not to, claiming that he "cannot bear to watch her die," in spite of the fact that he has already killed several women in the past, and despite the fact that he was ostensibly planning to off her himself at the outset of the movie. All of a sudden, and without any real explanation, Scudder is genuinely in love with his wife (which now means that our love triangle has evolved into a love tetrahedron, I suppose).

In the picture's climactic final scene, a severe storm brings the shooting of Frank Claymore's extravagant circus film to a grinding halt when the big top is set ablaze by a bolt of lightning. In the ensuing chaos Scudder attempts to kill Claymore -- whom he has learned is planning to marry Mem -- by piloting a wind machine into him, but Mem herself suddenly stumbles into the path and Scudder winds up pushing her out of the way at the expense of his own life. The cataclysmic final scene is actually quite well done, but Scudder's sudden change of character is a major issue. Until the last twenty minutes or so of the picture Scudder is shown to be an utter scoundrel, which makes his tranformation seem almost incomprehensible. This transformation actually would have worked quite well if it were developed over the course of the picture, but as it is it's far too abrupt. Furthermore, it isn't explained very well -- are we to assume that by shaving off his mustache, Owen Scudder frees himself from the dark side of the force? While shaving the soup strainer certainly helps, it surely can't account for everything. This abrupt change really causes problems for what is otherwise a well-acted and directed picture.

Narrative troubles aside, though, Souls for Sale is still interesting from a historical standpoint -- not only does it feature big names in early roles, but it also must be counted among the earliest movies about the business of making movies. Cameos also abound -- Erich von Stroheim and Charlie Chaplin can be seen directing actual scenes from forthcoming films, among a small host of other Hollywood notables. Still other familiar faces may be spotted among the supporting cast, including Mae Busch, Barbara La Marr and, in one of his earliest roles, Will Haines.

Although I've harped a bit on the picture's one major foible, Souls for Sale is nevertheless still a worthwhile picture. I'd recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood and early cinema, as well as to silent film fans in general.

...Also, who names their kid "Remember?"

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