By 1923, Hollywood had already established itself as the capitol of glamour, dreams, scandal and sin. William Desmond Taylor had been murdered and the Roscoe “Fatty”Arbuckle scandal cast a great shadow over the film industry. Still, the young and beautiful continued to make their way west, hoping for fame and glory.
Souls for Sale is a fun/melodramatic/romantic entertainment that both makes fun of and glorifies our favorite town west of the Mississippi. The film opens by showing young and innocent Remember Steddon (great name, no?), played by Eleanor Boardman, on a train with her brand new husband, Owen Scudder. She is a small town girl whose preacher father spent a great deal of time railing against the evils of Hollywood. Mem (as she will be known) is having serious buyer’s remorse. As the train chugs west towards a boat that will carry her and new hubby to China, she suddenly gets the feeling all is not well. Since hubby is played by that professional cad, Lew Cody, who can blame her? Rather than spend the night with her mustachioed Lothario, Mem jumps off the train and lands in the desert.
Parched and near delirious from the heat, she sees a vision in the distance: a sheik! On a camel! He jumps off his mount and rushes to rescue our heroine Is he a mirage? No – he’s only an actor! “The usual sheik led the usual captive across the usual desert.” This sly Valentino jab is one of the first of many taken at Hollywood. A wonderful movie stock company nurses her back to health and, before you know it, both the leading man and the director are in love with Mem.
Mem resists working in films, but our runaway bride has to earn a living, so she swallows her pride and takes work as an movie extra. This is where the film really gets fun. Mem works as an extra in Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (Chaplin is seen furiously directing) and watches Erich Von Stroheim guide Jean Hersholt though a scene in Greed. She also bumps into Zasu Pitts, Chester Conklin, Barbara Bedford and Elliot Dexter at the commissary. Mem’s lovesick director and leading man both propel her before the camera and–shades of 42nd Street– when a huge overhead light falls on leading lady Robina Teele, Mem gets her big chance to star in a drama of the big top.
Meanwhile, we learn that Mem’s husband, the loathsome Scudder, is actually a murderer who marries women and then kills them for the insurance. While Mem is making a name for herself on the screen, Scudder lands in Egypt and is engaged in swindling an English lady and her father. In a very funny turn of events, it turns out the lady is a bit of a Lady Eve and swindles the swindler. Down on his luck, he returns to Hollywood to collect his “wife.” It seems even he is susceptible to the charms of Hollywood. Instead of wanting to murder her, he now wants to love her. Meanwhile, Mem has kept the secret of her marriage from everyone, including her true love, director Frank Claymore, fearing a scandal that could ruin her.
It all goes up in flames, literally, in the exciting climax. The circus set is engulfed in flames and the bad faux husband, who confesses that he and Mem really weren’t married, dies in a wind machine in a gallant effort to save her. The cameras have kept grinding through the storm and fire and the director gets his film and his girl.
While not a classic film, this sure is a fun one. Check out this cast: Eleanor Boardman in a star-making role as Memory Steddon; the manly Richard Dix as director Claymore; Aileen Pringle as the larcenous English lady; Mae Busch as the ill-fated star, Robina Teele; and the ultra-glamorous Babara La Marr as Leva Lamaire, the cinema vamp with a heart of gold. Leva can not give her heart to anyone since she witnessed her love, a daredevil stunt pilot, die on a film set in a horrific crash (real life aviator Ormer Locklear died the same way). In fact, my only real complaint about the film is that there is not enough Barbara La Marr. Boy, was she terrific. Known as “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful,” I need to see more of La Marr’s work! (You know the minute I saw that her name was Leva Lamaire I thought of my girl, Lina Lamont!) Oh, and William Haines has a small but showy part. You can see the man had star power.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/FlickChick/155690437779073