May 15, 2010
Souls for Sale (1923)
Grade: 48/100

Director: Rupert Hughes
Stars: Eleanor Boardman, Richard Dix, Frank Mayo

What it's about. This popular silent movie blends drama, romance, comedy, and a backstage look at the Hollywood film industry, circa 1923. Eleanor Boardman is a pretty young woman, just married to Lew Cody but fearful of him now that its time to consummate the marriage. Instead, she flees their honeymoon train, even though this act strands her in the middle of the desert.

But Eleanor doesn't die, since this would be an immediate downer. Instead, she wanders onto a location film set shooting an Arabian picture in the California desert. Soon, thanks to her mentor Barbara La Marr, she is a rising film star with two competing paramours, moviestar Frank Mayo and director Ricard Dix. Assistant director William Haines doesn't romance her, because this is the first movie in which he receives screen credit.

Meanwhile, it is revealed that Cody is a wanted man accused of murdering women for their money. After a few comical adventures involving sweetheart swindles of Dale Fuller and Aileen Pringle, he learns that Eleanor has become a moviestar, and moves to Hollywood to stalk her and her director boyfriend. He also apparently plans to sabotage her next movie, a big budget circus movie where she has secured the lead role.

How others will see it. Souls for Sale is of some interest to film historians, for its many cameos of movie celebrities of the day, and its brief inside look at the makings of four actual Hollywood productions. Of these, two are considered classics (Erich von Stroheim's Greed and Charlie Chaplin's A Woman in Paris), and two are lost (Fred Niblo's The Famous Mrs. Fair and Marshall Neilan's The Eternal Three).

Souls for Sale, too, was considered lost for many years, but a print turned up in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. Turner Classic Movies replaced the title cards and added a score, and the movie now has its share of silent film fans. Per the user ratings, women over 45 like it best (8.7/10) and undoubtedly consider the film to be as charming as it is implausible.

How I felt about it. It is obligatory, and yet useless, to note that the story is far-fetched, especially the murderer played by Lew Cody. Throughout, his actions are ridiculous, down to his final act where he sacrifices himself to save Eleanor and her two heroic love interests. (Of the two, it is the director, rather than the actor, that wins Eleanor's hand. As it would be in real life, since she married King Vidor in 1926).

Although Lew Cody has seduced and betrayed many women, either through robbery or murder, his motivations toward Eleanor appear different. He wants to possess her, even scoffing at her willingness to be blackmailed by him. Since he can't obtain her heart by love, he will cause her to fear him instead. But Eleanor's film career ambition is so strong that she will put up with his menacing, stalking presence rather than create a scandal by turning Cody over to the police.

But it is out of the question that she will perform any duties as his wife, even though they are in fact legally married. Indeed, typical of the virtuous lead, it appears that she has remained a virgin despite her marriage and her two famous Hollywood boyfriends. (Her soul is not for sale, unlike the many young beauties that, the film suggests, try to negotiate such a trade in Hollywood). She even lives with her mother (Edith Yorke), a minister's wife who has come to Hollywood to, if not remove Eleanor from a life of sinful acting, at least keep a watchful eye upon her.