Celluloid September: Souls for Sale (1923)

Is there anything more indulgent than watching a movie about the movies? Lose yourself in the world of Old Hollywood with us this month as we watch films about the entertainment industry. Today Rodney and Adam examine Souls for Sale from 1923.

ADAM: By the early part of the 1920s, Hollywood’s tentacles had oozed throughout the nation, and, like a beached mollusk, it was beginning to stink. In the newspapers, a flurry of think pieces were inspired by a rapid succession of scandals among the stars: Arbuckle’s rape accusation, Olive Thomas’ death while on a second honeymoon with the notoriously debauched Jack Pickford, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and morphine addicted Wallace Reid dying in a sanitorium. In 1922, W.H. Brashear, a little-known Kentucky poet, condemned the industry with evangelical fury in a letter to Louisville’s Courier-Journal: “Theatrical screendom must be purged of the serpent’s trail […]; it must be taken wholly out of the hands of the sordid producer who would barter for gold the morals and decency of the people; it must cease to order films made in Sodom, Gomorrah or Hollywood.” Wichita’s The Catholic Advance published a piece in ’24 which identified the same encroaching rot, “In proportion to its population, Hollywood leads the pack in the way of furnishing proof that its morality is weak and ill fed.” A 1922 editorial by Victor Neuhaus in The Denver Jewish News conceded that Hollywood’s dominance was a problem but placed the blame on the audience who worshipped the false gods of the screen. According to the New York Times’ agnostic entry into this genre, “Movie Morals Under Fire,” John Emerson, president of the Actors’ Equity Association shrugged off the hysteria with the claim that Hollywood was “…no worse and no better than New York, or Sandusky, Ohio…” Emerson, who a few years prior directed Douglas Fairbanks in the cocaine comedy The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, may not have been the best choice to make the case for Hollywood’s normalcy. The industry’s official response to the furor came in the form of Goldwyn Pictures’ Souls for Sale. Hollywood needed a shower, a shave, and a detox—and, with this film, they could even charge admission for fans to watch the rehabilitation.


Souls for Sale, Richard Dix
Ad from Altoona, Pennsylvania.

RODNEY: That’s a beautifully worded description of a problem that should have never existed, and yet, we see similar issues today. For one reason or another, Hollywood (or Hollyweird as the naysayers seem to love to call it) has always seemed out of step with the morals and mores of middle America. While countless columns were written about the supposed moral bankruptcy of the stars, little was ever mentioned about the large numbers of average Joe’s that the film industry employed. Regular folks that worked hard and went home to their families every night, just like those who dismissed an entire industry as corrupt and out of step with so-called American values. To say that the industry had to do something, yes, anything to appease those outraged at a social issue that in retrospect seems relatively minor is an understatement. And in the best Mickey and Judy fashion, they pulled out the stops and put on a show!


A: Yes, all the hubbub seems both quaint and overblown. But I can’t shrug it off as a moral panic. It’s probably the hardheaded middle-American in me speaking, but I sympathize with these people. The sudden growth of mass media probably felt like a bum-rush. At least with vaudeville, the performers might tailor their acts to the town. The movies were one size fits all.


Erich von Stroheim, Souls for Sale, Greed
Erich von Stroheim on the set of Greed.

For those who grew up viewing the movie industry through the unflattering filter of Nathanael West, Horace McCoy, and Kenneth Anger, the plot of Souls for Sale has a uniquely perverse appeal. In this version of events, Hollywood is a fertile industry with ethical practices and kind paternal directors. Who is the psychopathic murderer? Look no further than your spouse! I realize that 1923 was early for the industry to engage in the sort of self-flagellating nihilism that was de rigueur by the 70s, but I was still startled by the soft-pedalling on display here. From our historical vantage, the footage of Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim directing is fascinating, but I’d be hard pressed to come up with better posterchildren for the “Lock Up Your Daughters” campaign.


R: In retrospect, it all seems a little ham-fisted, doesn’t it? It’s certainly ironic that those directors in particular, which are featured prominently in a film about the sanctity of the film industry, have since been accused of deeds just as heinous (arguably more so) as those which were being condemned in the editorial section of newspapers throughout the country at the time.


Souls for Sale
Eleanor Boardman as the ingénue.

A: Despite my cynicism, the film does succeed in making Hollywood look exciting. Plus, Richard Dix and Eleanor Boardman look so young and spritely as the ingénue and the warm-hearted director that I couldn’t help but root for them. Casual viewers could easily choose a more well-rounded silent film but for the movie buff this is an essential watch. Besides the glimpses of movie sets, including Greed, A Woman in Paris, and Fred Niblo’s now lost The Famous Mrs. Fair, there are cameos by a slew of stars, including ZaSu Pitts. Lest this be sold as some sort of perfunctory travelogue, there is a melodramatic plot that, with its insidious villain and damsel in distress, could have easily been spun into a full-blown serial. By the way, did you catch the location shot where a very famous Hal Roach short was later filmed?


Lew Cody, Souls for Sale
Lew Cody as the dastardly Owen Scudder.

R: Yes, The Music Box stairs were unmistakable. From a film buff’s perspective, the movie is irresistible fun. All of the cameos are great, the plot never sits still long enough to become dull, and indeed doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s part of the good time here. It’s a quirky movie, and one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, in spite of the serious nature all of this could take. I never quite grasped that the director, Rupert Hughes (brother of one Howard) who also wrote and produced the film knew exactly what kind of movie he wanted to make, or maybe he just realized how silly it all is.


The Music Box, Souls for Sale
Imagine moving a piano up those stairs...

A: The version of Souls for Sale currently available is the 2006 Turner Classic Movies-sponsored restoration. The condition of the print is far from optimal, and the clean, digitally reconstructed title cards are slightly jarring in contrast to the worn film. I still recommend this version with one caveat: the lush score by Marcus Sjöwall seems incongruent to the melodrama on display. This is a case where a pianist pounding an upright would have highlighted the character of the film better than an 18-piece orchestra. Still, I suggest seeking this one out: three stars.


Richard Dix, exuberant over a 3-star review.

R: All I could find about the source of the print is that “copies started turning up in the late 80’s and 90’s” so I’m not sure exactly where this came from, or if a more modern restoration may render better results. Either way, it looks fine. Perfectly acceptable, although it’s not going to wow anyone. The score is a lovely piece of music, although I agree that it does seem out of place here, as does a lot of those “Young Composer Competition” pieces that TCM did years ago. I’m also going to give this three stars, with the caveat that this is not suitable as an introductory silent film, and some knowledge of the era will definitely benefit your viewing experience.

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