Sunday, April 25, 2010

The first Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie?

Over a dozen years before the first incarnation of A Star is Born (at least, under that title, since the 1932 movie What Price Hollywood is pretty much the same story), the movie that is TCM's Silent Sunday Night picture for this week: Souls For Sale, at midnight ET tonight.

Eleanor Boardman (probably best known from The Crowd) plays Mem, a small-town girl who wants to see bigger and better things, and when Owen, a man from the big city, comes to town, she jumps at the chance to be with him, despite the fact that her parents think this is a Really Bad Idea. Mem marries Owen, and as they're taking a train west to get to their honeymoon, she discovers that her parents were right after all. So, when the train stops to pick up water, Mem jumps off, although there's not much place for her to go, since it's the desert. She wanders through the desert and walks into serendipity, in the form of a Hollywood "sheik" movie of the genre that was all the rage in the 1920s. After nursing her back to health, the director Frank (Richard Dix, later of Cimarron) gives her a chance to try her hand at acting.

Acting proves to be both a boon and a curse. Mem is pretty good at it, to the point where she's able to become a pretty big star. However, that fame means that her husband is able to find out what's happened to her, and come back into her life. Frank already knows about the marriage, but if word of it got out on a broader scale, it would be scandalous for Mem's career, so Owen blackmails Mem. That's not the only problem for Mem, as she learns that Owes is even worse than just being a blackmailer. All of this leads to the reasonably thrilling finale, on the set of a circus-themed movie....

Souls For Sale stands on its own as a fairly good silent movie. However, the Hollywood subject material also provided the director an opportunity to include quite a few cameos. The two most famous amongst them would be Erich von Stroheim, who here was filming Greed; and Charlie Chaplin, at work on A Woman of Paris. There are a lot more cameos, from the famous (Jean Hersholt) to the nearly forgotten (Marshall Neilan; I've seen his movie The Vagabond Lover which features the screen debut of Rudy Vallee, but would never have recognized the name).

Souls For Sale has made it to DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

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