Rupert Hughes’ Hollywood: January 1-15, 1923

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley visited the Souls for Sale movie set. Based on his recent novel about Hollywood, the film’s director Rupert Hughes promised a lot:

“When a person gets through looking at this picture, he will be qualified to do anything around a studio from being an actor to being a laboratory worker!” Rupert Hughes was kidding about his newest picture, Souls for Sale, and what he really meant was that the picture revealed the real studio life of the picture people.

Souls for Sale will be a sort of two-ring circus. You who have been dying for a peep into a studio will have your chance, in addition to which you will get portraits of picture players as the actually are in real life, and also you will get a capital story.

The day she visited, they were busy shooting a King Arthur film-within-the-film. The leading man Frank Mayo gave her a bit of insider insight: he was wearing heavy armor, and he told her “It takes four men to hoist me onto a horse. When I want to alight, I just fall off.”

Rupert Hughes

Between scenes she interviewed Hughes. The writer/director was happy to state his agenda: actors are just like other folks, or even a bit superior in terms of kindness, charity, and co-operation. He wanted to correct the public’s idea that Hollywood was a den of inequity, so reformers really had no need to fix it. He mentioned, “Lew Cody is the only really wicked person in the story—and he isn’t a picture actor in the tale!” He added:

A lot of incidents in this picture really have happened either to my company or to that of other directors. For instance, take the accident with the wind-propeller which happens in this story. That really happened to Patsy Ruth Miller in Remembrance, when the night scenes were being taken at 4:30 in the morning when everybody was dead tired and shivering with cold, and somebody had moved the wind machine slightly, so that Miss Miller was within two feet of being struck by the thing, which would have inevitably killed her had she taken two steps more in the dark. Four people have lately been killed by those things, by the way, in the making of pictures. The dangers to the picture actor have never been exaggerated in fiction—in fact, they have never been really told.

Gee, maybe the director could have taken responsibility for keeping the cast and crew safe?

Rupert Hughes was doing his bit to help defend Hollywood in the wake of the many recent scandals, such as the Arbuckle trial, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and Wallace Reid’s drug addiction and death. Just like film fan turned reporter Ethel Sands, he loved the movies as they were. In the Los Angeles Times review of his 1922 novel which he was adapting to film, their critic vividly described just how much:

 “Rupert Hughes is an author, who, to use his own impressive description, ‘rifles his dictionary and guts his thesaurus.’ He is extravagant, bombastic, unrestrained. He has more energy than he knows what to do with. He tears a passion to tatters and then paints the tatters. He hurls himself and his theses at his readers in an unending series on onslaughts.”

The trouble with Mr. Hughes is that he is an evangelist. He cannot allow the world to remain longer outside the true faith—the Hughes faith. In this instance, it is the wonder and marvel, the magnificence and the munificence of the movies that is his theme. Those who dwell in outer darkness and find little beauty and or inspiration in the cinema are to him ignorant bigots, shutting their eyes to beauty and their souls to truth.

But with all his faults we love him still. He writes with a glow, an energy, a fervor, an impassioned belief in his own solution of life and life’s problems, that whirl the reader along and compel him to recognize the pure gold that lies buried beneath much dross.

The reviewer took the book on its own terms: she or he didn’t complain that it wasn’t important literature, they appreciated it for the lively trash it was.

Grace Kingsley got to review Souls for Sale when it opened in early April, and she thought that Hughes managed to keep that same energy with his adaptation: “there is a snap and a dash and a power and a go about that world that is like nothing else on earth, I guess.” She also thought he succeeded with his aim to make the film business seem pretty wholesome:

Everybody in the world apparently hungers and thirsts to know how the movies are made, and how the movie actors really look off-stage. Rupert Hughes let us have a private peep at some thirty-five stars in off-stage moments, lets us see the wheels go round in the films…Best of all it is done, this Souls for Sale, with the maximum of humanness, of humor, or romance, of thrill. Don’t imagine for a minute that the revelation of trade secrets is obvious stuff. It is all done as part of the story, and it is utterly engaging.

She summed up the plot: Eleanor Boardman played “the kissless bride of a villain who haunts her afterwards. She hops from the train on the desert to get away from him, and is picked up by a movie hero playing an Arab after the sub-title stating that ‘the usual sheik crosses the usual desert with the usual caravan…’ It is while the heroine is trying to get into the movies that the audience gets a peek at Charlie Chaplin and Von Stroheim directing, at various movie stars at work and at play.” She particularly admired those scenes: “It is a great big smashing bit of realism; it thrills you with romance; it makes you feel as if you actually knew all those stars.”

Nevertheless, she recognized that the plot about Lew Cody as the serial killer husband that Boardman escapes from was outlandish: “There is a good deal of the dear old hokum in the story, and one wonders, the story being so melodramatic, it the thing isn’t half a satire on the whole movie game. Anyhow, you’ll get a great kick out of this picture.”

The trade papers agreed with her about the creakiness of the plot, but they were unanimous: they all thought it would be a great big hit. Exhibitors’ Herald said, “here is a picture which promises to be one of the big money makers of the season.” Charles Sewall addressed exhibitors directly in Moving Picture World: “Here is a picture, Mr. Exhibitor, that will please and enthuse your patrons and cause you to smile broadly when you count up the receipts…Souls for Sale is an audience picture and a showman’s picture if there ever was one.” Screen Opinions was sure it would be a crowd-pleaser, even though it was “more or less a hodge podge of incidents connected with the making of moving pictures in and about Hollywood.”

And they were correct. Souls for Sale was a huge box office success, one of the top earners of the 1922-23 season, along with Grandma’s Boy, Robin Hood and Blood and Sand. Just like everybody predicted, audiences did enjoy seeing behind the scenes. It was also helped by an impressive publicity campaign — Kingsley’s visit to the set was only a small part of it. No detail was neglected: they even collaborated with drug and department stores to advertise the film in shop windows:

There was one person the publicity didn’t work on: critic Robert Sherwood. In his collection of essays on the best films of the year, he said, “Souls for Sale was a highly dramatic story, designed to show what the frightful risks that movie stars must make for the sake of their art. It was all deadly serious, and it reeked with propaganda.” He thought it was much inferior to the other film about filmmaking that year, James Cruze’s Hollywood, which came out in August. Unfortunately, we can’t compare them: Hollywood is lost. However, Souls for Sale isn’t. It was restored in 2005 and it’s available on the Internet Archive.

Fritzi Kramer’s modern opinion of the restored version is closer to Sherwood’s than Kingsley’s; you can read her review on Movies Silently.

She was alarmed by how far the civilization of comedies might go, saying, “But I’ll tell you right now—when Ham Hamilton plays Hamlet, I’m going to quit.” Hamilton did try making a feature called His Darker Self in 1924, but it was a flop so he went back to two-reelers

This month, Kingsley also had thoughts about a new trend in comedies in an article subtitled “Day by Day Our Comedies Are Growing Sadder.” She missed the good old gag-filled days, even though the new trend had produced some very good films like Chaplin’s The Kid. She wrote:

Day by day, in every way, our comedians are getting gentler and gentler. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd indeed are becoming regular tear chasers…Mack Sennett’s bathing girls are now bathing in tears! Phyllis Haver, Marie Prevost, Mary Thurman, all the lovely, joyous throng, have dry-cleaned their bathing suits and offered them to the poor.

How times have changed, indeed! The custard pies have retired from the garbage pail of art, one might say, to their rightful, dignified place in the pantry, and the last siphon bottle I heard of was taken to the museum along with the slap stick.

Chaplin at work in 1918

One of the best things about Kingsley’s writing is the respect she had for gags and the people who wrote them. She didn’t subscribe to the notion that drama was better than comedy, or that slapstick was vulgar. She reminded readers of one of her earlier trips to a studio:

One morning in the dim long ago of 1918 I went out to the Chaplin studio to find Charlie raging up and down the stage, teeth clenched and tears in his eyes as he wrinkled over a new gag that was just aborning. Nowadays he smiles as he tells you how, pretty soon, he is going to play the tragic Pagliacci!

We suspect now that Charlie is going to park his pants and his cane permanently and come out in his next picture wearing trousers and a fedora. Probably he won’t fall down once. We may as well face it. No more will Charlie stoop to pick up an imaginary fluid dollar. No more will his nether integuments cause him comic worry; no more will the suspense of his comedy depend partly on his suspenders.

Chaplin at work in 1922

She had a point: at that time Chaplin was directing A Woman of Paris, a romantic drama starring his former leading lady Edna Purviance. However, when it failed at the box office he went back to comedy (including some slapstick) with The Gold Rush (1925).

She had two theories why this was happening. Firstly, as Roscoe Arbuckle had told her in 1920, it’s easier to make a five-reel comedy-drama than two-reels of nonstop gags. Her other theory was that “the war is over now, and nobody has anything national to feel sad about.” That could have been part of it, but it also could have just been that audiences get bored and want to see new things. Plus she was right about all of the big stars moving into features, but producers like Hal Roach were still making two-reel gag-filled comedies.

“Billy Sunday of the Movies,” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1922.

“Fate of a Pretty Girl Who Can’t Act: Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1923.

“Film Race is Run for High Stake,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1923.

Rupert Hughes, “Souls for Sale,” Exhibitors’ Herald, March 31, 1923, p. 32.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Iliad of Movies,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1923.

Robert Sherwood, The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23, Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1923.

Charles S. Sewall, “Souls for Sale,” Moving Picture World, April 7, 1923, p. 67.

“Souls for Sale,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 14, 1923, p. 55.

“Souls for Sale,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, May 5, 1923, p. 1151

“Souls for Sale,” Screen Opinion, May 15-31, 1923, p. 53-54.

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