Like many of the artifacts of its age, the 1923 silent film Souls for Sale tells two stories. The first is somewhat ordinary, a preacher’s daughter leaving behind a seemingly picturesque small-town romance to set out for a life on her own. (And because this was old Hollywood, that escape involves jealousy, uncovered secrets, and murder.) The second, which likely provided a stronger pull than the love story, is of the thrill of cinema itself. The heroine, played by Eleanor Boardman, steps off a westbound train onto a location shoot in the California desert and spends the rest of the film climbing the ropes of the movie industry. The narrative soon becomes a series of behind-the-curtain glimpses at the studios and backlots of films in production at the time; there are cameos by Charlie Chaplin and King Vidor, a well-known director who would become Boardman’s real-life husband. The appeal of the movie was the appeal of Hollywood and, perhaps more than anything else, a celebration of the idea that the movie business was open to regular folks from small-town America if they had enough ambition and grit, and just a little bit of luck.
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