Souls for Sale
On the wedding night of Owen Scudder and Remember “Mem” Steddon, daughter of conservative preacher Dr. Steddon, the bride has a change of heart. Abandoning her new husband, she impulsively sneaks off their Los Angeles-bound train in middle of the desert. When she recuperates from dehydration, she comes to realize she’s stumbled on a film set and is given a role as an extra. As Mem’s masterful art of deception leads her to fame, Scudder — now known as a murderer who marries and kills his new brides — returns, raging with jealousy and attempts to kill one of her admirers, director Frank Claymore.
Tragedy strikes during the filming of Claymore’s next movie, in which Mem stars, when lightening sets a Big Top tent ablaze. The book concludes with murder, contrition, and the dreams both questioned and fulfilled: every character falls prey to the blurred lines of truth and fiction, described by the narrator as “mad spiritual gymnastics.” The conversions in Souls for Sale are as significant as the lies that lead to them.
Praise for Souls for Sale
“Hugely successful in its day, Souls for Sale furnishes a fascinating window on early Hollywood. One of many stories about would-be starlets seeking fame and fortune in the new industry, forced “to sell their souls and bodies,” it takes on new resonance in the #MeToo era. The book’s heroine is a small-town clergyman’s daughter, “young and starved for life,” who, finding herself pregnant and unmarried, ventures west to Los Angeles. There she meets members of the “movie colony,” finds work as an extra, then like so many other movie-struck girls of her generation, soon aspires to be a star. Released at the height of the star scandals that rocked the early movie business, Souls for Sale sets the stage the industry’s efforts to manage its reputation just a few years later by implementing a “morals clause” in studio contracts aimed at curtailing debauchery behind the scenes, as well as a strict Production Code that regulated depictions of sex and violence onscreen.”
— Shelley Stamp, author of Lois Weber in Early Hollywood and Movie-Struck Girls
“Encountering Souls for Sale now, it’s hard not to think of the Coen Brothers and to imagine this send up of small-minded America in their capable hands. With shades of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Hail, Caeser!, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Souls for Sale feels like a kindred script waiting for an update in our time, where truth and lies have taken on new significance.”
—Marsha Gordon, Professor of Film Studies, North Carolina State University
“Brother of the famously reclusive Howard Hughes, Rupert Hughes was already an author of some renown when he published his early Hollywood novel Souls for Sale (1922), a book so successful that the mogul Samuel Goldwyn hired Hughes himself to write and direct a screen adaptation. Souls for Sale begins as a standard critique of the motion picture industry at the time. Although he has yet to see a movie himself, the protagonist, a small-town preacher named Reverend Dr. Steddon, rails against Hollywood in his sermons as “the corrupter of our young men and women” and a veritable “new Babylon.” Unfortunately, the preacher’s daughter Mem has a different view. Mem views Hollywood as “the Eden of the movies,” and she decides to take her chances on it. As if taking a bite from the fruit of California’s plentiful orange groves, Mem discovers that her talent is a valuable commodity “for which the grateful public would pay with gratitude and fame and much money.” Souls for Sale heralds the birth of the New Woman, while also providing an insider’s take on “the birth of an immortal art,” which is to say, cinema.
—Mark Eaton, author of What Price Hollywood? Modern American Writers and the Movies and Religion and American Literature since 1950 (Bloomsbury 2020)
“A reverend’s daughter corrupted, a stage mother gone wild, a film comedian with a fear of marriage and a preference for lying infant-like on a woman’s bosom, these are just a few of the characters making their way through the wilds of 1920s Hollywood in Rupert Hughes’s successful novel, now back in print thanks to LARB and Sarah Gleeson-White. Pulpy and weird, and with more than a little of naturalism’s determinism—imagine if Dreiser’s Sister Carrie made it to Hollywood—Souls for Sale documents many of the realities of the early film industry. As Hughes tracks his heroine Mem Steddon’s rise from film extra to screen star, he peppers his novel with discussions of contracts, layoffs, actors’ craft (including a starlets’ “cry-off” competition), screen makeup and on-set accidents. The actress and her compatriots also fill their time gossiping about many industry notables and bits of now-infamous Hollywood history, the Fatty Arbuckle scandal to little Jackie Coogan’s finances. But, title aside, Souls is no Hollywood Babylon.
Hughes saves his finger wagging for the hypocrisy of American Puritanical piety and its expression in the rise of film censorship, both of which fall under his term “nasty-nice.” Against the nasty-nice mindset of small-town U.S. conservatism, Hughes posits a surprisingly modern, if not quite feminist narrative, in which a woman’s choice to pursue career and distaste for domestic life appears a matter of simple common sense. In his lavish account of both a young woman’s developing mental and moral sense as well as film-lot life, it is immediately apparent that Hughes relished a bit of description. Souls for Sale is overwritten in the best possible way. It’s delightful to have this important part of the canon of 1920s Hollywood novels back in print.”
—Katherine Fusco, author of Silent Film and U.S. Naturalist Literature
About The Authors
Rupert Hughes was an American novelist, film director, Oscar- nominated screenwriter, military officer, and music composer.
Sarah Gleeson-White is Associate Professor in American Literature at the University of Sydney. She is the author of William Faulkner at Twentieth Century-Fox: The Annotated Screenplays, and Strange Bodies: Gender and Identity in the Novels of Carson McCullers, and the editor, with Peter Lurie, of The New Faulkner Studies (forthcoming with Cambridge UP). She has written about American literature and film for PMLA, Modernism/modernity, the LA Review of Books, The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South, and William Faulkner in Context. Her new book project, “Literature in Motion,” considers the interactions of US literary and cinema cultures across the silent-film era.