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TRAFFIC IN SOULS(director/writer: George Loane Tucker; cast: Jane Gail (Mary Barton), Matt Moore (Larry Burke, policeman), Ethel Grandin (Loma Barton), Howard Crampton (The Go Between), William Turner (Mary’s father), William Welsh (William Trubus), Irene Wallace (Trubus’ daughter), Hudson Lyston (Trubus’ wife); Runtime: 90; Universal Pictures; 1913-silent)
“It is worth seeing the film for an authentic look at how the city looked, but should be especially interesting for cinephiles to see such a popular early film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A film advertised as an exploitative film about steamy sex that fails to deliver that part of the bargain, but delivers an expose on white slavery practices in New York City at the turn of the century. White slavery was a fear for girls from the poor, the uneducated and immigrant classes, who were either lured or forced into prostitution by unscrupulous men. When such activities were publicized a commission was formed that found wide-spread police corruption, which helped that criminal practice thrive. But due to the public’s outcry there was a crack-down that put a halt to white slavery.

“Traffic in Souls” started the trend in Hollywood to make sexy pictures or at least films that promised sex, since they discovered sex sells. This controversial film which was banned in many cities throughout America, nevertheless grossed half a million dollars.

The film is about the Barton sisters and their crippled father (Turner) who is an inventor and how the younger sister Loma (Ethel Grandin), who works in a fancy candy store with her older sister Mary (Jane Gail), was lured into white slavery by a go-between (Crampton) for the insiduous white slave organization. He invited her out with promises of a good time, taking her to a dance club where he spiked her drink and brought her to a brothel.

Mary is engaged to a young honest policeman on the beat, Burke (Matt Moore), who has just rounded up part of the white slavers who worked Ellis Island to scour possible victims from the incoming immigrants. Burke noticed something fishy about men bringing two Swedish sisters to a tenement building and refused to be bribed as he investigated and found that the building was a brothel run by white slavers. He single-handledly arrests them and the newspapers call him a hero.

The shots of Ellis Island are interesting from an historical prospective more than in the uninteresting way they were used by the movie. The extras were real immigrants landing in America and the sidewalk scenes caught the trolleys and the kind of street cabs that were used back then. It is worth seeing the film for an authentic look at how the city looked, but should be especially interesting for cinephiles to see such a popular early film.

The story wasn’t anything special; this is the same theme of hero vs. villain Westerns used for their B-films. The type of villains seen are those who would become stock characters in films to come: the big boss of the operation William Trubus (Welsh) who doesn’t get his hands dirty in the violent part of the operation, but has his henchmen act as go-betweens. He strives for respectability, not telling his wife and socialite daughter (Irene Wallace) how he gets his money. But when he gets his comeuppance at the end it is in front of his family on the happiest day of his life, when his daughter is becoming betroth to the most eligible bachelor on the social registry.

The most lively scene was the climax as the police move out of their stationhouse to raid the white slavers in their brothel, using the evidence Mary provides them with which came from her father’s invention of recording conversations on a phonograph. The hero cop Burke dramatically rescues Mary’s kidnapped sister and then chases down the evil go-between on the roof in a classical shoot-out; and, the police systematically arrest the whole white slave gang, an action scene which packed a wallop.

Though contrived and it couldn’t hold-up to modern scrutiny of what we might think a good film should be like, it was nevertheless a milestone in filmmaking. It paved the way for the kind of action films Hollywood would soon become noted for making.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”