#363) Traffic in Souls (1913)
OR “Ms. Barton’s Profession”
Directed by George Loane Tucker
Written by Tucker and Walter MacNamara
Class of 2006
The Plot: “Traffic in Souls” is a melodramatic account of the modern crime of forced prostitution (aka “white slavery”). Young Lorna Barton (Ethel Grandin) is abducted by a New York prostitution ring run by well-known reformist William Trubus (William Welsh). Lorna’s sister Mary (Jane Gail) and Mary’s fiancé Officer Burke (Matt Moore) investigate Lorna’s disappearance, leading to their discovery of the prostitution ring, which also recruits naïve immigrants fresh off the boat from Ellis Island. The plot gets increasingly convoluted from here, suffice it to say that this film is staunchly anti-white slavery, and that we’re all going to Hell.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s “verve” and “riveting sociology”, while also claiming that it “presaged the Hollywood narrative film”. There’s also an essay by film critic Marilyn Ferdinand.
But Does It Really?: Sure, I’m feeling generous. “Traffic in Souls” can be a heavy-handed, oft-confusing film, but it encapsulates (and sensationalizes) America’s fear of a social issue of the day, and helped establish then unknown film company Universal Studios. I’ll give “Traffic in Souls” a pass, but this movie may just be for the nuts like me determined to watch every movie on an arbitrary list of quote-unquote significant films.
Everybody Gets One: Information is scarce for pretty much everyone involved in this film. Like many silent film cast and crews I’ve researched, the creatives of “Traffic in Souls” did 1,000 movies every year in the 1910s and 1920s, and then disappeared after sound. Many cast members, including leading lady Jane Gail, would appear in another Universal picture/NFR entry: 1916’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”.
Wow, That’s Dated: This film was a response to the widespread scare in America about “white slavery”, particularly a 1910 story about Chicago brothels with abducted immigrants. This movie also features the silent movie trope of the social worker as hypocritical villain.
Title Track: It wasn’t until I actually watched the film that I realized that in this context, traffic is a verb, not a noun. As in “those who traffic in souls”. That makes a lot more sense.
- First off, a confession: I didn’t do a lot of research for this post, and there are two primary reasons for this. 1) As previously mentioned, there’s very little out there about the film itself and 2) I don’t feel like investigating the history of forced prostitution in America. That being said, it’s still very much happening in the world today, and is a complex, disturbing subject, but you didn’t come here to read about sexual slavery from the guy who over-simplified the Vietnam War.
- Universal Studios began the way so many other major studios began: with producers tired of the monopoly Thomas Edison had on filmmaking in the early 1900s. Turns out he was from the David Merrick school of thought: It wasn’t enough for him to be successful, others had to fail.
- I love the film’s subtitle: “A Photodrama of Today”. Seems like 1913 speak for “Ripped from today’s headlines!”
- This movie is already irritating me because each intertitle is numbered at the bottom left-hand corner. At least if I’m bored I can count the intertitles.
- There was no censor board in 1913, but the film opts to skirt around the word “prostitution”, going with euphemisms instead. My favorite is referring to the whorehouse as a “den of iniquity”. Also, and this should go without saying, you don’t see anything. Showing an ankle back then would have had the Catholic Church on your butt so fast.
- There are too many damn characters in this movie. Is the whole film just introductions?
- Side note: Edison refused to credit his actors, so having the cast listed throughout the film was revolutionary, and helped propel what became the studio star system. Man, fuck you, Edison.
- The 1910s were into unnecessary abbreviations for names, like Wm. or Robt., which I presume are short for William and Robot.
- I’m gonna assume the two actresses playing the Swedish immigrants don’t know a word of Swedish. Probably never been to Sweden. Probably never even had Swedish Fish.
- Also dated: the pre-Miranda Rights days when a cop could beat up their suspect.
- There’s a lot of intercutting in this movie, to the point of distraction. I think the editor was ADD.W. Griffith. Thank you and good night!
- One of the prostitutes goes for $500 in 1913 money. That’s almost $13,000 today! That’s “disgraced Senator” money!
- I know this is a serious drama, but you can’t show a bunch of police officers cramming into one car and not make me laugh.
- The ending lays it all on pretty thick, with one character literally dying of shame from this experience.
- 92! 92 intertitles! Ah ah ah!
- The success of “Traffic in Souls” put Universal on the map as a major film studio, and they’re still going strong 100 years later. It’s amazing to think that the likes of “E.T.”, “Jurassic Park”, “Frankenstein”, and the “Fast and the Furious” franchise all owe their existence in part to a film about forced prostitution.