Traffic in Souls
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Traffic in Souls (1913) was the first feature film produced by Universal, at that time called the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. The studio was founded in 1912 by Carl Laemmle and constituted a merger of various companies, including Laemmle's own IMP (Independent Moving Pictures) and Pat Powers' Powers Motion Picture Company. Its choice of subject matter--so-called white slavery--demonstrated Laemmle's knack for recognizing and capitalizing on the zeitgeist. As an early feature film Traffic in Souls is also noteworthy for its relatively complex narrative construction, which intercuts between multiple storylines. In one of the subplots, a pair of Swedish girls fresh off of Ellis Island are tricked into visiting a sham "Swedish employment agency" which turns out to be a front for the white slavery ring.
The choice of subject matter for Traffic in Souls was hardly accidental. In 1910 no less than John D. Rockefeller, Jr. himself led a grand jury investigation into "white slave" trafficking and established an organization called the Bureau of Social Hygiene. (Incidentally, the reviewer for Variety noted the close physical resemblance of one of the criminals in Traffic in Souls to Mr. Rockefeller.) While prostitution was very much a real problem during that time, in fact "white slave" trafficking was not quite as pervasive as depicted in the popular culture. It did, however, make an exciting subject for melodramas. The topic appeared in various books and plays depicting young women captured or lured into prostitution against their will, including the best-selling 1910 novel The House of Bondage. Most of the sensation-hungry viewers of Traffic in Souls were already familiar with the convention of white slave melodramas going into the film and knew exactly what was implied when the "madam" at the white slavery operation hands Lorna an embroidered kimono and instructs her to put it on.
Another interesting aspect of Traffic in Souls is its use of communication technology to drive the narrative. To be sure, this was hardly new; earlier Biograph shorts by D. W. Griffith such as The Lonely Villa (1909) and The Lonedale Operator (1911) used the telephone and telegraph as plot devices. In the case of Traffic in Souls, the character Mary uses a rudimentary form of wiretapping, recording Mr. Trubus's conversations onto wax cylinders to trap him for the police and rescue her sister from a fate worse than death. It also features a fanciful invention called a "dictagraph," which allows for the live transmission of handwritten figures onto a recipient's pad.
Not surprisingly, Traffic in Souls grossed $450,000 during its initial run - a huge sum for that time. It also spawned a series of films on the same topic, with titles such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913), The Exposure of the White Slave Traffic (1914), Smashing the Vice Trust (1914), The Traffic in Girls (1914). The reviewer for Variety held a dim view of this trend in his review of White Slave Traffic (1913), which opened only two weeks after Traffic in Souls: "If not molested, the feature should do a land office business everywhere. The question of whether it'll serve for good or evil is one the communities for which it is offered will quickly decide. That like its prototype [Traffic in Souls] at Weber's, it will lower the standard of esteem in which film plays are held goes without saying."
Director: George Loane Tucker
Scenario: Walter MacNamara and George Loane Tucker
Cast: Jane Gail (Mary Barton), Ethel Grandin (Lorna Barton), William Turner (Isaac Barton), Matt Moore (Officer Larry Burke), William Welsh (William Trubus), Mrs. Hudson Lyston (Mrs. Trubus), Irene Wallace (Alice Trubus), William Cavanaugh (Bill Bradshaw), Howard Crampton (The go-between), Arthur Hunter (Procurer), William Burbridge (Mr. Smith).
by James Steffen
"Traffic in Souls." Variety, November 28, 1913.
"White Slave Traffic." Variety, December 12, 1913.
Dick, Bernard F. City of Dreams: the Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Stamp, Shelley. "Moral Coercion, or The National Board of Censorship Ponders the Vice Films," in Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers, 1999. 41-59.
Stamp, Shelley. Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. VIEW TCMDb ENTRY