Sunday, November 15, 2015

Traffic in Souls

This week's Silent Sunday Nights feature is the very early feature Traffic in Souls, at midnight tonight.

The titular traffic here involves what was known back in the day as "white slavery", that is, people tricking pretty young white girls into engaging in prostitution, and not letting them go. Mary Barton (played by Jane Gail) is a young woman engaged to a policeman (Matt Moore) when, one day, her kid sister Lorna (Ethel Grandin) goes missing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that she's been lured by those white slavers.

Mary goes to work for the "Purity League", one of those do-gooder organizations that rail against whatever is the moral panic of the day that is seen to be threatening the virtue of young pretty white girls. A generation later, it would be marihuana with an H as seen in movies like Reefer Madness; nowadays there are alleged threats like sexting. So it's something that's been going on for ages. The league is run by Mr. Trubus, with the help of his wife, since it was the upper-middle-class wives of the day who had a lot of time on their hands who came up with a lot of these vile ideas like the temperance movement or the latter-day war on drugs.

But, it turns out that Trubus isn't quite what he seems, and is in fact in cahoots with the guys running the white slavery ring! It's up to Mary to get the goods on him.

Traffic in Souls is one of those early silents that I first saw several years ago on TCM when they were running some sort of programming feature that included a night full of early silent movies. It's from 1913, even before Birth of a Nation, and one of the earliest feature-length silents out there. So obviously the camera work and production values are primitive even compared to the movies that would come toward the end of the silent era. Still, it's quite interesting for the story that it tells and for its look at the cultural values of the day. That, and it was also done before most of the studios left for Hollywood. Remember that, with Edison being based in New Jersey, a lot of the early film production was done there and in New York (which, after all, did have all those stage actors). So we get some looks at vintage New York City as it was in 1913 as well.

Traffic in Souls should be in the public domain although, as with In the Land of the Headhunters which I mentioned the other day, I don't know about the surviving prints and whether its access to those that have led to the movie only being available on an expensive DVD box set, at least according to the TCM Shop. (Amazon lists an out-of-print cheapo version available.) It doesn't seem to be on YouTube either, which is really surprising.

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