The first feature-length film in the “100 Years, 100 Films” series continues in the tradition of our 1912 entry (Musketeers of Pig Alley), ripped from the headlines and plopped onto the big screen. Pig Alley offered up urban gang warfare with a hint at protection rackets, while Traffic in Souls takes on white slavery and the plight of vulnerable immigrants. The film has a lot to offer, including then-timely, now-antique images of New York and an Ellis Island still bustling with the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
While the film has touches of melodrama, it is surprisingly realistic. The specter of young women being lured into an underworld of prostitution in the big cities was a preoccupation of the era. While Traffic in Souls merely suggests the worst aspects of these young womens’ fates, the film is much more open about the topic than later post-Code films. The Hays Code forbade any depiction of “white slavery” in the movies from 1927 on. In Traffic in Souls women are terrorized and generally slapped around in a manner that disappeared from screen for decades after the Code took over. A criminal banker smooches his secretary in a salacious way that only could have been suggested in later films. The climactic showdown on the roof, with the hero cop gunning down a bad guy who then falls many stories to his doom, is probably the first time that was ever filmed, and it has been copied thousands of times since. Other than the melodramatic features, the rooftop showdown looks like something from a 1970’s film.
I am continually amazed at the beauty and talent of the teenage women inhabiting these early silent films. The men who made these movies clearly had an eye for what people wanted to see on screen. Ethel Grandin (19 when she played this role) is stunning as the young candy store girl who is seduced into partying with a handsome stranger only to find herself locked in a room and destined for a new career as a prostitute. Her agonies as she refuses to give in to her captor’s demands, such as changing into a negligee, punctuate almost the entire film, as her sister (the girlfriend of the hero cop) tries frantically to find and save her.
The police are heroic and larger than life as they march in formation and move out to answer the call with more efficiency than a crack militia. These are real cops of the type that formed the template for the parody Keystone Kops (which were contemporaneous, starring in Mack Sennett comedies from 1912 to 1917.)
Technology plays a vital role, even including a nod to the American movies’ inventor, Thomas Edison. Telephones play a big part in the plot, and there is a kind of primitive fax machine on display, plus there is a version of wiretapping that records the evidence against the criminals on Edison-style cylindrical records.