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Traffic in Souls (1913)


traffic in souls film review

Released at the height of the “White Slavery” panic, Traffic in Souls was the first in a series of films to capitalize on the sensationalism caused by reformers’ exaggerated claims that tens of thousands of young girls were being forced into a life of prostitution by criminal organizations. The real reasons women turned to prostitution had more to do with low wages, high housing costs, and a lack of educational and job training opportunities for young women in the early 20th Century. The reformers were also concerned by the upward mobility of young women who were living on their own without parental guidance and the rise of a dating culture where men and women mixed freely unchaperoned. They warned that sex traffickers lurked around dance halls, cinemas, etc. waiting for an opportunity to kidnap young girls and imprison them in a brothel. The film shows how this was supposedly done and like the reformers, suggests that the solution is to catch the crooks and send them to jail. Besides being extremely popular, the film was also very controversial and banned in many cities. The film industry was concerned about its image and had formed the National Board of Review in 1909 in response to the revocation of moving-picture exhibition licenses by New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. who believed films were morally degrading. By self-regulation the industry sought to avoid governmental censorship. Though the Board passed Traffic in Souls after eliminations were made and citing its “educational” purposes by 1916 they refused to pass any films concerned with the theme of white slavery. This ban was continued by the Motion Picture Production Code which remained in effect until 1968.

Traffic in Souls is one of the first American feature length films and the first American feature film not based on a preexisting literary or dramatic work. It can also probably be considered the first feature length police procedural and exploitation film. In regards to the filmmaking style for the most part the camera is stationary and all scenes shot from the same angle. The acting is relatively naturalistic for 1913 though the female leads tend to be over the top while attempting to convey distress. Director George Loane Tucker adopts D.W. Griffith’s cross-cutting technique to keep things lively and build suspense. Many scenes were shot on location in New York City including Ellis Island.  The film’s commercial success wasn’t lost on Cecil B. DeMille who made a fortune directing titillating films about immoral behavior that were cloaked in the guise of moral edification.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

Traffic in Souls at imdb