by Emilie Egger
White slave films like Traffic in Souls (Universal 1913) were all the rage in the early Progressive Era in the United States. White slavery (forced prostitution of immigrants) was a topic of great concern during this time and in the years before World War I, became the focus of both government and non-government moral panic. While legislators pushed laws condemning the forced prostitution of immigrant women, reform-minded groups used whatever means they could to reinforce traditional family structure, and what they considered to be “middle-class values.” Directors and theater owners also joined the hype by creating and featuring films (purportedly) designed to combat this societal ill from the cinematic front.
Nickelodeons and motion picture palaces had always attracted lower-class and immigrant audiences. The price of a Nickelodeon movie was cheap enough for an immigrant’s income and the length of the feature not so long that s/he would have to miss work. Although theaters’ incomes were largely supported by this working-class demographic, around the beginning of the twentieth century theaters began attempting to attract what they thought was a more “respectable” class, namely women who were part of wealthier families than the newly designated “blue-collar” workers.
Only upper and middle class women were considered a part of this suddenly-valuable “respectable” demographic; the lower-class women, even though they continued to frequent theaters, became the fodder for the productions rather than valued customers. In many ways, the new “respectable women” were the foils to the lower-class immigrant women portrayed in the white-slave films, who were forced into compromising positions due to their poverty and need to work.
In Traffic in Souls, working women were portrayed as being in harm’s way simply for leaving their homes. The continuation of this logic is that they should stay home instead of attending films. Lower-class women viewing Traffic in Souls and other white-slavery films saw people like them portrayed as passive victims in a cruel society. Their only hope for safety was to become more “respectable” like their wealthier counterparts.
As they endeavored to ‘clean up’ the theaters, filmmakers (and the theaters who featured their work) were focused on ‘educating’ and ‘enlightening’ those of the lower and immigrant class who came to see their work. Traffic in Souls was defended as a kind of ‘reform document,’ intended to warn immigrant women about the dangers inherent in working outside of the home, especially in an urban area. Later scholarship has been ambivalent about George Loane Tucker’s true intentions in making the film, many historians stating that his goals were more related to the huge box office numbers than actually producing an educational, moral document.
Whatever Tucker’s reason, Traffic in Souls was a sensational hit. 30,000 people saw it during its opening week in New York and white-slave films were soon being shown all over the city. As Shelley Stamp writes in Movie-Struck Girls, 15 New York theaters had “gone into slavery” by 1914, because they knew these types of films would be instant hits. They remained the hype for about a year. Even famed director Alice Guy Blache made a film as part of the white-slave hype.
Many white-slave films, including Traffic in Souls, came under intense scrutiny because of their subject matter. Even though Traffic in Souls was promoted as a reform document, it was considered indecent from its beginnings. On the day that it opened in New York, police raided the theater and stole the film. The police followed the film to new theaters, where they did much the same thing. While theaters that carried the film argued that, since they took a firm stand against white slavery, they were doing the ‘decent’ thing, censors said they were playing into social hysteria and promoting indecent content. Today, many scholars have decided that they exploited the sensationalism surrounding white slavery in order to make a profit.