Ostensibly designed to protect innocents from falling victim to traffickers, this film caused scandal and invited lawsuits and arrests wherever it was shown. The innocent days of classic film? Not so much.
Paying to see the workings of a sewer
One of the biggest surprises about silent film is that, far from being the prim melodramas of popular consciousness, they actually tackled heavy social issues head on. Birth control, abortion, religious hypocrisy, sexual harassment, the cycle of poverty, child labor, unionized workers, the reformation of convicts, the plight of immigrants, racism and sexism were all addressed during the silent era in mainstream films.
In the case of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, the movies purported to show the workings of organized prostitution as a way of warning poor women away from the traps of shadowy criminal gangs. The fact that it showed crime in loving detail was neither here nor there.
Of the original four reels, only two are known to survive. As a result, we’re going to be sailing through the plot stuff fairly quickly and will instead be focusing on the context of the film’s release and how it was received by audiences of its day.
The film follows the process by which a hardworking young woman is tricked into prostitution by means of a drugged drink, a false marriage and a network of spies and informants. When the young woman stays out all night thanks to that drugged beverage, her father throws her out of the house and into the arms of the procurer who caused all the trouble in the first place. The film directly instructs parents not to throw out their daughters in such situations but the “Leave my house!” trope would remain in films for a good long while. (For a different approach, do check out the 1912 Russian film The Peasants’ Lot, in which the father is a support and comfort to his daughter after she is raped by her employer.)
The picture shows how poor women are trapped in this abusive cycle and shares a title card of trafficker slang but it can’t quite shake its sleazy tone. While the title cards tell us that this is all for our own good, our own protection, the film itself does take considerable care to show the sins it is condemning in loving detail. The scent of exploitation lingers heavily in the air and it makes for a somewhat unpleasant viewing experience. The film does show the lack of social safety net for women wishing to leave prostitution and it does call out the double standard of arresting prostitutes and letting johns off with a wink and a smile. However, it’s not enough to dispel that air of sleaze.
The film has a documentary style and a “Just the facts, ma’am” approach but the filmmakers lack the sophistication required to handle this very delicate subject with the finesse and care that it requires. I would actually put this film on par with some of the tackier true crime shows that reenact intimate moments of the victim’s life and death, ostensibly to flesh out their story but they kind of make you want to gargle Listerine afterward. Oh brother, do I hate those shows.
Behind the Mask of innocence by Kevin Brownlow details the history of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic and how it followed on the heels of another scandalous picture.
Traffic in Souls was officially marketed as a public service but audiences understood that was just cover under which to display more lurid material. Unfortunately for thrill seekers, much of the luridness was in the title and not on the screen. The film made a fortune for Universal (around $450,000) and people lined up around the block only to be met with sold out theaters. However, word quickly spread that the film was all sizzle and no steak (it is a pretty typical melodrama, truth be told) and receipts dropped dramatically in subsequent weeks, making Traffic in Souls sort of the Batman vs. Superman of its day but without the funny voices.
While Universal claimed that Traffic in Souls was based on official government reports dealing with human trafficking and even forged an endorsement from John D. Rockefeller, which he categorically denied giving. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, the other hand, was the real McCoy when it came to official pedigree. The film was written and produced by Samuel H. London, who had worked for Rockefeller’s Bureau of Social Hygiene and was a former U.S. Government Investigator.
The film turned out to be a mixed blessing for London. While The Inside of the White Slave Traffic outgrossed Traffic in Souls, it was raided, shut down and London himself was the target of numerous lawsuits for years after the film’s initial release. In many ways, the film was a victim of its own semi-sincerity as it made no bones about what it was showing.
London’s film company sought an injunction against the New York police interfering with screenings of the picture but in his ruling, Judge Edward J. Gavegan of the state supreme court wrote:
“It might be possible to find individuals of such morbid curiosity that they would be willing to pay an admission price to see the inside workings of a sewer, and others of such avaricious enterprise that they would be ready to capitalize such morbid curiosity and furnish the exhibition for a price, and still others, among the well-meaning and unwary, who would lend their sanction and approval to the idea in the belief that such an exhibition by its horrible example might tend to improve the habits of cleanliness of some in the audience, and that the public ought to know about it in any event.”
I have to say that I find the “we have to show you how bad it really is in graphic detail so you’ll understand” to be a poor defense for sleazy tours of crime, atrocities and abuse. Should we be made aware of problems? Yes, of course. Can we be grownups and deal with unpleasantness? Yes. Should we humanize victims and show empathy toward them whenever we can? Naturally. Do we need to see someone being hacked to death in a television reenactment to understand that murder is bad? No, we do not.
Obviously, I am not talking about perpetrators facing their own crimes, jurors seeing evidence or journalists covering atrocities. I’m also not talking about films that include real-life horrific events in an intelligent and artistic manner. I’m talking about real disasters, crimes and abuses being packaged as for-profit entertainment without regard for artistic integrity or the feelings of victims and survivors. (For an unusually sleazy example, see Souls for Sale, which includes a thinly-veiled portrayal of film star Viola Dana and her tragic background. The real Dana watched in horror as her lover, stunt pilot Ormer Locklear, was killed in a plane crash in August of 1920 and her film doppelganger had the same experience in Souls for Sale, released in March of 1923. The sociopath who decided to include that character is cordially invited to boil his head.)
Long story short: if London and his collaborators were serious about helping women tricked into prostitution, they should not have charged admission.
On a side note, the phrase “white slavery” is, of course, racially charged. The more general term of trafficking could apply to anybody sold for prostitution but white slavery was meant to stir up emotions as it conjured up images of white women being despoiled (an excuse for many a wave of racial violence against minorities in the United States) and implied that white victims were the only ones that mattered. The phrase took hold in the nineteenth century and was used in international law until the 1920s when it was replaced by trafficking.
Indeed, the immigrant woman who is portrayed as the next victim of the procurers is blonde and fair, likely meant to represent a newcomer from Scandinavia or some other location in western Europe.
(Spoiler) In the end, despite efforts at reformation, our heroine returns to her old life and dies in a pauper’s grave of Movie Illness or something. (The available footage does not specify, though it is possible that it is explained in the missing material.) All in all, pretty crude storytelling.
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic is so severely truncated that there are too many gaps to properly judge its narrative. While some of its heart was likely in the right place, it feels too exploitive to be the crusading docudrama that it claims to be. However, it remains an interesting relic and period piece.
Where can I see it?
Available on Bluray and DVD from Kino as part of their The Devil’s Needle: Tales of Vice and Redemption set. The set also includes Children of Eve and, of course, The Devil’s Needle. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic includes a piano score by Ben Model.
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