Traffic in Souls (1913.)

Sometimes one forgets that hundred years have passed since the dawn of the cinema. Especially someone like me which still thinks that 90’s were 5 years ago. The fact that we’re happily living (well, more or less) in this decade means that we’re nearing the time when everything made from 1910. to 1920. will be hundred years old freaks me out a bit. I don’t dwell on it too much though, but sometimes it hits me. Like a brick. And it hits well. Time is a motherfucker as we all know it.

Anyhow, it’s no surprise if you didn’t give this any thought. These days, people rarely watch something from that bygone era (I do not count academics and various professionals, they are a different, bit crazy, bit weird people). This preconception has entered the collective consciousness; it says: “Everything that has been made more than five years ago is ancient history and, as such, almost unwatchable. If you happen to stumble to something like that, be prepared for pain and silly things in abundance.” That concept is more than silly of course, but I can’t count the times I’ve heard something along those lines. Especially from people who want a recommendation for a good movie. Apparently, good movie means something that has been made yesterday.

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True, these “deep history” movies tend to be overdramatic and perfectly alien to the majority of the movie-goers population out there. It is likewise true that one often needs a special set of skills or some sort of interest to be able to bear through the agonizing era of the dawn of the cinema. Times have changed and our concepts of spectacle (which has been a soul of a movie for a very long time) have changed as well. I like to think, though, that the only actual tool one might need when dealing with these kinds of movies is some sort of intelligence. It’s not mandatory, of course, but it helps. It helps you to notice things that are not really hidden (intentionally) as much as they are hiding in a plain sight. Let’s take a quick stroll through the images of “Traffic in Souls”.

At the time it was made, this move was an experiment in feature-length narration.

You can read this statement on Wikipedia (as I did), or you may notice it by yourself (as I did) – being fairly obvious and all – it doesn’t really matter because that kind of thing is significant only if you’re interested in movie history or script-writing. It’s much too compressed and fragmented for todays’ standards (people have been making tons of “remakes” of this and they  tend to drag for more than two hours. In 1913. one couldn’t really exploit the prostitution and slavery part as one can today) and it is as such even if you compare it to the same era feature-lengths. Nevertheless, one can spot few interesting tidbits that lay around.

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For instance, one can spot that in 1913. concept of illegal wiretapping wasn’t really around. If you’re the police you can have your aides plant recording devices and just barge in when they produce some viable information (that style is coming back in a sense, consider recent NSA shenanigans). You can notice how the ideology of private business hasn’t really sunk in just yet. If you put white slavery concepts aside and think of outsourcing companies in this context you might picture how this movie would look like if it has been made today. Furthermore, the concept of shame was the big thing back then. Upholding the public morale and all I guess. We have watched many a movie that deals with the underworld since 1913. and the idea that wife commits suicide over shady practices of her husband (which, don’t forget, bring a lot of cash – big house and servants kinda give you a hint) somehow disappeared. What used to be a dramatic moment (or just playing it safely along the lines of “how it should end”) became a thing to laugh at. Hell, hundred years is a long time. Of course, we have hints of a romantic subplot (one can cram just so much in 40 minutes of movie reels) which tends to show that people watching this hundred years ago weren’t that much different from people today. Voyeuristic fantasy wish fulfillment thing doesn’t just disappear like that.

And there you have it. In these few moments you can see both the essence of time, somewhat distorted history lesson, and compressed ideas of many movies that will come later on. You can see how movies have grown, adding layers to bare foundations like these, and you can see how the arrival of the Hayes Code crippled cinema. This was a working-class movie, the picture about the dark underbelly of New York which disturbed lot of people and had to be censored in a way. Later on, we were given stories about upper-class love affairs and drama. Kardashians instead of “The Deer Hunter”.

Director: George Loane Tucker

Producer: Walter MacNamara

Screenplay: Walter MacNamara, George Loane Tucker

Starring: Jane Gail, Ethel Grandin, William H. Turner, Mat Moore, William Welsh, William Cavanaugh, Arthur Hunter, Howard Crampton, W. H. Bainbridge, Luray Huntley, William Powers, Jack Poulton, Edward Boring

Music: Philip Carli

Cinematography: H. Alderson Leach

Studio: Independent Moving Pictures Co. of America

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