Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913)
This move was an early example of a combination exploitation-and-message-picture. Ostensibly produced by a sociologist (who thanks “Every Sociologist from Atlantic to Pacific” in the opening credits), it claims to portray the actual daily lives of pimps and prostitutes, drawing audiences in with the promise of salacious (but actually absent) details. This would be an approach taken by exploitation producers to avoid censorship for at least the next 70 years.
Most of this story centers around Annie, who is a “good girl, who works hard” in a sweatshop, but it begins with a short prologue about Mary, a woman already caught up in prostitution. Mary is George, the procurer’s, “best girl.” She gets arrested and George goes to court with a mouthpiece to bail her out. Then, George meets Annie and takes her out for drinks, spiking them. When Annie wakes up at his apartment, she is horrified, and runs home, where her father throws her out for having lost her purity. She goes back to George, who takes her to a phony preacher and pretends to marry her. He then puts her up “with friends” while he pretends to look for a job. Soon, he sells her to one of his associates for $300, and he takes her to New Orleans, where he makes it clear what she is expected to do. She keeps the money she makes for herself and runs away to Denver and later Houston, where no one will give her a job because of “the system.” So, she returns to her new pimp, and agrees to try working, but, as soon as she meets a man on the street, a cop chases him off and arrests her. She is “rehabilitated” and works at a department store for a while, but she gets tired of her low pay and returns to her pimp, who puts her back to work. She fantasizes about her former happy family life, but returns to harsh reality. When she dies, she is buried in a potter’s field with no name on her gravestone marker.
In fairness, the surviving print of this movie is incomplete, so some of the inconsistencies and jumps in the storyline above should be forgiven. Still, it seems like an awfully inefficient model for organized crime. In the footage we see, her pimp pays $300 for her (worth at least $5000 in today’s money, or a lot more depending on how you measure it), but he only makes a few dollars off her before she is arrested. Meanwhile, he has to pay for telegrams to Houston, Denver, and throughout “the system,” apparently. Criminals like this wouldn’t stay in business very long. It seems to me they would need to have a more effective means of convincing her to work for them than the elaborate plot about faking a marriage and giving her free room and board for weeks or months as well. Finally, as I suggested above, there is nothing at all racy about the content, even by the standards of movies at the time. “Trilby” and “Carmen” showed more skin, and those women did a much better job of implying their availability than the uptight Annie and Mary ever do. They take off their hats in a couple of scenes, but that’s about as far as they go.
Still, there are some interesting things about this movie. Most of it is shot in the standard “square” format on cramped sound stages with painted flats in the background (you’ll laugh out loud at the attempt at painting perspective on the Dept. Store flat). However, there are brief glimpses of city streets from the period that are fascinating. Some of these are unmistakably New York (watch for the “ell” trains), and the ones ostensibly in Denver are definitely in a rugged Western city with dirt sidewalks and cow hands roving around. The background characters are not extras, they are real people of the time, and their fashions and appearances are informative. As usual at the time, however, these shots are annoyingly brief, requiring you to pause to really examine them. The editing structure has few surprises, but there is a kind of leisurely cross-cutting when Annie tries to find work against the resistance of “the system.” There’s also a handy glossary on criminal slang of the period, which probably includes a couple of accurate entries, if only by accident.
Also interesting are the takeaways of the message. The big sin that the movie points out is the “out of my house” rule that the father enforces when Annie comes home after being out all night. The other point that is made is the double standard of arresting the prostitute while just shooing off the John. The producer or the Sociologist involved is trying to make the point that prostitution is not a moral failing, but a result of social conditions that could be changed by society. It’s not an especially sophisticated presentation of that argument, but it is a good representation of the Progressivist influence on motion pictures of the time.
Director: Frank Beal
Run Time: 28 Min, 45 seconds
You can watch it for free: here.