Monthly Archives: May 2013
“White slavery” was a term quite familiar to audiences of the 1910s, but for the benefit of everyone else, let me explain. It was first used by Christian Evangelical magazines in the early 19th century in reference to European women being abducted by Muslims and forced to serve in the Sultan’s harem as concubines. Whether that ever actually happened didn’t matter much, the concept captured the public’s attention either way. By the 20th century, a few details had changed – Chinese brothels had largely supplanted Muslim harems and working-class Americans and recent immigrants had taken the place of European beauties – but the practice of white slavery was still rampant as far as most were concerned. It was the talk of all the moral crusaders and it led to several new laws being passed. Chief of those new laws was the Mann Act (1910), which was intended to curtail interstate transport of women for the purpose of prostitution, but was mostly used to harass mixed-race couples. White slavery as the crusaders knew it turned out to be nothing more than a moral panic. White slavery in reality was just a mix of racism and xenophobia.
In addition to the flood of books, pamphlets, and articles on the subject, several films about white slavery were released in the 1910s. The most successful of these was Traffic in Souls (1913), a pseudo-documentary chronicling a naïve Swedish immigrant being whisked away by white slavers and the efforts of her sister to rescue her. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913), released a scant month after Traffic in Souls, is clearly trying to ride on its coattails.
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic was made with the assistance of a bevy of sociologists and lawmakers, including former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Henry J. Dannenbaun. It proclaims that it’s a genuine “pictorial report” of white slavery presented “without any exaggeration or fictional indulgence”.
Of the four reels that made up the original release, the middle two are lost and the others show evidence of scissor-happy censors. It makes for a disjointed viewing, but since the film doesn’t show a single plot but rather several “episodes” in white slavery, some stories are more complete than others.
The most intact story follows Annie (Virginia Mann?), a good girl who lives with her parents and works at a textile factory. After her shift is over, she accepts a date with George Fisher. Fisher slips something into Annie’s drink and she passes-out. When she comes-to hours later, she’s in Fisher’s apartment and looks disheveled. She runs home, but her father, who subscribes to “the ‘out of my house’ policy”, throws her out after learning what happened.
Fisher promises to marry her and they visit a preacher, but the ceremony is a “shaker” – a sham. The film likes to use “authentic” trafficker slang and throws-up a glossary whenever it does to translate. After a couple weeks, Fisher tells Annie that he has to travel out of town to find work and leaves her in the care of his friend, Felix Keefer (Edwin Carewe?). Fisher sends a letter saying that he has no intention of ever coming back and that Annie is on her own. Keefer tells Annie that he can take her to New Orleans, where she can get an easy divorce. Distraught, she agrees.
Once in New Orleans, Keefer tells Annie the score – that she’s to be a prostitute now and had better get used to it. Annie makes a “break” (runs away) from the “schmeiser” (trafficker). Wherever she goes, “the system” follows, and she has to keep moving. In Houston, after “dropping” (pawning) all her belongings, she spends her last dollar on a “crib” and awaits the inevitable. She’s found and returned to Keefer, forced to “slave for him again”.
Annie slumps in a chair with her head in her hands and remembers the happy days when she lived with her parents. How does it end? We’re shown an unmarked mass grave and told “she was laid away an outcast in Potter’s Field”.
There are a few other episodes, including one about an immigrant girl and another about police busts and “smiled” police (crooked cops on the take), but these are much more fragmentary and hard to follow.
Traffic in Souls, the inspiration for The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, wasn’t a particularly well-made film. It’s obviously low-budget and the filmmakers weren’t terribly skilled in their craft, but it was successful thanks to its strong, well-paced story, and because, despite presenting itself as a documentary, it wasn’t adverse to a bit of theatricality here and there to drive the narrative. White Slave Traffic is just as unskilled and even lower budget, and although its story is more compelling on paper, the dry, unemotional, documentary style of delivery it strictly adheres to makes it tiresome to watch. The lost episodes may have been different, but it’s doubtful. Contemporary reviews tend to focus on the Annie story, so it was likely the best one.
On a technical level, the production is so cheap that it took several viewings before I could actually tell the characters and sets apart. The hotels and apartments were all very, very obviously the same room with the furniture moved around and I think all of the women shared a single costume. The locations shots look authentic, but that’s just because much of the film was shot guerrilla-style in real stores and restaurants – which resulted in more than one lawsuit against the producers by business owners who didn’t like their establishments being painted as fronts for a nefarious international pimp guild known as “The System”.
I can’t see anyone enjoying the film based on its own merits, but if you’re interested in the controversy surrounding it (and there was a lot of controversy – it was outright banned in many locations) or in early exploitation films in general, you might want to give it a go.
My rating: I don’t like it.
What I reviewed above was a print of the film as it commonly exists in circulation. It’s highly fragmentary (as noted) and the scenes that do survive are rather jumbled up (which I didn’t mention, but I did re-arrange some things in the plot synopsis to make more sense). Going by the typeface and style of some of the replacement titles, I would guess the print was probably assembled in the mid to late 1920s (post ’24, surely) out of whatever material was still extant from the film’s original release, with very little regard for how it was pieced together or whether the final product was at all comprehensible.
In the several months since this review was written, and after study of contemporary documentation, I have a much firmer grasp of the Annie story as as well as the other three episodes, and I also know more or less how the surviving scenes were originally arranged. I’ve released a reconstruction of the film with explanatory text inserted wherever so much material is missing that the plot can’t be followed.
As far as my opinion of the film goes, that has not changed. It’s still awful. Watch Traffic in Souls.
Available from Harpodeon
When I reviewed Air Pockets (1924) back in February, I had never seen a Lige Conley film before. I was very impressed by it and began wondering whether Conley was an overlooked genius or if Air Pockets was just a fluke. Now that I’ve seen Fast and Furious (1924), I suspect it’s the latter.
The film is rather starkly divided into two acts. In the first act, we meet Lige Conley, who plays a nameless department store clerk. We also meet his boss (Otto Fries) and the big boss (John Rand). The big boss has a daughter (Ruth Hiatt) that the film hints may be Conley’s love interest, but that plot thread doesn’t really go anywhere. Truth be told, the same can be said for all of the plot threads in the first act. Something will be abruptly introduced, there will be exactly one gag related to it, then, just as abruptly, it will be dropped forever. The only event that actually leads to anything is the last bit: robbers appear and make off with the store’s money, which takes us to act two.
In the second act, Conley and his black caricature assistant (uncredited, but it’s Spencer Bell) give chase and try to recover the stolen money. Whether they travel by car, motorcycle, horse, train, or railroad handcar, everything that can go wrong for Conley does. It’s still little more than a series of one-off gags, but at least the vague “chase” framework gives it some of the focus that the first act was sorely lacking.
Lige Conley is channeling Larry Semon something hard in his performance, and it doesn’t help that his partner in the film, Spencer Bell, was Semon’s long-time sidekick – although in Semon’s films, Bell is better known by the pseudonym G. Howe Black.
The first act of Fast and Furious is pointless. There was literally no plot, few of the gags worked, and nearly all of the situations were lifted wholesale from much more effective films. I would say you could cut it entirely, but then you’d lose the only decent scene in the movie: a heat lamp is turned on some eggs, and in a great stop-motion sequence, they sprout legs, dance around the counter, and then hatch into chicks. The second act had some impressive stunts and special effects, but stunts and special effects alone don’t make for a good comedy.
I did not like Fast and Furious. I do not recommend it. I don’t think there’s anything more to say.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Having acted on the stage for over a decade, Douglas Fairbanks broke into pictures by joining the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915. Audiences immediately took to his handsome looks and lively acting. As a rising star, he quickly outgrew Triangle and left for greener pastures in 1916. Not wanting to lose out on the profits that a film headlined by Fairbanks would bring in, Triangle took one of the last movies he made while he was still under their employ – the 1916 five-reeler The Matrimaniac – and used it along with some outtakes to assemble a new two-reeler that they released under the guise of a completely new Fairbanks picture in 1917: The Missing Millionaire.
If you’ve seen The Matrimaniac, you’ll surely recognize the footage, but not the story, as The Missing Millionaire follows an entirely different plot.
It starts with quite a cold opening – an old man in a bathtub, a couple of people standing around looking suspicious, Douglas Fairbanks slashing somebody’s tires – and it’s actually about five minutes in before we’re given the slightest clue what’s going on, but it turns out that the story isn’t too complex. Jonas Byng (Fred Warren), a seller of patent medicines and a hypochondriac himself, has just inherited a million dollars. His cousin Zeke (Clyde E. Hopkins) is eager to get his hands on the money, which he plans on doing by having Joe declared insane and naming himself the executor of his estate. Jim Lawton (Douglas Fairbanks), a shoe-salesman, is in love with Joe’s daughter Mildred (Constance Talmadge) and very much wants to prevent Zeke from robbing her and her father of their fortune. The bulk of the film (and by bulk, I mean all) is a race to the judge, with Jim and Joe on the one side and Zeke and Mildred (who he’s taken hostage, I guess) on the other.
Fairbanks gives an acrobatic performance as Jim – scaling walls, running on rooftops, tightrope-walking on telephone lines, clinging to the underside of a moving train – and Warren plays the doddering, absent-minded old man convincingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters’ actions made a great deal more sense in The Matrimaniac. Even as simple as they’ve tried to keep the plot, the movie still feels like it’s about to come apart at the seams any minute. It’s an obvious cut-and-paste job that only barely stays coherent.
The film ends with an abrupt twist that I’ll admit was unexpected, but it’s the sort of twist that the film treats as a resolution, but when you stop to think about the situation even for a moment, you realize it doesn’t resolve anything at all. At the conclusion of the film, pretty much all of the main characters, with the exception of maybe Mildred, should be in prison given all the laws they’ve broken up to that point.
It has the elements of a good film (and I mean that literally), but The Missing Millionaire isn’t a good film itself. I don’t recommend it, apart from as an oddity owing to its curious creation.
Incidentally, The Missing Millionaire wasn’t the only re-edit of The Matrimaniac: the one-reeler A Telephone Marriage (1926) was also edited from it. All three films survive. It’s interesting watching them back to back to see all the different takes on the same footage.
My rating: I don’t like it.
I don’t normally watch individual episodes of a serial separate from the serial as a whole, but as Pearl of the Army (1916) is largely lost, I don’t have much choice in the matter. Being as this is episode ten of fifteen, a great deal has already happened that the audience is presumed to be familiar with, but as I’m not, my plot summary will be a bit disjointed and full of guesswork.
Before that, though, a note about the print I watched. Title-less negatives for the whole serial survived intact until they were lost in a vault fire in the 1960s. Prints of five or so of the thirty reels are known to still exist, mostly coming from the film cache discovered in Dawson City back in the 1970s, comprising parts of episodes one, six, and fourteen. My print of episode ten isn’t unique, but no one seems to know much about it. It was struck in 1940, according to the edge code, and the titles are obvious replacements. That leads me to strongly suspect it was sourced from the negative when it was still extant.
We join the story in progress. There are three plots running more or less concurrently in this episode, aside from the general overarching plot of the serial, that being the hunt for the Silent Menace, a mysterious German operative working to sabotage the U.S. war effort (Pearl of the Army is a World War I propaganda series, if you were unable to guess).
The first plotline follows Pearl Date (Pearl White) and Captain Ralph Payne (Ralph Kellard – my print calls him Adams, but I’m reasonably sure this is an error), who, I assume after a cliffhanger in episode nine, find themselves captives of the Silent Menace and his gang at the start of this episode. Ralph appears to be something of an analogue to Harry Marvin in The Perils of Pauline (1914) – in love with Pearl and wanting to marry her, but she’ll have none of it until she’s had her fill of adventure.
The second plotline follows the Lieutenant in an Arm Sling (I think he’s played by Floyd Buckley, but I don’t know the character’s name), who is under suspicion of “duplicity in the matter of the secret Canal Defense Plans” and is about to be court martialed. I give him the name Arm Sling because his left arm is in one. Arm Sling is also in love with Pearl, but is much less involved in her adventures.
The third and least developed plotline follows a woman who I can only assume to be Bertha Bonn (Marie Wayne). She is an agent for the Army (I guess) and has been tasked with keeping tabs on the Menace’s movements (I guess). She’s in love with Arm Sling? Maybe? Or perhaps he’s her brother? In any event, there’s some strong connection between them.
Much of the film, as you might expect, is devoted to finding and unmasking the Silent Menace, which falls entirely to Pearl. Seriously, you’d think the army couldn’t care less about apprehending him going by how much legwork she puts in compared to their actions. Unlike White’s characters in Perils or Exploits, Pearl here isn’t thrown into much danger that she didn’t actively seek out herself. She takes multiple punches to the face and is knocked several stories down a fire escape, but after all that, she still manages to tackle the fleeing suspect and throw him to his death over the side of a tall building.
There is a mystery involved in the Menace’s identity and how the ancillary characters are connected, but from this single, late episode, it all comes across as very confusing. There’s a flashback to a train wreck that may have occurred in an earlier episode, where a bearded-man plants a document on the body of one of the victims, and this apparently implicates Arm Sling so strongly in something that he kills himself to avoid being questioned. Ralph was apparently undercover at some point? Maybe that’s how he came to be captured by the Menace at the end of episode nine? A ghost of a woman appears to Pearl when she’s trying to puzzle out the identity of the Menace and seems to beckon to her – who she is and what that’s all about, I have no idea. A man in the hospital tries to confess to crimes he committed as part of the Menace’s gang, but they’re so incredible, he’s dismissed as being delirious. Before he names who his boss is, two shifty-eyed orderlies give him something “to steady his nerves” and he says no more.
I will say, confusing as it could be, The Silent Enemy Unmasked! certainly held my attention. The cinematography is much improved from White’s earlier serials. I particularly liked the train wreck flashback, which is entirely black and we only see brief snatches of action when the scene is lit up by lightning. Pearl wracking her brain to identify the Menace was handled in an effective, if surreal, way, with him appearing as a phantom that turns into a shadow that turns into a giant question mark.
I would definitely recommend Pearl of the Army and I’d love to see more of it myself.
My rating: I like it.