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Silent New York

June 2024
1min read

Traffic in Souls

directed by Raoul Walsh, Kino on Video, 72 minutes .

directed by George Loane Tucker, Kino on Video, 88 minutes .

Raoul Walsh made such rowdy gangster films as White Heat and The Roaring Twenties , but before that he had to help invent the genre. He did so with Regeneration , his 1915 adaptation of the novel My Mamie Rose , by the former gangster Owen Kildare. It begins on the day of the death of young Owen’s mother in their Lower East Side tenement, then follows the ten-year-old keeping a terrified watch for his drunken father at night. After one family fight the title announces: “So the days pass in the only environment he knows.” Owen will soon join and then lead a gang, and no one will ever bully him again.

Outside of a memorable ferryboat fire and some drunken fights, this gangster film is a relatively quiet character study. Owen may be a gang leader, but Walsh implies he can be saved, cutting between the twenty-five-year-old with his mug of beer and the ten-year-old Owen gulping milk. The woman who saves him works at a settlement house. Under her attention he gives up the gang and his beer-hall sneer. Any student of old New York will be intrigued by this film, but even more perhaps by its accompanying Edison short, The Police Force of New York City , ten minutes of the real 1910 men in blue stopping runaway carriages in Central Park, chasing down (on bicycle!) a speeding touring car, performing a harbor rescue, and showing off their trained dogs.

Traffic in Souls plays unashamedly on an American obsession of the 1910s- white-slavery rackets—in the grand style of horrified titillation that Hollywood later perfected. How many white slavers actually lured how many young women into brothels may never be reckoned, but everyone from temperance activists to hungry novelists like William Faulkner seized on the lurid idea. George Loane Tucker’s 1913 film gleefully cuts between fresh-looking young victims and the whorehouse where they later end up, staffed by stumpy women counting stacks of bills. The film lays out an impressively complete system of madams, dupes, and dapper go-betweens in Panamas. Mary, the film’s naive heroine, is abducted at a dance club. Most of the story follows one brave cop’s dogged search for Mary, his sweetheart’s little sister. Fast-moving and full of wonderfully seedy New York locations, Traffic in Souls is as cautionary as Regeneration but takes more delight in the sordidness.

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