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The Slave Mart (1917)

"Combining the elements of dramatic interest and stirring animation is the sensational film "The Slave Mart", a Kimberly Feature production in five reels, which opens at the Bijou theater ... See full summary »


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"Combining the elements of dramatic interest and stirring animation is the sensational film "The Slave Mart", a Kimberly Feature production in five reels, which opens at the Bijou theater tonight, While not risque, as a number of persons who were given a private exhibition of the picture indorsed (sic) it, nevertheless it deals with a worldwide theme which has set more than one mind pondering. Pregnant truths are unfolded, exposing conditions in metropolitan centers that will hardly bear the light of investigation. For the reason that youthful minds are so easily open to impressions the management has decided not to admit boy and girls under 16 to the performances. "The Slave Mart" deals with a beautiful Italian immigrant, Maria Gramada, who on her arrival at New York is lured by a gang of human vultures under the guist (sic) of friends of her aunt. Jack Spaulding, a society man, happily senses what is under way and intervenes to save Maria from a terrible fate. A friendship begun in ... Written by Honolulu

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Release Date:

1917 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

The Slave Market  »

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watching silence and interpreting the inexplicit
27 March 2017 | by See all my reviews

A good silent film makes as much sense as any other good film; a bad silent films makes just as little sense as the many, many bad films that still come out every year.

One reason why silent films are often difficult for modern audiences is that we do not have the same skill in watching films as people then had; we have lost the ability to concentrate carefully and watch for visual clues.

Another reason why the silent films we have are often difficult to follow is the sad state they are in after all those decades of shameful neglect after 1929. This film is in moderate condition but there is clearly much missing footage (most of the first reel and some of the fifth).

The contemporary Honolulu reviewer (see Plot Summary) did not find the film uninteresting and people in the past were no more (or less) foolish and nor more (or less) critical than they are today..

The title of the film is of course intended to tie it in with the fashion for "white slavery" films. This had begun back in 1907 when Denmark's Nordisk producer Ole Olsen brought out a seven-minute film, Den hvide slavinde/The White Slave-girl based on a sensational 1905 Danish book of the same name. In 1910 the rival Danish company Fotorama produced a longer film (twenty minutes) which was immediately copied by Nordisk and lengthened to forty-five minutes. These early "exploitation" films were a huge success for Nordisk, for a time one of the biggest film-producers in Europe.

The subject did cause "more than one mind to ponder" specially in the the US where people were more inclined to take such things seriously. There was a campaign of fairly hysterical "white slave" tracts there in 1909 which led to the passing of the Mann Act (The White-Slave Traffic Act) in 1910.

Naturally the US film industry was not going to ignore the subject and two very different films were made in 1913, George Loane Tucker's Traffic in Souls and Frank Beal's The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. The first, produced by Laemmle at IMP/Universal was a complete piece of fakery. The other, produced by Samuel H. London, had the support of feminists and reformist lawyers and was a genuine attempt based on sound research to expose the workings of prostitution rackets, showing amongst other things how it was dull and badly-paid employment that led many women into prostitution and also how police corruption aided the operations of the racketeers.

Tucker's fakery sailed past the censorship board and was a huge success for Laemmle, Universal's first major success since its founding in 1912. Holland and Beal's documentary was considered altogether too real and London was eventually convicted for having produced a film with "tendency to corrupt morals". Nothing could more clearly illustrate how US censorship functioned to promote "drama" at the expense of truth. London was even urged by the board to make his film more "dramatic"....

Both films of course went in for the dramatics of getting the film "endorsed" by national or local celebrities. This (and the ban on under-sixteens) was effectively all part of the marketing process, neither necessarily being justified by the contents of the films.

In 1916 The National Board of Review declared a ban on all "white slavery" films so this film was probably brought out at this time to cash in before that ban became effective. The Slave Market of the same year, even if it was a tale of pirates rather than prostitutes, was doubtless given its title for the same reason. The NBR ban would later of course be codified and enforced by the industry's own Hays Commission.

In fact in this film, although the intentions of the "bandits" in kidnapping the girl may reasonably be assumed, they are never explicitly stated and the same bandits also kidnap the hero at one point in order to try and extract a ransom. Most of the early scenes (presumably involving the Italian girl) are in any case missing from this version and that might in part the result of censorship rather than nitrate damage.

If the girl is rescued, as the review claims (these scenes are missing), by the slightly dubious "society man" (Cruze gives more the impression of being a curb crawler), he in his turn is rescued by the two Italian women (the girl and her aunt) who are by then working ("shabbily but honestly") as barrel-organists. Cruze's intentions towards the girl (although parading as charity) seem barely more honourable than those of the "bandits" (he effectively "buys" her from her aunt) which, silly though the plot may often seem, does give the film a certain edge. The scene of "seduction" is really very creepy given that this is the film's hero at work not a villain and the creepiness is deliberately heightened by some rather clever effects...

So the "mart" (the word is rather well chosen) has multiple points of reference in the film - the presumed racket of the bandits, the hero's "adoption" of Maria and, finally, the voyeuristic, orientalist cabaret dance-drama in the penultimate act of the film ("the slave trade in antiquity"). It is in fact this dance-drama with it semi-nudity and lurid appeal that really provides the element of adult titillation in the film as well as its most "feminist" moment. The strange ellipses that fill the film are, I think, explained by the delicate situation with regard to the censors and to appreciate it we need to learn to see with slightly different eyes and a slightly different understanding, used not only to watching carefully but also to interpreting carefully what was seen but not explained.

The contemporary reviewer's description of the ending is somewhat misleading but I will allow viewers to discover that for themselves.....

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