Mary Barton is a sensible young woman with a job in a New York City candy shop and a policeman boyfriend. But Mary's sister Lorna is less sensible, constantly late for work at the candy shop and the kind of girl who will leave work to go to lunch with a handsome stranger—who drugs her and takes her to a brothel. Lorna is kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Other victims who are being held prisoner at the brothel include a woman who is lured there immediately after getting off the train and two Swedish sisters fresh off the boat at Ellis Island. Will Mary save her sister from defilement? Will the traffic in souls be stopped?
Traffic in Souls was one of the first, and maybe the first, feature film produced in the United States. It was a huge hit and a milestone in the early history of Universal. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2006.
- Chekhov's Skill: When Mary and Lorna's father is introduced a caption on the title card says that he's an inventor. This comes in handy later in the movie when he's revealed to have invented a recording device that can catch conversations and record them onto wax cylinders.
- Contrived Coincidence: The boss at the candy shop responds to Lorna being kidnapped by a sex-slave ring by firing Mary due to the scandal. Just as Mary is getting canned, who of all people walks in to the candy shop? Mrs. Trubus, wife of the head of the prostitution ring. Mrs. Trubus gets Mary a job as her husband's secretary, which leads to Trubus getting exposed.
- Death by Despair: Or death by embarrassment, as Trubus's wife immediately croaks after he's exposed as the sex slave kingpin.
- Exploitation Film: This film may be the Trope Maker or Ur-Example of sexploitation, at least in cinema. And much like many, many other works in the sexploitation genre, it promises more than it delivers. (Lorna is held captive in a G-rated brothel.)
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Words like "prostitute" and "whore" are never mentioned, neither are phrases like "sex slave" or "white slavery". No customers are seen at the brothel. If one didn't know the context it might be difficult to figure out exactly what is going on. The worst thing shown is when a madam and a pimp try and force Lorna to put a kimono on.
- Kimono Fanservice: Here the kimono is associated with prostitution. Lorna's captors at the brothel attempt to force her to put one on.
- Novelization: A novel was published in 1914, complete with stills from the movie for illustrations. Probably the first novelization of a movie ever.
- Ripped from the Headlines: "White slavery" (i.e., forcing women into prostutition) was a thing back in the early 20th century. Maybe not a thing that happened very much, if at all (as opposed to modern sex trafficking, which is very real), but one that made headlines and sold papers. In Real Life concerns about sex trafficking led to the passage of the Mann Act in 1910.
- Rooftop Confrontation: One of the hoodlums has a shootout with a cop on top of a roof.
- Sex Slave: The women are forced into prostitution.
- Slipping a Mickey: How the procurer gets Lorna to the brothel, by slipping something in her drink.
- A Taste of the Lash: Lorna's madam and pimp both threaten Lorna with a whip after she refuses to put on the kimono.
- Title Drop: The "traffic in souls" is mentioned in a newspaper article.
- Twin Threesome Fantasy: Seemingly alluded to with the Swedish sisters. Else why make them sisters/twins?
- Villain Ball: Dear Mr. Trubus: running a listening device from your office to the office of the prostitution ring really isn't necessary. And if you do find it necessary to listen to your minions as they talk about the white slavery business in another office, you definitely should not leave your earphone sitting out in a position where your secretary can pick it up.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Trubus, the mastermind behind the forced prostitution ring, masquerades as the founder of the International Purity And Reform League, campaigning against white slavery.