A cheesy romance, a seaside class-war, a vehicle for the biggest female star of the time

The actual top film of 1914 was an epic 23-part serial called The Million Dollar Mystery, which it turns out is lost (how do you lose 46 reels of smash hit movie history, I find myself wondering?). So, I watched the second-highest-grossing film of that year instead.

Black and white photo of actor Mary Pickford, sad and barefoot, sitting on the floor of her shanty home in the 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country

You’ll definitely like Tess of the Storm Country, but only because of absolutely magnetic Mary Pickford – in feisty waif mode, right at the centre of it – owning the whole thing really. She’s surrounded in this cheesy melodrama by many big slabs of men, implausible blocks of motion picture timber – all tragically rendered exactly identical (apart from their hats) by Pickford’s brilliance.

Three male characters from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country, including, at right, the film's villain, a miserable capitalist called Deacon Elias Graves, who is joyfully reading the text of a law he's just had passed that will make life harder for the landless squatters on his beach-front land

They are either utterly unconvincing landless fishermen or slightly-more-convincing heartless landowners. The miserable, small-town capitalists involved live in the big house above the beach and resent the presence of the squatters below. The film was shot in Santa Monica and Del Mar, so this could literally be the house that Robert De Niro seemed so unattached to in Heat.

Robert De Niro, in silhouette, looks out of over the ocean from his modernist apartment in Michael Mann's film Heat

Of course, this big house is really a classic bourgeois pile, with a columned entrance and a carriage drive, indicating prosperity and respectability (surely demolished and replaced a dozen times since). It menacingly overlooks the strand where the fisherfolk’s makeshift camp cowers.

Two hefty gamekeepers holding a gun menace a fisherman they've detained on a rocky beach

Doing the actual menacing, down there in the lower, realm close to the sea, are various thugs in heavy suits – they are gamekeepers – circulating authentically, armed and dangerous, on the beach and in the squatters’ camp. In the exalted upper section of the narrative swooning ladies in hats and some callow students are also present. The intermixing of these two realms becomes a plot point.

The Great Train Robbery’s famous final shot

Tess of the Storm Country was directed by Edwin S Porter, a veteran who’d made his name with the extraordinary The Great Train Robbery. Pickford, who by this time was already essentially co-directing the films she was in, was unhappy with his old-fashioned ways. The Great Train Robbery was the absolute state of the art when it came out. But that was over ten years earlier and the haphazard, static, flat scene-making we see here was already very out-of-date.

The story is flat too, based on a best-selling news-stand romance by Grace Miller White. Pickford apparently disliked the crudity of this standard-issue morality tale – featuring the staples of the era’s melodramas: dignity in poverty, illegitimacy and extra-marital sex, love between classes, murder and a wrongly-convicted man. Hypocricy in authority also makes an appearance. She recognised a hit when she saw one, though, and signed on without further objection.

TV mobster Tony Soprano smokes a cigar in his swimming pool. He looks menacingly at the camera
Conflicted plutocrat

In movies of this period the wealthy could still be depicted as unproblematically wicked. These are not the ‘complicated’ villains of later eras, nor the conflicted plutocrats or tormented mobsters of post-depression or neoliberal America. These are simply capitalist thieves, exploiters of the vulnerable. In this film (as in others of the period) our principle villain, the head of the wealthy family at the top of cliffs, literally whips Pickford’s character Tessibel.

Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) collapses, whipped by wicked businessman Elias Graves (William Walters). A distressed woman enters from the rear to try to stop him

It’s wooden but sometimes it’s actually clumsy too. There’s an arresting scene where Pickford sics a (very old and gentle-looking) dog on one of her gentleman harassers. She sends the dog off out of the left-side of the frame and, bewilderingly, it arrives, barely slathering, at its victim’s location also out of the left-side of the frame. Pickford then sets off by the same filmically impossible route, arriving in time to steal her pursuer’s gun and depart, with the dog, out of the right-side of the frame.

Inter-title from 1914 film Tess of the Storm Country reads, in dialect: "I know we ain't married, Ben, but yer ain't never kissed our baby since he cum."

The film was a massive hit, yielding many times its $10,000 budget. Pickford told a biographer it was “the beginning of my career.” She’d been making films for five or six years, including 75 for D.W. Griffith, so this is meaningful. It was one of the first movies to be made in the emerging Hollywood creative complex and the beaches are all Californian. The community described, though, is somewhere on the New England coast or perhaps even in the old country – the hokey dialect in the intertitles is something between West Country English and Newfoundland Irish. Or something.

An organised crime drama with a dramatic police raid and an ultra-modern remote surveillance storyline

It’s called Traffic in Souls and it’s an extraordinarily modern movie a prototype for a whole new category

Still from 1913 film Traffic in Souls, showing criminals and victims gathered at the police station after the raid
Bang to rights – the pimps and crims face their accusers down at the precinct

Here’s my latest Quixotic project. I’m going to watch the top-grossing film from every year since 1913, which is when they started recording that sort of thing. I say Quixotic because this is the kind of thing I do all the time and my grand plans don’t usually come to much… I’ve got a list on Letterboxd.

Anyway, the first film is essentially a pre-code exploitation flick: kidnapping, pimps and prostitutes, corruption and hypocrisy in high places. The theme capitalises on the popular dread in this period of ‘white slavery’, what we would now call human trafficking.

This film’s got everything: almost thirty years before the first recognised film noir, fifty years before all those gritty 1970s studio explorations of urban crime and degradation. There’s cross-border organised crime, the kidnapping and trafficking of vulnerable immigrants (Ellis Island is an early location), prostitution, money-laundering, high-level corruption, the hypocrisy of the urban elite, the tense meeting of old and new money (and a fancy sweetshop that turns out to be a front for the crime gang).

Advertising poster for 1913 film Traffic in Souls. Stylised, brightly coloured, comic-book illustration shows a man in a suit wielding a long whip which snakes around the frame, terrorising a group of four young women: "A powerful photo-drama of today! 6 reels, 700 scenes, 600 players. White slave trade of New York!"
6 reels, 700 scenes, 600 players

The film has a terrific remote surveillance storyline (surely the first?) that features an audio relay between offices, a not-very-well-concealed mic, wax cylinders, a kind of recording tablet that looks a lot like an iPad. Our boyfriend-girlfriend heroes work as a team, set up their kit – laying cable, hiding bugs, swapping recording cylinders – like they’re from CSI – it’s kind of disorienting to see this ease with modern tech in a film from years before the electronic mic and the tape recorder. A wireless ship-to-shore telegram also makes an important appearance (I can imagine the producers demanding more cool tech for the younger crowd). We really are at the birth of the communication revolution – the critical evidence in the case against our villain is a wax cylinder (although there’s no evidence of a warrant so I’m worried the case might not have held up at appeal).

There’s an ‘invalid inventor’ (the heroine’s father) who is essentially a sketch for Harry Caul from The Conversation and a dramatic police raid that’s close in scale and execution to the SWAT raids of contemporary police drama. Dozens of coppers, armed with night-sticks and axes, crowd into a room at the precinct where they’re briefed by their captain about the infamy they’re about to uncover (if he actually says “be safe out there” it doesn’t make it into the intertitles). They then stream down the steps out of the station purposefully and pile into a convoy of cars. Watches are synchronised, the operation is triggered by a rooftop lookout (although he just blows his whistle, really). The raid’s denouement is dramatic (no spoilers here).

A big cast includes every possible archetype of disreputable America – the procurer, the blowsy madame, the shifty pimp, the enforcer, the hard-working immigrant, the fallen innocent, the unscrupulous middle-man, the courageous cop working on a hunch. The procurers wear nice suits and straw boaters, the enforcers trilbys or, in one case, a splendid squashed pork-pie hat. Respectable ladies and whorehouse Madames wear the same, high-Edwardian corsetry and big feather hats. Men and women alike count big wads of ill-gotten cash ostentatiously, like Scarface, and move between street corners, brothels and fancy offices with the confidence of generations of movie hoodlums.

The villain here is a wealthy man, William Trubus, a morally-bankrupt confectionery mogul whose candy business is a front for prostitution on a grand scale. If his administrative workforce is anything to go by it’s a huge enterprise. We visit a bustling office and two brothels and assume the existence of more. Nothing backstreet about this operation.

In America this is the era of the plutocrat, the robber baron and the money trust. The year of release is right at the peak of the antitrust era, the year of AT&T’s first run-in with government. In the following year the Clayton Act came into force. President Taft , who had just left office when the film came out, was an antitrust President and action against the monopolists was central to Wilson’s post-war platform too. The popular press is alive with stories about their malfeasance and their comeuppance. Trubus may be a self-made entrepreneur (there’s a storyline about the family’s introduction to society via the daughter’s marriage to “the greatest society catch of the season” – a monocled gent with no personality) but he’s uncomplicatedly wicked. Are there any sympathetic movie portrayals of businessmen from this period?

Mary and Larry, the central couple, are sweethearts – shopgirl and cop – the kind of civilian-police pairing that went on to be central to dozens of movie narratives, although this is more of a loving collaboration than the kind of messed-up marriages of more recent cop movies, where plots turn on the damage done by the pressures of being a police, by the single-minded, round-the-clock pursuit of evil, by late-night stake-outs and compulsory bourbon (see Die Hard, Heat, Mall Cop, Thunder Road, a thousand TV cop dramas). The lesson from Traffic in Souls is that the couple that polices together stays together.

There’s a very visible absence in the film, though. The figure we don’t meet is the punter. Not a single John appears. The seedy rooms and bleak hallways of the various brothels are busy with maids, pimps and prostitutes but not a customer is to be seen. Was it too much for even a pre-code feature to include the actual purchaser of sex? Would it have spoilt the neat two-sided narrative to introduce a complicating third?

Traffic in Souls is a splendid, complex, big-hearted action movie, an essentially perfect 88 minutes of entertainment from a director who, if we’re honest, didn’t really break through in his other work. When I mentioned the film on Twitter, film composer and historian Neil Brand called it “a bona fide one-off masterpiece” and used the hashtag #BetterThanDWGriffith, which is intriguing, because 1915’s biggest-grossing movie was Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, so I’ll be watching it soon.

It’s on Amazon Prime and you’ll find it on DVD here and there.

  • I don’t have a good reason for this but I like the fact that there are two Irish immigrants in the cast: William H. Turner (the invalid inventor) who was from Cork and appeared in 46 motion pictures between 1913 and 1938, and Matt Moore (the cop) from Mayo, 221 pictures, between 1912 and 1958.