Tom Kacich: The movie that wouldn't play in Urbana
It was billed as "the most remarkable film ever produced," which wasn't saying much in 1914 since the motion picture industry wasn't even 20 years old.
But the movie "Traffic in Souls" really was remarkable in several respects: it was six reels long, virtually a full-length movie by today's standards; it was Universal Pictures' first feature-length film; it went beyond the single storyline, popular at that time; it was a huge box office success (earning almost half a million dollars); and it was banned in Chicago, Danville and Urbana.
It's unlikely that it was the first movie banned in Chicago — the city had had a film censorship law since 1907 — but it may have been the first to be declared off-limits in Urbana, based on the reaction of the hometown newspaper.
Urbana Mayor O.L. Browder, acting after Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison had already forbidden the movie there, asked for a private showing of the film at the Illinois Theatre, which once stood approximately where the Strawberry Fields natural foods store is today.
According to the Champaign Daily Gazette, Browder, University of Illinois Dean of Men Thomas Arkle Clark and "two or three Urbana club women" watched the movie "with the understanding that their verdict would be the final verdict."
"At the closing of the showing," the theater manager told the Gazette, "those whom we invited were of one voice, that being that the pictures were not of a nature which would permit their showing in Urbana. That was all that was necessary and the contact with the film company was immediately canceled.
"We want it understood that we will attempt to offer nothing distasteful in our theaters and will always submit cheerfully to honest criticism. These ladies and gentlemen thought these pictures not suitable and there was no argument on our part."
Tame by today's standards, it apparently was a sensation in 1914. The topic was "white slavery," or prostitution, among innocent urban immigrant women; in this case, two Swedish girls who went to a "Swedish employment agency."
The movie's success led to a number of similar films, including "White Slave Traffic," which Variety magazine panned.
"The question of whether it'll serve for good or evil is one the communities for which it is offered will quickly decide," the Variety critic wrote. "That like its prototype (Traffic in Souls) at Weber's, it will lower the standard of esteem in which film plays are held goes without saying."
Until the political pressure became too great, "Traffic in Souls" was presented in March 1914 at Danville's Fischer Theatre. The city's board of censors determined it was an "educational" movie, according to the Commercial-News.
The only restriction, Mayor William Lewman decreed, was that no person under the age of 14 be admitted unless accompanied by their parents.
"County Judge Allen stated he favored the picture," the newspaper reported. "The judge said he has had considerable experience with young girls who have strayed from the straight and narrow path and it is his opinion that the pictures will do much toward saving young girls, not only from men actually engaged in the white slave traffic but from themselves."
Almost immediately, though, Lewman reversed his decision.
"Within the hour the show was permitted to be shown the few women who had opposed the film opened operations," the Commercial-News said. "They enlisted the services of other women and while an audience of 300 was witnessing the matinee performance at the Fischer, a delegation of more than 100 called at the office of Mayor Lewman and asked him to reconsider his action.
"Mayor Lewman's personal opinions of the matter of presenting the film is unchanged, but the constant telephoning to his office and the personal appeals of mothers of the city caused his honor to set aside his own personal views in the matter in deference to the women — the mothers of Danville's growing generation."
The Urbana Courier-Herald challenged public opinion, including its own readers, and denounced the censorship.
"With the best intentions in the world the mayor of Urbana seems to be getting into pretty deep water with the idea of censorship of what is to appear at local theaters," the newspaper wrote in an editorial. "Are we to understand that in the future only such plays as meet the approval of a committee of ministers and near ministers are permitted to exhibit in Urbana? We greatly fear that such a committee, however honestly they may seek to perform their labors, could not consistently look favorably on any kind of stage production not given under religious or semi-religious auspices."
The newspaper also attacked the makeup of Mayor Browder's censorship board.
"If he was going to buy a horse or an automobile, he would consult friends of his in whom he had confidence and who were familiar with horses or automobiles, but when he wants to know about the stage he gets the advice of those who are most opposed to it in principle," wrote the Courier-Herald.
The editorial generated a number of letters to the editor, including one from Thornton B. Archer, who wrote that the time was coming when the righteous "will have the rest of us living rightly, even if they have to do it by legislation and the policeman's club."
"I expect to see the Illinois Theatre dedicated to God, with the singing of psalms supplanting the ribald song and jest of actors," Archer wrote.
Within 10 years, the Illinois Theatre was owned by a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and even hosted a Klan-officiated wedding there in 1923. But four years later, the theater burned down in an obvious case of arson.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.