SHOES (1916)

  • Director: Lois Weber
  • Writer: Lois Weber, based on the short story by Stella Wynne Herron and the non-fiction book A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil by Jane Addams
  • Starring: Mary MacLaren, Mattie Witting, Jessie Arnold, William V. Mong, and Harry Griffith
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#79)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel

For most of movie history, Lois Weber has been forgotten. But at the very dawn of American movies, she was one of the most respected directors, some of whose movies were big financial hits. She is thought to have been the first woman to direct a full-length feature film (1914’s The Merchant of Venice, which is now unfortunately entirely lost) and, after the success of several of her movies, the first woman to run her own studio. But she pre-dated Hollywood as a thing (Shoes was shot mostly on a studio set in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of a lot of movie making before everything moved out to California), and was also decidedly not part of the “boys club.” So for decades she was basically written out of history, but a renewed interest in female directors in recent years has brought her extant movies back into the light. When Shoes first came up on my super-complex system for determining which movie to watch next, I couldn’t actually find it anywhere, but The Criterion Channel added it last week along with several other films by Weber, so you can now watch all of them with the right streaming service.

I have said before that I think early movie comedy has probably aged better overall than early movie drama, but Shoes still, for the most part, works as well as it always has. Its purpose is as a window into extreme poverty, sort of like The Gift of the Magi except without the neat conclusion. Partially based on a non-fiction book by Jane Addams (seen as one of the primary originators of modern social work), it centers around a teenage girl (Mary MacLaren, who became a major star for a bit) who is forced to work as as a store clerk to support her family, but can’t even earn enough to buy herself a new pair of shoes when her current pair is completely falling apart. In desperation, she eventually sleeps with a skeevy guy literally named “Cabaret Charlie” (William V. Mong) in exchange for money, only to find out the same day that her deadbeat father (in this era before television, he’s depicted constantly reading trashy novels, but you get the idea) has finally gotten a job.

While many movies of this era are all gesticulation and large eyes, watching Shoes is, to my surprise, a very different experience. You might be forgiven, even, for forgetting the actors are acting, as the performances are completely naturalistic. MacLaren in particular is very good. Obviously they don’t have to talk, but she does quite a bit with just her face. And the filmmaking language used by Weber is remarkable in its modernism, at a time when a lot of directors were still basically just pointing a camera at the actors and saying “action.” Perhaps the movie’s most memorable shot remains MacLaren seeing her reflection in a cracked mirror, eyes empty. It is the sort of thing that is now a cliché, but in 1916 the movie doesn’t know it’s a cliché and so it completely works.

Where Shoes fall down at least slightly from a modern perspective is in the story itself, in which basically like three things happen the whole movie, things just get worse and worse and worse and then it ends. Nor are there any real surprises or a sense of characters undergoing changes or anything like that. It basically tells you what’s going to happen in the first title card, and then that’s what happens in the story. Its purpose is to make us empathize with people in dire straits, who might be different from us. You know, if we have enough money to go see a movie. But there aren’t, as it were, a lot of layers here. It’s very literal in getting across its message, especially in the scene where a giant hand comes down and menaces the heroine as she sleeps. The hand has “POVERTY” written on it in big letters, in case you didn’t get it.

After taking a job singing song recordings on the “chronophone” in 1908, Weber moved to directing “phonoscenes” for the same studio, Gaumont. Her short films became known for their innovations, such as one (also now available on The Criterion Channel) called Suspense, which uses split-screens and intercutting to tell the story of a woman threatened by a burglar. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is often credited with invented the idea of cutting between two different actions to build tension, but in Suspense Weber is clearly doing that multiple years earlier. She then made Hypocrites, which is somewhat infamous as the first commercial film with full frontal female nudity. In it, the “Naked Truth,” played by Margaret Hamilton, is depicted as a literal naked woman holding up a mirror to various hypocrites to show them their true selves. It drew widespread condemnation, but it also got Weber a job with Universal’s new “Bluebird Pictures” imprint, which was trying to be the first sort of “prestige studio” (think Fox Searchlight to 20th Century Fox). They gave her the money for Shoes, which turned out to be the biggest hit Bluebird ever made. They then produced The Dumb Girl of Portici, which was an epic for its time, based on an opera, and the only film appearance of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. That movie was also just added on The Criterion Channel.

Lois Weber was, at one time, one of the most famous movie directors in the country. Then basically no one watched her movies for like 100 years. It would be cool if she could be rediscovered, because there’s a lot of really interesting stuff in Shoes and what I’ve seen of her other films, that you wouldn’t expect from something in this era. You just kind of have to have certain expectations going in, I think.

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