These notes on Lois Weber's Shoes (1916) were written by Erica Moulton, PhD. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A recent restoration of Shoes will screen in a special program highlighting the work of pioneering women filmmakers that will also include short works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ida May Park, and Alice Guy Blaché. The program has been curated by The New York Times' film critic Manohla Dargis, who will present the program in person and lead a post-screening discussion on Thursday, October 31 at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!
By Erica Moulton
When discussing the films of directors Lois Weber and Ida May Park, the phrase “socially conscious” typically comes up, as their films’ narratives frequently dealt with the tribulations of the impoverished and the downtrodden, treating cinema as a vehicle for social uplift and education. Throughout her twenty year-career as a director, screenwriter, actor, and editor, Weber spoke of cinema’s power to communicate messages to the public in ways that words never could, framing her films both in artistic terms but also as sociological projects akin to investigative reporting. The connections between filmmaking, ethnography, and documentary were further forged by Zora Neale Hurston, who took up a 16dmm camera in the late 1920s to capture portraits of everyday life for African Americans in the South. For her part, Alice Guy Blaché’s remarkable career as a filmmaker (she directed over a thousand films, with around 150 extant) spanned continents, multiple genres, and techniques that she was instrumental in developing—but her films, too, tended to foreground women.
An interest in women’s shifting roles within society runs through many of the works of early female directors, unsurprising given the contentious times they were living through, with public debates around urbanization, poverty, labor, and voting rights raging in the national consciousness. For perspective, Weber’s Shoes (1916) was released four years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote. Despite the scant rights and opportunities that women had in most areas of American society, filmmaking in the first two decades of the 20th century offered a rare avenue for artistic expression and control. In addition to writing and directing, Weber and Guy-Blaché owned and oversaw their own film companies—Lois Weber Productions and Solax Studios, respectively. And yet, the 1920s ushered in corporatization and vertical integration that gave way to rigid studio hierarchies which largely excluded women from positions of leadership and creative roles, especially directing, cinematography, and producing.
Even at the height of her career, Weber’s artistic achievements were qualified in the press by highlighting her close working relationship with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Smalley and Weber did co-direct dozens of features and shorts, but Weber was clearly invested in staking her own place in the burgeoning film landscape, going so far as to open her 1916 feature Hypocrites with an image of herself under a superimposed signature “Yours Sincerely, Lois Weber.” Her authorial hand is no less evident in Shoes, which takes its inspiration from a short story of the same name by Stella Wynne Herron and Jane Addams’s nonfictional treatise on prostitution, A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912). The film follows young shopgirl Eva Meyer (Mary McLaren), who works long hours in a Five and Dime department store during the day, only to return home to hand over all her earnings to her harried mother each night. We learn that Eva’s job and her mother’s side-business bringing in laundry are the family’s only sources of income, as the father opts to sit and read novels in bed all day instead of looking for a job. Eva’s three younger sisters flit around the background of Weber’s shots of the Meyer kitchen, showing them struggling to meet their own needs (with one sister sneaking sugar into the watered-down milk that the mother serves her).
Eva’s primary concern, as the film’s title announces, is her deteriorating pair of shoes, worn through from spending hours every day on her feet. In an early scene, when Eva walks up to a store window and gazes at the fine pair of leather boots on display, Weber cuts to a closer shot of the boots and Eva’s hand outstretched on the glass pane separating her from her object of desire. Shelley Stamp’s extensive writing on Weber’s career includes a 2004 essay on Shoes, which probes the role that consumerism plays in the articulation of female desire, especially given the commodity-filled department store that serves as a backdrop for much of the film. The daily business of buying and selling is linked to the unsavory transactions arranged at ‘Cabaret’ Charlie’s night club between men and women. Charlie takes a shine to Eva when he first sees her staring at the shoes, all but revealing his intentions to Eva’s morally dubious colleague Lil, who accepts the transactional nature of Charlie’s overtures. Eva carefully averts her eyes away from Charlie’s gaze, but her resolve is shaken as her shoes grow more and more tattered. With her incredible command of cinematic language, Weber elicits both the deep psychological hurt and anguish of Eva’s dilemma and the larger social causes underlying her suffering. For instance, as Eva sleeps one night, a hand with “poverty” scrawled on the skin is superimposed looming over her while she imagines what might happen to her family if she loses her job.
Shoes (1916) and many other films by female directors (including the ones featured in our Cinematheque program) remain to testify to the talent and vision of their creators. Although they were understudied for years, scholars including Shelley Stamp, Cari Beauchamp, Jane Gaines and Hilary A. Hallett have written books that fill in the historical lacunae of these filmmakers’ careers. While Weber died in 1939, she and Guy-Blaché, Hurston, and Park all lived to witness the remarkable rise of film as a commercial form of mass entertainment. Weber was alive to see the names of her contemporaries, Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, enshrined in the annals of Hollywood’s self-made mythology—and see herself erased. What better way to undo that injustice than to do what all of these directors wanted the public to do—watch their films!