#401) Shoes (1916)

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#401) Shoes (1916) 

OR “The Agony of the Feet”

Directed & Written by Lois Weber. Based on the short story by Stella Wynne Herron, and the novel “A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil” by Jane Addams.

Class of 2014

No trailer, but here’s a clip

The Plot: Eva (Mary McLaren) is a poor shop girl who works to support her parents and siblings. She tries to save up money for a much-needed new pair of shoes, but her paycheck always ends up going to back rent or debts owed to local businesses. Day after day of standing on her feet and walking through the rain has made Eva’s current shoes damaged beyond repair, but a proposition from “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong) might solve her problems. How much is Eva willing to do for a pair of…shoes?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a masterfully crafted melodrama” and praises Lois Weber to the hilt. There’s also a detailed essay by film professor/Lois Weber expert Shelley Stamp.

But Does It Really?: Sure, “Shoes” is preachy and its pacing is glacially slow by today’s standards, but it represents one of Hollywood’s few female directors, as well as a prominent social issue of the day. We have another Lois Weber movie on the list – 1916’s “Where Are My Children?” – but given her limited surviving filmography, as well as her importance to the early days of Hollywood, there’s plenty of room on this list for another well-made morally-strong Lois Weber film.

Everybody Gets One: Born to a family of evangelical Christians, Lois Weber was a child prodigy on the piano, and quickly turned to performing. Weber and her husband, Phillips Smalley, found work at the Rex Motion Picture Company in New York, which merged with several studios in 1912 to become Universal Studios. Following a move to Hollywood, Weber found herself directing, writing, and acting in her own movies. With this level of creative control, Lois Weber felt that movies were “an outlet for my emotions and my ideals”. “Shoes” was influenced by Weber’s days as a missionary on the streets of New York, and the poverty-stricken living conditions she witnessed.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Shoes” is firmly steeped in its 1910s Progressive Era setting, but there’s still a lot of the film’s depiction of living below the poverty line that rings true today. Also dated: Five and Dime stores where items actually cost five and ten cents.

Other notes

  • “Shoes” begins with a direct passage from “A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil”, which ends with the infamous words about the woman who “sold herself for a pair of shoes”.
  • Poverty stricken family, a father who refuses to work: depressed yet?
  • Silent movies are always a good source for words and phrases that are no longer commonplace. Example: Lil mentions to Eva that “Cabaret” Charlie is the man who “rubbered at us” on the street the previous day. In this case, “rubbered” is a verb meaning to rubberneck. That’s far less filthy than what I originally imagined.
  • Mary McLaren kinda looks like Amy Schumer. What’s she up to these days?
  • And then we get to the shot in which Eva’s shoes are so worn, a nail pierces her exposed sole. We get a very close, albeit not graphic, shot of Eva’s foot. Somewhere Quentin Tarantino is taking notes.
  • I must admit, the performances in this film are uniformly good. There’s none of the “back of the house” theatrics I’ve come to expect from silent film acting; everyone plays it naturally. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
  • There is no worse feeling on God’s green Earth than when you get rainwater in your shoes.
  • This may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that makes my feet sore just from watching it. I assume that’s what Lois Weber was going for, so mission accomplished.
  • Weber shows her experimental side with a superimposed hand labeled “POVERTY” reaching out for Eva while she struggles to sleep. It’s way too on-the-nose, but you can’t spell “poverty” without “overt”.
  • Despite the film’s very impressive restoration by the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, that last reel is damaged beyond repair. Certain shots look like they were filmed during a sandstorm.
  • When Eva decides to sleep with “Cabaret” Charlie, she looks at her reflection in a cracked mirror. Get it?
  • Oooh, Eva’s showing off some of her undergarments. It’s 1916: we could all go to jail just for looking at this!
  • It definitely took me a minute to realize what was happening when Eva meets with “Cabaret” Charlie and suddenly we shift to Eva’s dreams of a better life for herself. This is how the movie implies sex without showing billowing curtains or a train speeding into a tunnel. It’s the cinematic equivalent of “close your eyes and think of England”.
  • Ultimately, “Shoes” holds up quite well, but even at less than 50 minutes in length, it still feels incredibly padded and is marred with slow (by modern standards) pacing. Perhaps Lois Weber’s original intent of a two-reeler (rather than the final five) would have been more effective.

Legacy

  • Lois Weber’s star continued to rise throughout the 1910s, to the point of forming her own studio: Lois Weber Productions. She continued to crank out hit after hit, but once the roaring ‘20s came along, audiences found her moral crusading tame and boring. After a hiatus, Weber spent the last 15 years of her life going from studio to studio, but nothing ever stuck. Her death in 1939 was largely ignored by Hollywood, and of her hundreds of movies, less than 20 are known to survive.
  • Thankfully, Lois Weber’s place in film history has been revisited and praised, starting with a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
  • “Shoes” was a big hit for Universal, so technically “Shoes” is one of the reasons that we have movies like “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”.

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