Shoes (1916)

Director/Screenwriter: Lois Weber

The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the women who helped create the film industry, few stand taller than Lois Weber. A quadruple threat—actress, screenwriter, director, producer—Weber’s directing credits number 138, and the quality of her work was ranked regularly alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille during her heyday in the 1910s. The social consciousness that marks many of her films derived from two years working as a social activist and a Church Army Workers missionary among prostitutes and the down and out in Pittsburgh and New York City, and her continuing desire to influence humanity for the better.

Weber adapted Shoes from a story Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine that itself was inspired by a novel about prostitution by the “mother of social work,” Jane Addams. Weber’s own scenario gives her plot away right from the start by paraphrasing the Addams’ quote below from A New Conscience for an Ancient Evil:

When the shoes became too worn to endure a third soling and she possessed but 90 cents toward a new pair, she gave up the struggle; to use her own contemptuous phrase, she ‘sold out for a new pair of shoes.’

Teenager Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren) has a heavy burden to bear. She works at a five and dime for $5 a week, which she dutifully brings home on Saturday night so that she, her parents, and her three sisters can make it through another week. Her father (Harry Griffith) isn’t too keen on working, preferring to stay in bed reading and smoking his pipe. Her mother (Mattie Witting) is busy keeping home and hearth together, and looking after her younger children.

Eva has been trying to keep her tattered shoes going for months. The new pair of shoes she’s been eyeing is far out of reach, even though it costs only $3, because her pay barely covers the rent and groceries for her family. Her coworker, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has been supplementing her income by sleeping with “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong), who has taken a shine to Eva and invites her to the nightclub where he sings—and, of course, to accept his “hospitality.”

Because we learned the outcome of Eva’s dilemma at the beginning of the film, her eventual decision to sell herself for new shoes takes a back seat to examining the conditions under which she and her family struggle. Eva and her family live in a dirty tenement in a rough part of town; in a moment of almost throwaway but effective emphasis, a shady character loitering on the doorstep ducks inside the building vestibule when some cops come by. Her mother washes clothes in a pot of boiling water on the stove, and there is never enough meat to go around—characteristically, Mr. Meyer gets more than his fair share of it.

Eva wears the same clothes to work day after day and has no umbrella to shield herself or the cardboard inserts in her shoes from wilting under several days of pounding rain. Close-ups of Eva’s worn shoes are juxtaposed with her daydreams of wearing the shoes of her dreams. A group of well-to-do ladies walk past Eva as she is taking her lunch in a nearby park, and her POV shot focuses not on their dresses or hats but rather on their shoes.

The performances in the film are generally good, though most of the players work in the broad style common in silent movies. Mong leers, Arnold broadly flirts and overemphasizes the new watch she has on after a night with Charlie, and Witting’s grief over Eva’s fallen status is overdone. Griffith, however, seems very comfortable as an oblivious idler who takes his privileges for granted, reading at the dinner table and spending whatever he wants on a new book.

Weber rightly focuses the film on Mary MacLaren, whose heartfelt performance made this an incredibly moving experience for me. Her wonderfully sad face and natural acting style make it easy to identify with her and her emotions. When Eva passes by her parents’ bedroom and sees her father reading with pillows propping him up against the footboard, her look of contempt reaches us right through the screen; even when she’s not looking at him, her poor regard for him oozes out of every scene in which they appear together. While Mrs. Meyer gently prods her husband to look for work, Eva has already given him up as a lost cause.
Her attempts to avoid Charlie’s advances eschew the usual head shaking and extended back bends most movie damsels in distress employ. Instead, she leans slightly away, walks away, looks down—in other words, she does what most women would do. Even while internally disgusted, she allows Charlie to touch her in the cabaret without looking at him, but also without cringing or pulling away.

Her finest moment comes when she tires of trying to mend her shoes and finally makes up her mind; we can almost see the switch thrown. There is no anguish on her face, just a settled determination. She changes into a sheer blouse, the only change of wardrobe we’ve seen, shimmies her skirt down to her hips to cover her shoes, shakes her braids out and brushes her hair into an upsweep. She tells her mother she’ll be overnight at Lil’s and needs carfare. She doesn’t blame her mother, but this small demand for money strikes us as ironic.

Weber was interested in showing what pushes women into prostitution, though she melodramatically underlines it with a deathly image of “Poverty.” The daily indignities, carelessness, and misery are bad enough, but Weber also shoots fantasies of what Eva dreamed her life would be like to underscore the death of those dreams as Eva surrenders to a grinding reality. Lest anyone think that the film takes a moralistic tone about sex, Eva’s mother cries over the loss of her daughter’s virginity in this degrading manner, but without any hint of condemnation; it truly is a wretched circumstance.

The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands had the only known print of Shoes and completed a two-year digital restoration of it in 2010. The film was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. This year, Milestone Films will release a DVD of the film with a score by veteran silent film composers and musicians Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The screencaps for Shoes in this review come from several sources, so I can’t swear for the veracity of the color screens, but I can assure you that this is a film well worth catching from a filmmaker you should know.

Shoes will screen Saturday, April 1 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, April 3 at 6 p.m. as part of the “Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker” series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.

  • Silver Screenings spoke:
    29th/03/2017 to 3:43 pm

    I hope to have the chance to see this film. It sounds quite moving – and innovative, too. But even if I don’t get to see it in person, I enjoyed your review thoroughly and it’s encouraged me to learn more about the remarkable Lois Weber.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/03/2017 to 3:58 pm

    SS – There was one other woman in the press screening I attended. While the men were scribbling notes, she and I just looked at each other, speechless. We both wanted to say “Wow!” or words to that effect, but we just couldn’t get them out. This film is justly celebrated, and I would encourage you to seek it out, get the DVD, whatever. Weber was a major talent with so many films for us to explore. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Fritzi spoke:
    29th/03/2017 to 4:15 pm

    Thanks so much for joining in! Weber’s ability to humanize social issues is just astonishing. I am very much looking forward to the DVD.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/03/2017 to 4:22 pm

    Hi Fritzi, and thanks for throwing the party. I agree. She manages to rise above the level of “problem film” and gets you involved with the characters to help you understand the social issues. It’s a lot better than Stanley Kramer was able to do, even given some of the limitations, especially in acting style, of the silent era.

  • Ann Pettijohn spoke:
    29th/03/2017 to 6:20 pm

    Lois Weber was my husbands great Aunt. His mother Marion Jay lived with
    Lois and attended Hollywood High school. We heard many stories about
    Lois and the Hollywood lifestyle she lead. I was able to Meet Ethel Howland
    Lois’s sister. She was a personal secretary to her sister.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/03/2017 to 7:12 am

    Ann – How nice of you to visit our site and share your lineage with us. I’m sure you heard some fascinating stories about old Hollywood, lucky you!

  • Claire spoke:
    31st/03/2017 to 12:16 pm

    A great take on an excellent film. It’s so frustrating to think though the Code has long been – technically – abolished, you’d struggle to get away with a story like this in a mainstream Hollywood film today. Bloody Breen!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2017 to 2:55 pm

    Possibly, Claire, but it’s more because the Old Boys of Hollywood still don’t think there’s anything wrong with sexual harassment or the quid pro quo of money/gifts for sex. Not sure Breen has anything to do with it.

  • Joe Thompson spoke:
    1st/04/2017 to 11:17 pm

    I’m convinced; I want to see it. Mary MacLaren sounds wonderful. I looked at her filmography and I think the only film I have seen where she had a credit was The Three Musketeers. It is sad that she didn’t get more opportunities. I need to see more Lois Weber movies.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/04/2017 to 9:07 am

    Joe – I hope you get as much out of this film as I did. And I think we ALL need to see more Lois Weber films. My interest certainly has been heightened by the series going on in my town now. I saw a short she directed called Suspense, and learned that she was pioneer of the split screen, well used in that short film.

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