When Florence Turner and the aptly-named Courtenay Foote are invited to a dance, both decide that fashion must supersede comfort and opt for toe-crushing footwear, a decision they come to regret mid-waltz. Can love overcome painful pumps?
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of EYE.
In a pinch
There were three Florences who achieved major stardom in 1910s American film: Lawrence, La Badie and Turner. Lawrence is often called the first movie star (though she was beaten to the punch by Max Linder and others) and La Badie’s early death has brought her notoriety of a sort but Turner remains relatively obscure to all but the most dedicated silent film nerds. While each Florence had her own appeal, Turner’s everywoman humor and good cheer have made many of her films timeless and they are ripe for rediscovery.
Pumps is a short romantic comedy that revolves around a man and woman meeting cute due to some petty vanity. May Carter (Turner) and Maurice Lane (Courtenay Foote) are both single and separately receive invitations to a society ball. Both decide that they must have new shoes for the occasion and head off to shop for something light and stylish.
(By the way, if you are a price watcher when you view old films, the ten cent socks advertised in the window of the shoe shop would cost a little under three dollars in today’s money. Sounds like a pretty good bargain to me.)
May assures the shoe clerk that her foot is absolutely tiny and from his incredulous look and her pained expression as she tries on her new shoes, it is obvious that she has been telling a little fib. The grimaces become more dramatic as May prepares for the ball and her maid has a great deal of trouble stuffing her feet into the tiny pumps. Never mind, she looks great and it’s not like she’ll be on her feet all night… right?
The scene shifts to Maurice and it looks like he has fallen into the same trap! He can barely walk in his tight shoes but he decides to press on and attend the ball anyway.
Unfortunately for them both, they find eager dance partners and waltzing on sore feet is not fun for anyone. As anyone stuck wearing uncomfortable footwear will tell you, getting the horrible things off is a priority but how do you remove your shoes when you’re surrounded by the smart set?
This is a one-reel comedy and runs less than ten minutes in its current form, so the plot is quite simple but Turner and Foote, aided by the direction of Laurence Trimble, play it for all that it’s worth and Pumps is one of the more delightful light comedies of the nickelodeon era.
There are a few other ingredients that help this film along. First, the shared plight of our hero and heroine is one that most people have experienced themselves. Who among us has not inadvertently worn something uncomfortable to an event? Second, the leads realize their mistake and have a good laugh at their own vanity, which makes them likable as we all hope we would show similar grace. Neither gender is portrayed as the more vain and they are both equally guilty and equally amused once they realize that they have made the same mistake.
When May and Maurice realize that a night of dancing would be hellish, they both take cover in the garden and hide behind the same potted plant to avoid being seen in their shoeless state. Once they discover that they are not alone, they try to play it cool before breaking down and confessing in turn that they simply needed a break from their fashion folly.
Turner and Foote are very cute in these scenes, grimacing at their tight shoes, filled with delight when they finally get them off and being even more delighted when they see they have not been alone in their adventures. (Spoiler) The film ends with the pair getting married and enjoying a quiet evening together in comfy slippers. If that’s not a happy ending, I don’t know what is.
Keeping in mind the film’s short runtime, the direction is quite polished. The scenes leading up to the ball cut between May and Maurice purchasing the fatal shoes, which builds anticipation for their eventual downfall. There’s also a nice shot of a giant mirror above the fireplace at the manor where the ball is being held, a fitting symbol for the vanity going on beneath.
Florence Turner’s most famous film appearance as a star is a picture she also directed, Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914), and it revolves around her wonderfully flexible face. Turner doesn’t perform any extreme face-pulling in Pumps but she gets her point across without overdoing it or relying on mugging. Just a touch of exaggeration to keep things light. (Turner is probably best remembered overall for playing Buster Keaton’s mother in College but that was very much a supporting part.)
The setup of Pumps feels like a building block of the situation comedy genre that would dominate television for years. Honestly, I liked the main characters of the picture so much that I wouldn’t mind tuning in to see their weekly adventures. This is very much in the Vitagraph studio style. Vitagraph had built its reputation as one of the classier joints in early film and the comedians working under its banner often delved into domestic comedy and light romance.
John Bunny and Flora Finch played up their physical contrast and tended to play a bit more broadly to the camera while Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew made sly jokes at their May-December pairing and poked fun at the irritations and pitfalls of married life.
Pumps is light as a feather and all but guaranteed to put a smile on your face, thanks to its relatable concept and likable cast. Highly recommended if you need a pick-me-up.
Where can I see it?
Free to stream courtesy of EYE. The English title cards have been replaced with Dutch but there are English subtitles if you push the CC button.
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