Lois Weber’s social drama about a young woman supporting her family on a five and dime salary. Considered to be one of Weber’s greatest achievements and a fine example of the sort of political content viewers could expect from mainstream studio films of the era.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
It’s a Bargain
During the 1910s, American cinema was all about reform, social topics and politics. Audiences wanted to see the troubles of society play out and (sometimes) find solutions on the screen. Drug addiction, trafficking, immigration, the poverty-to-prison pipeline, birth control and abortion all made their way to the cinemas in pricy pictures made by major studios.
Lois Weber was considered one of the top filmmakers of this genre and Universal used her sex as a marketing tool. Surely a woman’s touch is needed with such delicate matters, right?
Shoes covers similar territory to Weber’s 1921 film The Blot. The Blot dealt with underpaid academics while Shoes is centered on the struggles of a teenage dime store clerk. This isn’t the world of Mary Pickford, Clara Bow or Colleen Moore. She catches the eye of a well-heeled man but a wedding to the boss’s son is not in the cards…
Eva Mayer (Mary MacLaren) supports her family with her meager wage of $5 per week. Her shoes are worn and full of holes, she has a new pair all picked out, yet the $3 she needs to pay for them always seems to be needed for the landlord or the butcher.
Usually, checking the inflation rates and comparing prices is just a fun hobby but in this case, understanding the value of $3.00 in 1916 helps understand Eva’s plight more deeply. Eva’s shoes cost the equivalent of $75 in today’s money. That amount is important because it’s small enough that any family doing well financially could swing spending it on something as important as shoes but it’s large enough to be a purchase a working class family would have to consider.
Shoe ads of the time give us an idea of the prices on offer and Eva’s shoes seem to be solid, middle of the road in quality. There are shoes advertised at $1.25 or $1.50 but buying those probably landed Eva into her pickle in the first place. I imagine the difference in quality between very, very cheap shoes and mid-range good quality shoes was about the same in 1916 that it is today. (As massive as the Grand Canyon.)
In 1993, fantasy author Terry Pratchett made footwear central to the Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness. The rich (or at least financially stable) can afford higher quality items that last, while the poor end up spending far more in the long run because they are forced to buy cheap items that quickly fall apart. If Eva had been able to afford $3 shoes in the first place, we wouldn’t have a story.
Eva’s mother (Mattie Witting) loves her and realizes that she is suffering but she cannot say no to her husband or her younger children. Eva’s father (Harry Griffith) spends his day reading paperbacks and sees no reason to look for a job, so his eldest daughter’s wage supports them all.
This was, of course, a disaster at the time. Well-paying jobs were almost exclusively reserved for men and even fewer were open to a working class teenage girl. Eva may be her family’s main breadwinner but a dime store clerk or a similar is the only way she can earn money. Or is it?
Eva’s coworker and pal, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has taken up with Cabaret Charlie (William V. Mong, over forty at the time and a veteran movie cad), a nightclub singer who makes no secret of the fact that he fancies Eva. Lil shows up to work with a brand new watch. Eva’s shoes, made to last one more week, have given out in the rain and she has caught a cold. This payday was the one that was supposed to catch the Mayer family up and those $3 were to be Eva’s. But father has decided not to look for work and the kids really wanted meat for dinner…
The simple story of Shoes provides a canvas for Lois Weber to show off a bit. Cinematographers Stephen S. Norton and Allen G. Siegler create a moody, suffocating world of slow, crushing poverty with closeups of MacLaren, a tracking shot of her shabby shoes as she walks and a symbolic dream sequence. While the hand of poverty (marked “POVERTY”) is a bit much, Eva’s dreams of prosperity hold up very well.
Most of all, Shoes works because of what it doesn’t do. The Mayers are poor but they aren’t on the verge of being thrown out into the snow (with ravening wolves). Eva’s plight is pitiful in its mundaneness: she needs new shoes because she has a rainy walk to work and is on her feet all day, it’s not like she must have new eyes from an exclusive Swiss clinic. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is the combination of a cold, a paperback novel and some hungry younger siblings.
This film isn’t about a mustache-twisting landlord who is driven away by Eva’s wealthy new suitor. In the end, everything returns to much the way it was before with Papa Mayer patting himself on the back for taking a week’s worth of work and Eva with her shoes. It’s what’s coming next after THE END that is worrisome. What happens when Eva needs some other necessity and father feels he has done his bit? What will she do? There are always older, predatory men waiting to buy those shoes.
That being said, father Mayer is probably one of the most horrid characters on the silent screen. He is not constantly mean or cruel to his family but his refusal to work when he is the only one who can and his attempts to be lord of the manor when his daughter takes desperate measures to solve her own problems are infuriating. At the end of the picture, three days too late, he struts home announcing that he has found work—for a week. This cycle has clearly played out before in the Mayer house and it will play out again, likely with increasingly dire consequences.
Eva’s tragedy is further illustrated by the fact that she returns with new shoes and that is all, nothing more and nothing less. Her $3 pair, too. Nothing fancy beyond that. Not even a second pair of sensible shoes.
Studio era silent movies would often open with confident assurances that this story could happen anywhere and to anyone… and then leap off into flights of melodramatic fantasy topped with a happy ending. Shoes works because it really could, and certainly did, happen to thousands of Evas.
(Shoes was written for the screen by Lois Weber, based on a short story by suffragette Stella Wynne Herron, derived from the political book A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil by sociologist Jane Addams. So, this film was very much from the female perspective.)
The casting of Mary MacLaren is significant. While a great many Hollywood stars started young, studio filmmaking had already fallen into the rut of casting twenty-somethings as teenagers. MacLaren was sixteen when Shoes was shot and her status as a genuine teenager gives the audience nowhere to hide as they watch the film, especially when her youth is contrasted with the obvious middle age of William V. Mong. If Eva had been played by an older performer, it would have provided the viewer some relief: she’s not really that young.
Of course, this is not meant to take away any plaudits from MacLaren, her performance is powerful and convincing. Her righteous anger manifests itself as sullenness rather than rage because, at her core, she’s a good kid who loves her family. That’s a complicated emotional package to put across and doubly so in a silent film, which doesn’t allow for vocal dramatics.
The afterlife of Shoes proved to be more of a message about women in the workplace than Lois Weber could have ever imagined. After touting her, profiting from her and proclaiming her a “master genius” for her work on the film, Universal did Weber and Shoes dirty in 1932. The studio cut Shoes down to ten minutes, added satirical narration (complete with belches) and re-released it as a comedy called The Unshod Maiden.
“Comedies” like this, released at a time when silent films were being junked by studios and film preservation was more theory than anything, were spectacularly unhelpful. To make matters worse, the snark isn’t even written well and there’s not a laugh to be had in the whole sorry mess. I took malicious glee in seeing that the writer and director of The Unshod Maiden, Albert DeMond, never really amounted to much in the movies. (Having sat through the tedium of King of the Forest Rangers, which he penned, I know that of which I speak.)
Universal was allegedly contemplating a series of these proto-Fractured Flickers but backed off. I will wager that some of the people who worked in Universal silents (many of whom were still active in Hollywood) bristled and who can blame them?
Of course, even dramatic films of the 1930s are now seen as just as creaky and out of date as the silents and Lois Weber’s star is once more ascending. Shoes is considered to be one of the crown jewels of her career and with good reason. While it doesn’t boast the fireworks of Suspense or the shocking subject matter of Where are My Children, Shoes has realism, strong performances and it tugs at your heartstrings with nary a chase across the ice floes.
Shoes is a terrific example of Lois Weber’s talents as director and it’s also a prime example of the kind of socially conscious films that were receiving mainstream release in the 1910s. This is an excellent picture and deserves to join the pantheon of silent movie greats.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray by Milestone with a score by Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The release includes The Unshod Maiden as an extra.
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