24 March 2021 | Cineanalyst
I have to hand it to Lois Weber; it's remarkable she made an exquisite film that revolves around shoes. An entire five-reels, feature-length film elaborating footwear--it's a staggering feat of simplicity, from their centrality before the cinematographic gaze to the social-problem narrative that envelopes them. There are plentiful close-ups--even a brief tracking shot, as they hit the pavement on the way to work at a five-and-dime store--of the protagonist's ragged pair, as she tends them with cardboard soles and punished by the distress they inflict on her, their frailty in the rain and momentary relief upon carpet, their comparison with finer heels and the boots she longs for in the shop window, the dreams of escaping poverty, or class aspirations, that extend from them, and the indictment purchasing new ones reveals. There are people in the film, too, for who else is to gaze at the shoes in the picture's eyeline match cutting and fetishize the apparel beyond consumerism into an entire morality tale, but it's, indeed, the shoes that are the stars of this one.
The Milestone home video release of "Shoes" includes an informative commentary track from Shelley Stamp, who also wrote at length on this and other Weber titles in her book, "Lois Weber in Early Hollywood." As Stamp points out, the picture alternates between different gazes. The gaze of the Progressive reformer like Weber and Jane Addams, for whose book is opened with the film's opening, as if the film were a sociological record (albeit a dramatized one based on a "Collier" magazine story, which in turn was based on the work of Addams). Then, there's cinematic identification with the subjective experience of the protagonist Eva (Mary MacLaren) and her gaze. This female gaze and desire for shoes and the dreams of wealth providing an escape from her wage labor is further contrasted with the lecherous male gaze of "Cabaret" Charlie, as well as the idle gaze upon dime novels of her father (talk about a notion of a deadbeat dad that has become quaint--spending his days idly reading and smoking a pipe), the former whose gaze she avoids with her own and the latter for whom she stares at with contempt.
Indeed, and despite its Progressive message on female shop clerks, or that the film was made by working women, the sexual mores of "Shoes" are very much of 1916. Inviting moviegoers, as Stamp says, "to endorse women's wage equity through an appeal to traditional notions of feminine sexual purity and the dangers (physical and sexual) of women's presence in the workforce." Thus, Eva is identified as her family's breadwinner because her father has failed in the responsibility, and her place in the workforce is further complicated by consumerism and lustful men. MacLaren plays Eva with one of the most consistently miserable expressions I've ever seen on screen, and her story is quite a pitiful tragedy of not earning enough to support her family and her feet and thereby eventually prostituting herself for the new shoes. This much the title cards inform us at the film's outset, but it's the picture's final irony on top of this that fully realizes the initial consistent aim of the picture for a poetic gut punch.
The social problems addressed in Weber's oeuvre interests me less than the craft that goes into the lectures. I tend to find her decidedly Christian and Progressive proselytizing a hindrance (if not downright repugnant, such as the pro-eugenics message of "Where Are My Children?" (1916)) to what otherwise are artistically sophisticated pictures. In that respect, I prefer her earlier one-reelers, which seem to have more often explored art and genre more than they did social commentary. After her return to Universal and the epic of an exception in "The Dumb Girl of Portici" (1916), Weber seems to have almost fully committed to social-problem and moral domestic dramas, including with topics often ripped right from contemporary newspaper headlines: besides abortion and birth control in the confused dichotomy of eugenics in "Where Are My Children?" and birth control again as inspired by Margaret Sanger in "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1917), drug addiction in "Hop, the Devil's Brew," capital punishment as based on the case of Charles Stielow in "The People vs. John Doe" (both 1916), Christian Science and alcoholism in "Jewel" (1915) and its remake "A Chapter in Her Life" (1923), and tackling the subject of shopgirls and consumerism again in "The Price of a Good Time" (1917), plus more on class and shoes in "The Blot" (1921).
Some of the worst aspects of these films seem to creep up here, too. The sobriety of the acting and subject matter, the wordy title cards that are sometimes worthy of eye rolling, such as this clog of a sexual metaphor: "This flower had not had a fair chance to bloom in the garden of life. The worm of poverty had entered the folded bud and spoiled it." Furthermore, while the settings have received credit for their realistic recreation, the missing fourth walls are especially evident in such a small-scale drama the repeatedly returns to the same places. But, it's a nice-looking film, appreciably restored, well constructed visually, and the lecturing isn't as cumbersome as it would become by, say, "The Blot," with its emphasis on a particularly genteel form of poverty and the self-serving message of paying lecturers and preachers better. I love the broken mirror shot here of Eva, too, as she dresses to trade sex for shoes, her soul for better support of her soles. Yet, it's the shoes that standout, how they're photographed, gazed upon and how the story extends from them.