Cast & Crew
Eva Meyer, who works in a dime store for a few dollars a week, desperately needs a new pair of shoes. She must make do with what she has, however, because her father is unemployed and her mother earns just a few cents as a laundress. Finally, with no other alternative, Eva sleeps with "Cabaret" Charlie, a singer, in exchange for money to buy shoes, after which she learns that her father has found work and can now afford the small luxuries that before had been unthinkable.
Weber took her first step into the burgeoning film industry in 1908 when she was hired by American Gaumont to record songs for Phonoscenes, an early version of sound films. A few months later, her husband, a former actor named Phillips Smalley, joined her, and the two began a collaboration that would last a decade. They worked for several small production companies, including the Rex Motion Picture Company. During this period, Weber learned filmmaking by working in a variety of positions; she wrote, directed, edited, acted and designed sets and costumes.
Weber and Smalley were considered Rex's most important contributors when the company merged with Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912, just before filmmakers began to experiment with three- and four-reel films. Universal proved reluctant to pursue feature-length films, so Weber moved on to Bosworth, Inc. Weber's $50,000 per week salary made her the highest paid female writer-director in the business, which not only reveals her stature in the industry but also the number of women working in prominent positions behind the camera. Remarkably, all this occurred at a time when women did not yet have the right to vote.
At Bosworth in 1914, Weber shot her first major feature, Hypocrites, a four-reel allegory about the hypocrisy that occurs when people harbor desires for money, sex and power. The film was not only lauded for its social message, but it was credited with helping to legitimize film as an art form. In 1915, Weber and Smalley returned to Universal, partly because owner Carl Laemmle promised they could produce feature-length movies. By the following year, Weber was the studio's highest-paid director as well as one of its most prolific writers. She enjoyed complete creative control in all stages of production on her films.
As part of Universal's Bluebird Photoplays, Weber continued to produce movies with a social conscious, including those that touched on birth control (Where Are My Children?, 1916 and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1917), capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe, 1916), and drug addiction (Hop, the Devil's Brew, 1916). Weber's dramas were considered social problem films and fit with the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. This reform movement sought to cure the ills of American society that had developed as a result of the industrial growth of the previous century. The movement peaked just before World War I, which corresponded to Weber's richest and most prolific period of production. It was during this time that Weber wrote and directed Shoes, which opened on June 12, 1916.
Shoes explored the plight of underpaid retail clerks, who were the subject of a number of sociological studies at the time, including one by social reformer Louise De Koven Bowen. Weber adapted the script from a short story by Stella Wynne Herron published earlier that year in Collier's magazine, using some of Herron's dialogue verbatim in the intertitles. For those who were social reformers, Jane Addams was a major voice in the Progressive Movement, and Herron was influenced to write her story after reading Addams's 1912 book on prostitution A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil.
Sixteen-year-old Mary MacLaren starred as Eva Meyer, a poor shop girl working at a five-and-dime. Eva is the sole wage earner for three younger sisters, an overwhelmed mother, and an indolent father who prefers alcohol and dime novels to work. Each week, Eva returns to their shabby apartment and hands over her meager wages to her mother, but they barely cover the grocer's bill. Eva is embarrassed by her shoes, which are full of holes and patched with cardboard. She looks longingly at the shoes in the store windows and on the feet of the women in the park, but each week there is not enough money to buy a pair. Desperate and down-hearted, Eva accepts the sexual advances of Cabaret Charlie, who pays her money for her favors. She uses the ill-gotten gains to buy the shoes. Eva pays a heavy price for those new shoes in more ways than one.
In addition to their relevant and meaningful content, Weber's films were renowned for their production values. In the scene in which Eva sits on a park bench watching the finely dressed women, close-ups of the women's shoes not only remind her of her worn-out footwear but suggest her feelings of inferiority. This is important because Eva's longing for the shoes is more than a desire for material goods. It speaks to the disparity between social classes. Such details reveal Weber's adeptness at visual storytelling.
Shooting exteriors on the streets of Los Angeles added an authenticity to Weber's realist content. Using three cameramen, including Stephen S. Norton, King D. Gray and Al Siegler, Weber shot in front of the Woolworth's on Broadway as well as in busy Pershing Square in downtown L.A. Gray became a prominent cinematographer during the 1920s and 1930s. His career high point was his Expressionist cinematography on Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934).
Weber directed ten films for Universal in 1916, nine of which she wrote. Shoes proved to be the most successful, becoming Bluebird's most-booked feature of 1916. For many years, the film was little known and rarely seen even by Weber biographers. In 2011, the EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands released a restoration of Shoes based on three extant fragments, prompting a reevaluation of the film.
Producer Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley for Bluebird Photoplays, distributed by Universal Film Manufacturing Co.
Director: Lois Weber
Screenplay: Lois Weber, adapted from the short story by Stella Wynne Herron
Cinematography: Stephen S. Norton, King D. Gray and Al Siegler
Cast: Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren), Her Father (Harry Griffith), Her Mother (Mattie Witting), Lil (Jessie Arnold), Cabaret Charlie (William Mong), Youngest Sister (Lina Basquette)
1916 Black & White 52 mins.
By Susan Doll
Following the success of Shoes, Mary MacLaren made four more films with Lois Weber: Saving the Family Name, Idle Wives and Wanted-A Home in 1916; and The Mysterious Mrs. M in 1917.