“When the history of the dramatic early development of motion pictures is written,” declared Motion Picture magazine in 1921, “Lois Weber will occupy a unique position.” Lois Weber was not only America’s first major female film director, she was a true pioneer. She began her career when the longest films ran 20 minutes and directed her last feature a quarter century later in 1934. Her filmmaking concentrated on dramatic subjects and included more than 60 features and countless short films. But her greatest fame and most lasting impact came as a result of her “social problem” films, made between 1914 and 1921, which took courageous stands on controversial issues. Noted for their artistry and realism, her films raised the status of moviegoing, making it respectable for middle-class audiences.
The product of a deeply religious family and a veteran of the Church Army Workers, Lois Weber saw film not only as entertainment, but also as a medium for evangelizing about important social issues. In her 1913 lecture “The Making of Picture Plays That Will Have an Influence for Good on the Public Mind,” Weber described her use of film’s “voiceless language” to “carry out the idea of missionary pictures.” Abortion, birth control, capital punishment, religious hypocrisy, a living wage, child labor, prostitution, and white slavery were all topics that Weber addressed in her films.
Despite her emphasis on social issues, it would be a mistake to stereotype Weber as a woman on a soapbox. Her films were well scripted, well acted, highly popular, and financially successful. In 1915, Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley produced Hypocrites, which decried religious hypocrisy and featured the allegorical figure of “The Naked Truth,” portrayed by what one reviewer described as “a naked girl, about 18 years of age.” Although there were calls for censorship in some locales, the film was generally hailed as an artistic and cultural milestone. The New York Evening Journal described the film as “the most startlingly satisfying and vividly wonderful creation of the screen age.” In her 2006 book Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, historian Karen Ward Mahar cites Hypocrites as a landmark that helped legitimize film as an art form.
Weber was Universal Film Company’s highest paid director when she made her most controversial film Where Are My Children? (1916). Released during the same summer in which Margaret Sanger was jailed for promoting family planning, Weber’s film advocated birth control and also decried abortion as murder. Critics generally praised the film, with the New York Dramatic Mirror noting, “It is not often that a subject as delicate as the one which this picture treats is handled as boldly yet, at the same time, as inoffensively as is the case with this production.” Where Are My Children? sparked controversy and court actions across the country. One Pennsylvania censor declared the film “not fit for decent people to see” and banned screenings in the state.
Universal released Shoes, under the banner of its Bluebird Photoplay productions, on June 12, 1916, just one month after Where Are My Children? In Shoes, Eva Meyer is poorly paid shopgirl who works in a five-and-dime. She is the sole wage earner for her family of three sisters, their mother, and a father unwilling to find work. At the end of each week, Eva dutifully hands over her meager earnings to her mother. Eva’s salary barely covers the grocer’s bill and cannot provide for nice clothes or decent shoes like those of her coworkers. She becomes increasingly disheartened and begins to consider the uninvited advances of Charlie, a cad with clearly dishonorable intentions.
Weber adapted her script for Shoes from a short story by Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine. The film follows Herron’s narrative closely, with dialogue from the story occasionally appearing verbatim in the film’s intertitles. Herron’s inspiration for her story came from social reformer Jane Addams’s 1912 book on prostitution A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, which Herron quotes in her epigraph: “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.’”
Film scholar Shelley Stamp asserts, “Weber’s interest in the fate of underpaid retail clerks echoed many sociological studies of the era that investigated the ‘problem’ of young female wage earners.” In one such study, social reformer Louise De Koven Bowen focused specifically on department store girls “surrounded by, and selling, the luxuries they crave for a wage compensation inadequate for a life of decency and respectability.” According to Bowen’s 1911 report, these daily temptations could lead to the girls’ “moral as well as physical breakdown.” Weber described the impetus for making Shoes in an interview given to Moving Picture World during the film’s production: “I did missionary work in the slums of New York … especially among young girls …. I know them and their problems, and not a few of my stories have been suggested by incidents recalled from those early experiences.”
The motion picture press reacted positively to Weber’s new feature but remained cautious about its commercial appeal. Wid’s Independent Review of Feature Films praised “the splendid psychology of the development of the characters” but recommended eliminating one of the flashbacks that conclude the film. Motion Picture News appreciated Weber’s realism but noted that “there is such a thing as being too realistic.” These advance reviews may have tempered their endorsement, but the popular press lauded the film and its fledgling star Mary MacLaren. The Los Angeles Times described Shoes as “the greatest photoplay which Lois Weber has ever produced” and singled out Mary MacLaren’s “perfection of acting.” Louella Parsons declared Shoes one of the best films of 1916. The public apparently agreed, as Shoes was Universal’s most-booked Bluebird production of the year.
In 1916, Motion Picture Stories declared Weber “the greatest woman director” and the New York Dramatic Mirror listed her as one of the top six directors in the entire industry. Today, she is less well known than many of her contemporaries. Only a handful of her films survive and even fewer are available for theatrical presentation. The only known original print of Shoes resides in an underground bunker in Overveen in the collection of the Eye Film Institute in the Netherlands. Like Eva Meyer’s shoes, time has not been kind to this only surviving copy. By the time Shoes arrived at the archive, the nitrate film stock had deteriorated dramatically and the photographic emulsion was under attack by mold and bacteria. In 2008, the institute undertook a two-year project to restore the film digitally, creating the 35mm print premiering at this year’s festival.
In 1913, Lois Weber described her desire to “raise the standard” of film and “bring back refined audiences.” At a time when the courts had declared movies “a pure entertainment business” unworthy of First Amendment protection, Weber stood with the vanguard that was striving to bring cultural legitimacy to the medium. While some of the issues she explored may seem Victorian by today’s standards, her groundbreaking work helped establish motion pictures as the definitive visual art of the 20th century.
Rob Byrne is President of the Silent Film Festival Board of Directors and a film preservationist and researcher who participated in the restoration of Shoes. His blog Starts Thursday! covers coming attraction slides in early cinema.
Preceded by the 1924 orphan film Tribune-American Dream Picture
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer