“Shoes,” a 1916 drama directed by Lois Weber, tells the story of a poor girl working hard at a five and dime to support her family. Her pay envelope barely keeps her family together and her father refuses to apply himself to find a job. That leaves our heroine, Eva, in shabby clothing and shoes. Eva passes a shoe store and ogles a pair of expensive shoes. “Caberet” Charlie offers to help but at a great cost, Eva must sell herself to obtain the shoes.
We live in a society where commercialism and acquisition seem as important as family values. In that context, Shoes may seem almost comically outdated. But Shoes is a poignant and serious film. When I see these early silent films, I realize how subversive the movies used to be and how tame they’ve become. Even in the decades of the studio system, film companies took on serious subjects and touted subversive views. Lois Weber’s shots of Eve’s shabby shoes emphasizes the problem of grinding poverty, which must have made quite an impression on the movie audience of the time.
Lois Weber specialized in these social stories and became an early movie pioneer. She made dozens of silent films but only one sound picture, 1934’s “White Heat,” which is believed lost. The star of Shoes, Mary Maclaren, who plays Eve, lived like a bag lady in her old age and died in poverty. Both Weber and Maclaren come from the Pittsburgh area. Weber’s birthplace, Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), is also the birthplace of Mary Cassatt and Gertrude Stein. That makes it a great and historic place for female artists and pioneers.