I had the opportunity to see Shoes (1916) at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last July. Written and directed by Lois Weber from a novel by Jane Addams, the story concerns Eva Meyer, a young woman who resorts to prostitution because she desperately needs money for a new pair of shoes.
While Lois Weber is best remembered as a pioneering woman filmmaker, the popularity and cultural significance of her films must be linked to the era in which she made them. Born in 1881, Weber left her home in Pennsylvania to pursue a singing career in New York City. Before finding work in the film industry, she lived in poverty amongst masses of impoverished immigrants. She was intimately acquainted with the living conditions of the working classes, and the blights of underemployment, alcoholism, prostitution, among other social ills. It is not surprising that her best films revolve around these issues, and while they were popular because of their controversial and timely subject matter, they stand as documents (or even propaganda) of the Progressive Era.
Weber was a contemporary of the women activists who led many progressive-era reforms, and was an acquaintance of Jane Addams (whose novel provided the source material for Shoes). 1916 was the height of the Progressive Era (which was soon to be quelled by the fervor over World War I). Reformers had achieved passage of legislation regarding child labor laws, workplace safety, election reform, food and drug safety, and were working towards a constitutional amendment that would mark the beginning of Prohibition.
With this backdrop, some of Weber’s choices might seem a little odd, but only serve to help her achieve her goals. The story revolves around Eva (Mary MacLaren), a young woman who works a five-dollars-a-week job to provide for her parents (her father is unemployed) and siblings who live in a typical Lower East Side tenement. Both Eva’s ability to do her job and her health are adversely affected by her desperate need for a new pair of shoes. Hers are old and worn out, and even though she repairs the soles with cardboard each night they can neither stand up to nor protect her from inclement weather. Her vanity is also hurt, as she is unable to fit in or compete with other stylish young women of her own age. Desperate for the money to buy a new pair of shoes she resorts to prostitution.
There are many progressive-era concerns at play here: wages and workers rights, living conditions of the working classes, consumerism and its effects on the working classes (especially young women), and, most obviously, prostitution. The film is careful to keep the focus on these issues as they relate to young working-class women, however, by omitting the main concern of progressive reformers: alcoholism.
Eva’s plight is accentuated by her father’s unemployment, which is portrayed as being caused not by alcoholism, as one would expect, but by simple laziness. Progressives saw a father’s alcoholism as a central cause of poverty: it made him unfit for work and he spent too much of the family’s meager savings on drink. However, Eva’s father simply does not want to work. He spends his days at home or in the park, and spends the little bit of extra money that the family has (money that could have gone to purchasing a new pair of shoes for Eva) on books.
It might seem odd that Weber chose not to include alcoholism in the narrative, but omitting it serves two dramatic purposes. First of all, it keeps the focus on Eva and the elements of her life that she can control. A discourse on the evils of drink would have been a distraction. Secondly, the father’s success in finding a job on his first attempt, the same day as his daughter’s descent into prostitution, further underscores the tragedy of the situation and puts the blame on the entire family for depending solely upon her meager wages for their subsistence.
Released at the height of the Progressive Era, Shoes is a noteworthy dramatic film that is as interesting for the issues it tackles, and owes its effectiveness to the issues it chooses to omit.