SHOES (Weber and Smalley, 1916)
Milestone Films, Blu-ray, Release Date Feb 6, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long
Lois Weber may not be a widely-recognized name today, but in the silent era she was described by the industrial press not only as the top “woman director” but simply as one of the top directors in America. Known best for her socially earnest “problem films” from 1914-1921 (her career extended into the sound era, however), Weber was, at her peak, the highest paid director at Universal, and was also considered one of the young industry's major innovators. In the words of film scholar Shelly Stamp, Weber was viewed as one of the “three great minds” of early American cinema along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.
Weber's reputation has since been eclipsed by her male peers for reasons both complex (the lapsing of a distribution deal with Paramount in 1922, health problems) and predictably simple (take a guess), but Milestone Films has made it their latest mission to remedy her unfair marginalization. Their Blu-ray release of the silent feature “Shoes” (1916), which Weber co-directed with husband and business partner Phillips Smalley, makes a convincing argument that many of us have been missing out on a special talent.
Based on a short story by Stella Wynne Herron which itself was inspired by the writing of social reformer Jane Addams, “Shoes” relates the straightforward story of working-class girl Eva Mayer, who toils all day but still can't save enough money to buy a desperately needed new pair of shoes. Each night, she rips away her makeshift cardboard soles and cuts out new ones so she can trudge through the rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles to her dead-end job at a five-and-dime store, only to hand all her earnings over to her mother to help support their large family.
Weber emphasizes the everyday plight of the working-class woman, but her focus on social realism still allows room for some highly stylized flourishes, including a literal “hand of poverty” reaching down to strangle young Eva in a nightmare. Eva doesn't merely wallow helplessly in her plight either, a mere sad sack intended to generate audience sympathy. She rages at her lazy no-good father who lays about all day reading instead of beating the streets to find a job. The soles of his shoes aren't nearly so worn. And she fends off the wolves as nobly and for as long as she can.
Eva is portrayed by one of Weber's discoveries, 16-year-old Mary MacLaren, plucked from the stage for the start of a film career that would extend into the 1940s. The teenager brings a poise and gravitas beyond her years to the role, rendering the moment (teased in the film's opening sequence) when she finally sells herself for that pair of shoes all the more poignant. A medium close-up on Eva as she sits in the Blue Goose Club and a man's hand caresses her shoulder is genuinely chilling. Though the plot is fairly standard-issue melodrama for most of the film, the ending achieves a kind of transcendence when mother reacts with understanding and compassion to her “fallen” daughter, all while a genuinely clueless father fails to understand why everyone isn't paying more attention to him. Even in the immediate aftermath of great personal tragedy, life must and will go on.
Another reason Weber's fame has been obscured over the years is that so few of her films have survived. “Shoes” is one of the few exceptions, but its continued existence has been a perilous one, The restoration of this film, helmed by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, was sourced from two different nitrate prints (one tinted, one toned) and also partially from a safety copy of the short re-edited “spoof” version of the film released as “Unshod Maiden” in 1932 (see Extras below).
The nitrate prints remained structurally intact, but suffered from considerable bacterial damage, resulting in white spots throughout the print. In one scene, these spots consume most of the frame, but in the majority of scenes, they lurk along the edges. Even considerable restoration efforts can only clean up so much. But even with this invasive damage, the image has the soft, luminous quality you only get from nitrate prints of this era, so beautiful, so damn flammable.
Composers Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson have provided a new score for the release of this silent film, and it sounds great.
As always, Milestone has unearthed a bevy of extras on this release.
Let me start with one of the most remarkable and startling extra features I've ever seen. Remarkable, of course, does not automatically imply good. “Unshod Maiden” (1932, 10 min.) is a “Universal Brevity,” a short-lived (though not short-lived enough) series in which old silent films in the company catalog were sharply cut down and then re-purposed with new voice-over tracks.
A smug male narrator cracks one snarky joke after another over re-cut footage of “Shoes”, heaping derision on Eva, now identified as Mary: “In Mary's inmost soul, she felt like a heel.” The scumbag narrator transforms this tragedy about an impoverished woman driven to prostitution into a comedy, with the final punchline, “And that's how Mary learned to play the saxophone.” You'll want to reach back 85 years and strangle this bastard.
In an accompanying feature (7 min.), film scholar Richard Koszarski explains the motivation behind this Universal Brevities line, released at a time (just a few years into the sound era!) when silent films were viewed, by some money-grubbing studio execs at least, as hopelessly antiquated and useful only as objects for the vastly more sophisticated audiences of 1932 to mock. In other words, people never change.
The feature “Shoes” is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Shelley Stamp, author of “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood” and it's a top notch effort in every way. In addition, Milestone has included an audio interview with actress Mary MacLaren as a second audio commentary option though, of course, the interview does not correspond to the film the way most commentaries do. It was conducted in 1971 by Richard Koszarski.
We also get two short features about the restoration of the film by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, running five minutes apiece.
The copy on the back of the Blu-ray also mentions the inclusion of the short film “The Price” (1911, 13 min.), written by and starring Lois Weber and husband Phillips Smalley. However, the film didn't make the disc, but has been made available online instead by Milestone at this link.
“Shoes” tells a fairly conventional melodrama with efficiency, visual panache, and a moral force that becomes undeniable by the film's potent conclusion. Young Mary MacLaren is exceptional too. Milestone's release includes both the restored film and an impressive array of extras. I can't wait for Mileston'e upcoming release of “The Dumb Girl of Portici” (1916), starring legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. I've already seen the movie and it's great – Milestone's Blu-ray release promises to be something special and should be available soon.