Shoes (1916)

While it’s my intention to only review new movies, I was so blown away by Shoes that I just had to write about it. So I’m breaking my own arbitrary rule for this one.

Lois Weber was an astoundingly prolific director. According to IMDb, she directed 138 short and feature-length films, and it’s utterly incomprehensible that 122 of those appear to be from the years 1911–1916. She is believed to be the first woman to direct an American feature film, and at her peak, was the highest-paid director in the world. Shoes (from 1916, in which she has eighteen directing credits, so it’s technically a below-average year for her) is the first of her work that I’ve had the chance to watch, and it absolutely floored me.

The plot is very simple: Eva (played by Mary MacLaren) has a deadbeat father (Harry Griffith) who does nothing all day but read and smoke his pipe. He won’t provide for the family, but it’s up to her and her five-dollar-a-week salesgirl salary to support him, her mother, and her three younger sisters. She’s barely able to keep them alive, and there’s no money for luxuries, yet her father always seems to have tobacco in his pipe and will buy a new book without a twinge of guilt.

Eva is on her feet all day, and her shoes have had it. They’ve already been re-soled twice, and they’re on the verge of disintegrating. Her improvised cardboard insoles have to be replaced daily, but they don’t even last the whole day when the weather is good, and if it’s raining, she might as well be barefoot. She’s in desperate need of new shoes, but there’s simply no money for them.

It’s a good thing this movie is only an hour long because I’m not sure I could take much more of the sense of sheer hopelessness that it thrusts upon you. It’s a silent film, so it uses title cards to convey dialogue, and I think the last couple of them would easily take gold and silver at any “write the most devastating thing you can come up with” competition. If I have any complaints, it’s that the film’s opening title card just comes out and tells you how it’s going to end, but that doesn’t mean that you’re any more prepared for it when it actually happens.

Shoes is certainly not the feel-good movie of the year unless you’re lightened by the prospect of seeing someone who is (hopefully) worse off than you are. But it is one of the clearest demonstrations of just how powerfully captivating a film can be. It doesn’t matter that it’s over a century old, that the new digital restoration often has less-than-stellar image quality, that the plot is dead simple, that there’s no depth to any of the characters, that there’s no dialogue, or that the silent format demands a degree of overacting to get the point across. Somehow, it just sucks you in, ties you up in knots, and leaves you in need of a big sigh.