Lois Weber was interested in making films that reflected societal problems, such as poverty and birth control, and potentially inspire real social change. In her quest to do so, she wrote stories and composed images that helped shape the ever-powerful classical Hollywood mode of filmmaking.
While the early silent period (the late 1800s to approximately 1920) offered many filmmaking opportunities for women, their contributions have traditionally been left out of canonical film history. As my colleague Ciara Wardlow writes, the film industry became increasingly regimented and “masculinized” with the rise of vertical integration and the studio system, and women were no longer afforded the behind-the-scenes opportunities that once seemed abundant. The contributions of female directors, editors, producers, writers, and costume designers have largely been forgotten or only mentioned in passing in many accounts of early Hollywood.
An article in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott spotlights a number of women who made significant contributions to early film culture, calling attention to the fact that we know very little about prolific figures such as Anita Loos and Edith Head and demonstrating a growing impulse to rethink and revise dominant film histories. Since at least 1993, the contributors of the Women Film Pioneers Project (started by the inimitable Jane Gaines) have worked hard to tell the forgotten stories of female filmmakers from all around the world.
Based on popularity, influence, and sheer quantity of output, Weber ranks among the “greats” of early Hollywood, having written and directed hundreds of features and shorts throughout her career. In fact, as film scholar Shelley Stamp notes in her book “Lois Weber in Early Hollywood,” Weber was considered one of Hollywood’s “three great minds,” along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, yet her career “has been marginalized or ignored in almost every study of silent cinema and Hollywood history.”
Stamp’s book has been integral to bringing Weber’s career out of the dusty shadows of early Hollywood and into the spotlight, using sharp historical and textual analyses to situate Weber’s remarkable career in the context of the fledgling film industry. Rather than focusing on mere entertainment value or attempting to align cinema with “legitimate” arts such as novels and paintings, Weber was attuned to cinema’s power to reflect our lives back at us and to confront us with difficult and prescient issues such as capital punishment and women’s wages. Stamp writes that Weber saw films as “living newspapers” that not only have the potential to make us reflect on our own lives but to empathize with other peoples’ experiences as well.
This fall, the University of Toronto’s Media Commons is offering a screening series entitled “Directed by Women” (a simple, straightforward title). The series is demonstrative of the impulse within academia and film culture overall to foreground women’s forgotten and dismissed contributions throughout film history. Weber’s Shoes (1916) kicked off the program, beautifully restored by EYE Filmmuseum featuring intertitles that were only discovered in 2016.
Screening series, archival research, and restoration efforts emphasize that historical film research is a neverending process, especially when it comes to marginalized figures from cinema’s early days. Over 100 years later, we are still discovering new materials to help us understand how audiences would have experienced this film at the time of its release. Historical research — in this case, specifically related to Weber — helps fill in the blanks and shape our perspectives on surviving and newly rediscovered materials. Academic analyses such as Stamp’s book inform archival research and restoration, at the same time that preservationists’ work informs academic writing.
Shoes stands out from the handful of Weber’s surviving films as one of her most formally and thematically accomplished works. Shoes epitomizes Weber’s social consciousness, commitment to thought-provoking narratives, and sophisticated sense of cinematic style. The film follows Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren), a poor young woman who supports her family by working at a dime store for negligible wages. She suffers daily, exhausted from her work and constantly in pain from wearing ripped up shoes, unable to afford a new pair. Her father (Harry Griffith) is a lazy alcoholic, and her mother (Mattie Witting) uses all her energy taking care of her children and her husband.
Weber received vociferous praise for her previous films, including Suspense (1913), in which she pioneered the use of split-screen, and The Hypocrites (1915), which is often remembered for its beautiful, lyrical qualities, critique of religious hypocrisy, and onscreen female nudity. Yet, as Stamp notes, she was also regarded with intense scrutiny by censors who were concerned about any portrayal of “controversial” themes such as sexuality, capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe ), and birth control (Where are My Children?  and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle ).
Shoes addresses the physical and mental suffering caused by poverty and the inability for women to live off the pitiful wages they were paid in the early 20th century. In one scene, a giant hand marked “Poverty” reaches toward Eva as she tries to sleep, terrorizing her and confronting her with its inescapability. The double exposure technique allowed Weber to create this terrifying image, demonstrating her attunement to specifically cinematic stylistic techniques. As Stamp claims, Weber’s film addresses the large influx of young women laborers in American cities at the time, along with the public’s fears about vulnerable young women being on their own, surrounded by potential dangers around every corner.
Eva is far too young to be supporting her entire family, yet they seemingly have no other choice. She gets sick after walking home in the rain one day with her tattered shoes, and eventually gives in to a young male pursuer when he asks her for a date. The implication is, of course, that agreeing to go out with this man and agreeing to have sex with him will likely allow Eva to make some money so she can afford new shoes. When she returns home the following day wearing shiny new black boots, she collapses into her mother’s lap in shame, only to find out that her father has finally gotten a job.
Stamp views the film through a sociological lens, noting that as the opening image of Eva’s face dissolves into the cover of Jane Addams’ book “A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil,” Weber aligns herself with both sociology and filmmaking. A shot from the inside of the book reveals a story about a woman who “sold herself” for a new pair of shoes, foreshadowing exactly what will happen later on in the film. Weber brings her own perspective to this narrative of a suffering young woman forced into sex work (familiar to viewers at the time) and moves away from the alarmist moralizing of other films dealing with the same subject.
In Shoes, Weber aligns us with Eva, so that we feel her pain as she stands for hours and hours at her job on a pair of torn shoes. We understand the seeming hopelessness of her situation, so when she does give in to her pursuer, we feel sad but do not necessarily judge her. By providing access to Eva’s subjectivity (the looming Poverty hand, aligning us with her as she gazes at herself in the mirror), the film emphasizes the importance of understanding women’s experiences, rather than moralizing about them from a detached standpoint.
Although Weber’s career was quickly forgotten as Hollywood developed in the 1930s, so much work has been done since the 1990s to understand her impact on film culture and history. Stamp’s book is an incredibly valuable resource for understanding the context in which Weber worked and lived, and Stamp’s sharp textual analyses demonstrate the importance of having access to forgotten works from Hollywood history.
Considering Shoes more than a century after it was released offers insight into Weber’s incredible career and offers a perfect example of the kind of writer and director she was. Shoes demonstrates her commitments to telling specifically feminine stories, to drawing attention to real socioeconomic issues, and to using the wordless visual medium of cinema to communicate complex ideas and emotions.
The most remarkable thing about Weber’s career is that there is still more to discover than we are even aware of, and so many archivists, feminist historians, silent film theorists, film critics, and preservationists ready to bring their unique perspectives to these discoveries.