Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916)

Shelley Stamp

University of California, Santa Cruz

10 April 2018


Lois Weber’s 1916 film Shoes has been beautifully restored and recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Milestone.  I have waited for this moment for almost 20 years.  I first saw Shoes in 1999 at the Gender and Silent Cinema conference organized by Eva Warth and Annette Förster in Utrecht. The groundbreaking event included presentations by scholars including Kay Sloan, Heide Schlüpmann, Alison McMahan, Vicki Callahan, Jane Gaines and myself, along with screenings of archival film prints.

Seeing Shoes in Utrecht was a profound experience.  The print we saw, part of the Nederlands Filmmuseum collection, was heavily damaged and incomplete, with Dutch intertitles.  Noèmia Backer provided superb simultaneous English translation during that screening, struggling to translate an old form of Dutch into modern English.  I sat with two other American scholars, Kristen Whissel and Constance Balides, each of us at the beginning of our careers, all interested in feminist analysis of early cinema.  And we were all absolutely stunned by Shoes.  After the conference Balides and I stayed in Amsterdam to re-watch the film at the Filmmuseum, incredibly excited by what we had seen.  All three of us went on to write about Shoes in our subsequent work.  For Balides, the film represents an important example of Progressive-Era sociological filmmaking in the US.[i] Whissel highlighted Shoes in her extraordinary analysis of traffic and mobility in early American cinema.[ii]  When I first saw Shoes in 1999 I had not yet fully immersed myself in a study of Weber’s career.  In fact, at that point I’d likely only seen a few other Weber films, probably only Suspense (1913), Where Are My Children? (1916), and The Blot (1921).  Seeing Shoes undoubtedly crystallized my interest in tracing the fuller arc of Weber’s career, particularly her commitment to social causes and her interest in women’s lives. What remains so striking about Shoes is its capacity to render intimate details of the experience of poverty, consumer desire, and sexual shame through uniquely cinematic means, while also providing a wider lens on the social structures of wage labor, patriarchy, and prostitution.[iii]

That profoundly influential Gender and Silent Cinema conference in Utrecht where I first saw Shoes spawned a movement.  So energized was I by the event that Warth and Förster had organized that I talked my then-colleague Amelie Hastie into organizing a follow-up conference on Women and the Silent Screen in Santa Cruz, California, two years later.  On second thought, it was more likely the other way around.  I was probably speculating aloud about how great it would be to convene another event dedicated to tracing women’s engagement with early movie culture, when Hastie, ever enthusiastic, probably said, “let’s do it!”  Women and the Silent Screen has now become a (roughly) biennial conference where scholars gather in sites around the world, including Montréal, Guadalajara, Stockholm, Bologna, Melbourne, Pittsburgh, and Shanghai.  Next year we will meet in Amsterdam, coming almost full circle back to that originary event of 1999.  Many scholarly collections have emerged from these conferences and a considerable amount of scholarship, including my own work on Lois Weber, has been nurtured and developed in and around these gatherings.[iv]  The explosion of scholarship on women and the silent screen has also spawned a host of film restorations, retrospectives, festival screenings and DVD releases.  I can’t wait to see what comes next.

[i] Constance Balides, “Making Ends Meet: ‘Welfare Films’ and the Politics of Consumption during the Progressive Era,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 166-94; and Constance Balides, “Sociological Film, Reform Publicity, and the Secular Spectator: Social Problem Films in the Transitional Era,” Feminist Media Histories 3, no. 4 (2017): 10-45.

[ii] Kristen Whissel, Picturing American Modernity: Traffic, Technology, and the Silent Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 161-214.

[iii] Shelley Stamp, “Lois Weber, Progressive Cinema, and the Fate of ‘The Work-a-Day Girl’ in Shoes,Camera Obscura 56 (2004): 140-69; and Shelley Stamp, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 101-18.  My commentary track is included on the Milestone DVD and Blu-ray; and my short essay on the film is published on the National Film Registry website.

[iv] Collections featuring scholarship from conferences on Women and the Silent Screen include: Cinémas 16, no. 2 (2005), ed. Rosanna Maule; Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 46, no. 1 (2005), ed. Rosanna Maule and Catherine Russell; Camera Obscura 60 (2005), ed. Catherine Russell; Film History: An International Journal 18, no. 2 (2006), ed. Amelie Hastie and Shelley Stamp; Sofia Bull and Astrid Söderbergh-Widding, eds., Not So Silent: Women in Cinema Before Sound (Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2010); Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett, and Lucia Tralli, eds., Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives (Bologna: Department of Arts, University of Bologna, 2013); and Screening the Past 40 (2015), ed. Victoria Duckett and Susan Potter.

Shelley Stamp is author of Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon and Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, winner of the Michael Nelson Prize from the International Association for Media and History and the Richard Wall Special Jury Prize from the Theatre Library Association.  She is currently curating the DVD box set Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers for Kino-Lorber and co-writing Women and the Silent Screen in America with Anne Morey. She is Professor of Film & Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she won the Excellence in Teaching Award.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

  • Archives