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Camera Obscura 19.2 (2004) 140-169

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Lois Weber, Progressive Cinema, and the Fate of "The Work-a-Day Girl" in Shoes

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Figure 1
Lois Weber around the time Shoes (US, 1916) was made. Courtesy Georgetown University Library
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A profile of filmmaker Lois Weber published shortly after the release of her 1916 film Shoes (US) celebrated her ability to "set forth in a dignified and dramatic manner some of the complex questions which are challenging intelligent thinkers the world over."1 Working at Universal in the mid-1910s, where she garnered enormous respect and substantial creative control, Weber wrote and directed a series of ambitious features on highly topical, often deeply contentious, social issues of the day—including drug addiction, capital punishment, religious intolerance, and contraception. Though she would later distance herself from what she called the "heavy dinners" she produced at Universal, Weber was, for a time, at the forefront of progressive filmmaking in America, foremost among a host of filmmakers who sought to use cinema as a kind of living newspaper, capable of bringing discussions of complicated cultural questions to life.2 For Weber, this project involved not simply elevating cinema's cultural cachet during the years of its newfound popularity, but also uplifting its [End Page 141] audience, speaking to it in a "voiceless language" capable of engaging some of the era's key social problems. "I'll tell you what I'd like to be," she said, "and that is, the editorial page of the Universal Company. My close study of the editorial page has taught me that it speaks with stentorian tones and that its effect is far reaching upon thousands of readers. I feel that like them, I can, in this motion picture field, also deliver a message to the world in the plays we have in contemplation that will receive a ready and cheerful response from the better element of the big general public."3

Consistent with this aim, Shoes tackled one of the progressive era's most pronounced social phenomena—the influx of young, single women into the paid labor force. The film focuses on Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren), a five-and-dime store clerk whose meager $5-a-week salary must support her mother and father, along with three younger sisters, supplemented only by the limited income her mother earns by taking in laundry. Her father is unable, and the film suggests also unwilling, to find work to support his family, so his eldest daughter must shoulder their financial burden alone. Standing on her feet all day at the store, Eva quickly wears out the soles of her boots, and though she begs her mother for money to buy a new pair she has spotted in a display window, Mrs. Meyer (Mattie Witting) cannot spare the extra money from an already strained family budget. After catching cold walking in the rain with her deteriorating footwear, and again being refused money to purchase new shoes, Eva finally accepts an invitation from a persistent male flatterer who has pursued her at work, agreeing to meet him one evening at a cabaret. When she arrives home the following day wearing new boots, the implication is clear, and Eva falls weeping into her mother's lap, only to learn, too late, that her father has at last found a job to support his family.

Weber's interest in the fate of underpaid retail clerks echoed many sociological studies of the era that investigated the "problem" of young female wage earners, often raising questions about desires unleashed by commercial recreation culture and the consumer economy. Such questions arose particularly in the [End Page 142] context of urban communities where young women lived and worked, often outside the immediate supervision of their families. "Shopgirls," such as the heroine in Shoes, were especially privileged in these studies, for their labor bridged the industrial and commercial spheres. In her 1911 study of such employees, Louise De Koven Bowen lamented how long working hours with few...