"1916 - when both the cabaret and the bookseller were trouble!"
It's funny what strikes you when watching films from a hundred years ago and thinking of the society of the same time. For instance, "Shoes" posits that spending all one's time READING evidently was the mark of a useless layabout. The books are not even particularly described as junk or pulp; it's just that someone spends his time reading! It makes sense - it's not like there's TV or even that much radio in 1916 - but it dates this movie something fierce, as does some of its Puritan hand-wringing.In Shoes, the shiftless bibliophile is the supposed head of the Meyer family (Harry Griffith), a father who avoids looking for work and spends what little money daughter Eva (Mary MacLaren) brings in to the family on novels. Eva, who is the sole person supporting the poor family wants a new pair of shoes, and it's gone well beyond just vanity - what she wears is so close to falling apart that one strongly suspects that she won't be able to keep the job much longer if they frown on working barefoot; it seems like a reasonable investment for the family, really. But there's always some reason to put it off and they take her for granted, unlike the lascivious cabaret performer (William V. Mong) who spots Eva coming out of the department store one day.
The main problem with the movie is that for "a film in five acts", it feels like it could be compacted to a short with little damage; the characters just don't do very much other than restate their poverty and the father's laziness again and again. Director Lois Weber actually does a fairly impressive job of not making this drag, breaking it up with a fantasy sequence and making just enough use of the repetition to get across how Eva can't seem to make progress. The movie runs just under one hour, and though it could potentially be stretched at half that, it only skirts the borders of trying the audience's patience.
Like a number of other films directed by Weber and produced by Bluebird Photoplays - an early division of Universal that also made Where Are My Children? - Shoes is highly moralistic and leaves no doubt of what sort of reaction it aims to produce in its audience. From the earnestness of the opening titles to a finale meant to fill the audience with the same horror and shame as the characters, it makes for a strange time capsule.
The presentation is often as much of its time as the fervor, with the narrative intertitles a match for the broad acting. Harry Griffith and William V. Mong, especially, give the sort of big, theatrical performances that zero in on what's important about their characters unpretentiously enough to be enjoyable as more than just camp. Mattie Witting (as Eva's mother) and Mary MacLaren don't play quite so much to the balconies, but get across their characters' dire straits without making the women just walking misery. The shooting is nice, if static.Because of all this, few if any today are going to watch "Shoes" as the sort of parable and piece of popular entertainment it was made to be a hundred years ago. It's still interesting, though, and probably goes down better than many of its contemporaries.