At this year’s Cambridge Film Festival, the first session of a brief season of films by the pioneering American film-maker Lois Weber (1879–1939) comprised a ten-minute short, SUSPENSE, from 1913, and the 1916 ‘five-reeler’ SHOES (about an hour long).
SUSPENSE adheres closely to a very well-known genre of the time: a wife (with baby, of course) menaced at home, while the husband races to rescue her. To further the impression of a home (invasion) movie, Lois Weber herself plays the wife. Weber the actor is quickly established as a characterful presence, though Weber the director doesn’t give her much to do, beyond being scared, and then very scared. The film, of course, is dealing in archetypes — the wife, the husband, the intruder, and so on — though this lack of differentiation may prove a disadvantage when the husband, desperate to rush home, steals a car from a work colleague.
Viewed from a distance as it is, one could be forgiven for mistaking the colleague for the husband, as if it is the latter who owns the car, which then — as if his day wasn’t already bad enough — is stolen from under his nose. Still, this variation to the usual scenario is ingenious on a number of levels: when the car owner flags down a police car, the rescue is combined with a chase, with the possibility that the resolution of one crime may allow a much worse one to take place at home. Mounting the camera on one of the cars also allows Weber to shoot some welcome moving shots, while she achieves a particularly brilliant effect by having the wing mirror of the stolen car show its pursuers. There are many other felicitous choices within this short film, not least the use of a split screen — not the usual side-by-side approach, but separated into three triangles.
After the experimentation of SUSPENSE, Weber’s approach in SHOES appears as plain as the film’s title, although she does allow herself one expressionist flourish, when the protagonist Eva, lying awake in the bed she shares with two sisters, imagines a giant arm, portentously labelled ‘Poverty’, reaching down as if to strike her. Weber’s main interest, though, is to represent Eva’s life as naturalistically as possible. Eva is a shopgirl — a job which is often cited as a source of liberation for many young women of this time, but in this case appears to be a terrible burden. Eva’s feckless father is unable or unwilling to hold down a job, making Eva the family’s only breadwinner; her mother looks after the home, including all the money that comes in, and all three of Eva’s younger siblings are girls. (The implication here is that it would have been much easier to find work for a boy, even from a very young age.)
The scene where Eva casually brushes crumbs from her lap would have had the Italian Neorealists cheering…
There is an attention to realistic detail throughout, and some of the film’s most impressive sequences are when Weber brings to life two busy worlds: customers milling around the five-and-ten-cent store where Eva works and a very different set of customers indulging themselves at the Blue Goose nightclub. That these are shot in one take, from a necessarily fixed point, makes their vivacity all the more striking. Some of the acting is fairly broad, but Weber gets nicely unaffected performances from Eva’s younger sisters and, not least, from Eva herself: Mary MacLaren registers a wide range of emotions, from stoical sorrow to a rising anger, without resorting to histrionics. (The scene where she casually brushes crumbs from her lap would have had the Italian Neorealists cheering.)
As straightforward as SHOES is in many ways, it contains a number of oddities. Eva’s father is shown to be in the grip of a terrible vice — so far so typical, but in his case it is not alcohol or drugs, but books! He reads them all day, including at the dinner table, and when given expenses by his wife to look for a job, he immediately goes to the nearest bookstall, uses the money to buy a volume and then spends the day sitting on a park bench and reading. (One obvious irony here is that the film begins with the representation of the book by Jane Addams from which the story itself is supposed to be drawn.) As for Eva’s suitor, whose light suit and boater already mark him out as a bad lot, he’s no moocher, but has a night job singing in a barbershop quartet at the Blue Goose.
Weber’s depiction of Eva’s fall — no spoiler, as the book at the beginning of the film openly states that this is what will happen — is somewhat curious to modern eyes, too. It becomes clear during the film that as a young woman in the public sphere, Eva has easy recourse to getting money or expensive gifts by spending the night with a man. Eva’s less pretty but more fun-loving work-friend Lil succumbs quickly; however, she appears to suffer no ill-effects, other than injured pride. While the thrust of the film seems to be to establish the context in which a virtuous young woman would be driven into selling herself in this way, there are no figures of moral authority (other than the father, who has surely forfeited that position) to drive home the enormity of this crime. Instead, Eva resists for as long as she can because of her personal morality. The terrible effects of her choice on Eva herself is driven home by MacLaren’s affectingly interior performance.
There is even a dialogue intertitle that comes before the scene where the characters’ lips move…
A few words about two elements of the restoration process. First, the notice that begins SHOES — as with every other restored film, it is deemed necessary to give the provenance of the source(s) from which the restoration was made — indicates that the screenplay for the film was recently discovered and has informed this latest version. Perhaps too much in this case: the film’s intertitles are, to put it mildly, overzealous, often describing exactly those actions that are shown in the subsequent scene (for instance, the father reading the book at the table, or Eva cutting up cardboard as a temporary sole for her ruined shoes). There is even a dialogue intertitle that comes before the scene where the characters’ lips move. The interruption of the film by so many intertitles exacerbates an existing issue with restored silent films, where there is always a jarring contrast between the original footage, flickering and spotty, and the pristine perfection of the still images, including intertitles, which are much easier to touch up, if not recreate from scratch.
Secondly, given the care lavished on this hundred-year-old film, it would seem churlish, not to say ungrateful, to linger on the remaining problems, but it is best that a prospective viewer is primed on what to expect. Towards the film’s end, the deterioration becomes impossible to ignore: the damage to the edges of the film stock gives the impression of yellow-tinted waves coming in and out, every so often threatening to inundate the entire frame.