Mary McLaren in Shoes
I’ve been away on holiday, so haven’t seen as much of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival as I’d have liked to. It’s playing throughout July at cinemas from Scarborough to Sheffield, and the films are worth catching.
Yesterday I finally got to a session at the beautiful Hyde park cinema in Leeds (where I saw the Edith Cavell biopic Dawn a while ago). The evening featured a talk by Ellen Cheshire on women in silent cinema, followed by a showing of the recently restored version of Shoes (1916), directed by Lois Weber.
Ellen Cheshire pointed out that there were more women directors making movies in the silent era than there are working today (and women cinematographers, editors, etc., as well). She gave some examples, including the French director, Alice Guy-Blaché, who made over 700 films. Most of them, inevitably are lost, but there are some examples on YouTube. One that I rather like is this 1906 presentation, Les Resultats du Feminisme, showing a world where the roles and nature of men and women have been reversed. You can find it at:
A silent director that I really liked the sound of was Nell Shipman, a Canadian who went off to the wilds of Idaho and made films about humans versus the wilderness. She starred in her own films, too – and was a pioneer of the nude scene.
The talk suggested that women directors were sometimes sidelined into ‘social issue’ movies, away from the lush romantic melodramas that were the great staple of silent film. Shoes fits this category. It is a downbeat realist fable. Eva (played movingly by Mary MacLaren) works in a five-and-ten store. She earns eight dollars a week, but dutifully takes it all home to her mother. Eva is the family’s sole breadwinner; her father just lounges idly about all day reading novels (rather like myself, I thought). Eva’s shoes are falling to bits, and stuffing the soles with cardboard is no solution in rainy weather. New shoes cost twelve dollars.
Eva’s agony increases, as she sees other girls with lovely shoes. Her workmate Lil introduces her to Charlie, a lascivious cabaret singer, but she rejects his advances, as any decent girl should.
Above: Charlie, looking lascivious.
Eventually, her poverty makes Eva’s situation utterly unbearable. She goes to the cabaret.
Next morning she returns home with a beautiful pair of boots, and a soul burdened by guilt and shame. Her mother realises what has happened, but is most anxious that the lazy father should not know, or he would beat her.
The story ends on their misery.
Put like that the film probably sounds trite, and the whole tone of the thing is heavily moralistic, but it is redeemed by Mary MacLaren’s performance, and by the craft of the director, who keeps you interested even when the story is becoming very obvious indeed.
The film has been restored by a studio in the Netherlands. This YouTube snippet gives you an idea of the work of restoration.
There are still more films to come in the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival. I hope they’ve had enough of a response to organise another next year.