Lois Weber had a great influence on John Ford, whose 'Upstream' opens this year's SF Silent Film Festival.

'Shoes' on the Other Feet at SF Silent Film Festival

Dennis Harvey July 14, 2011

A woman's work is never done—unless it becomes enviable, in which case men usually horn their way in. Arguably the golden age for women directors in film was at the medium's very beginning, precisely because the movies weren't considered a respectable profession (let alone art form) yet and thus provided greater opportunities to people who might have been excluded had the prestige been higher.

The most important woman director of the silent era—and for a while one of the most valued directors in the industry, period—is represented in one of this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival programs, offering a rare opportunity to appreciate this mostly long-forgotten figure. Sunday at noon the festival will show Lois Weber's hour-long 1916 feature Shoes. It's a good example of this pioneering figure's interest in bringing oft-controversial social issues to the screen, often those of special or exclusive relevance to women.

Whether Weber considered herself a feminist, suffragette or whatever the then-relevant term was, she certainly acted like one—rising from humble beginnings to act, write, direct and produce, eventually running her own production company. After such success, later years of scant recognition or employment must have been bitter ones. But today her legacy, however murkily remembered, remains a standard for women filmmakers to aspire to—one could argue none since have ever risen so high above the usual Hollywood “boys' club” glass ceiling, in so many creative capacities, as she did nearly a century ago.

Born in 1879 (or 1881, depending on the source) Pennsylvania as Florence Pietz, her early decades are little chronicled. She reportedly was a street-corner evangelist—good training for showmanship indeed—before entering the fledgling new medium in the nineteen-oughts.

Initially she worked mostly in front of the camera. In 1911 she began directing and writing screenplays as well—often in tandem with husband Phillips Smalley, also an actor. The frantic pace of early American cinema had her churning out up to 30 shorts a year. In 1914 she became the first woman to direct a feature, an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. (The first feature-length U.S. film had been made just two years prior.)

By 1916, she was the highest paid director at Hollywood's then-biggest studio, Universal. Shoes from that year offers fair illustration of what made her so popular—offering as it did a socially progressive message wrapped in soft-pedaled (for the time) morality and good presentational taste.

Its heroine Eva (Mary MacLaren) toils for

5/week at a department store, providing the sole support for her layabout father, care-worn mother and two younger siblings in their depressing tenement habitat. Money is so tight that the shoes she has to stand in all day have been re-soled until they are ready to fall apart.

Silently resenting her obliviously dependent family, risking serious illness walking through stormy weather to work in the hole-ridden only footgear she has, she's tempted to “sell herself for a pair”—i.e. give in to the aggressive overtures of one “Cabaret Charlie,” a local Lothario known to settle gifts on fellow shopgirls in exchange for...a little fun. Just what that “fun” entails Weber is too high-minded to spell out, though of course we can guess from Eva's guilt-ridden tears while regarding her spanking-new shoes. What they cost her, she'll never get back.

Endorsed (as an opening title informs us) by The National Council of Public Morals, Shoes is a pretty crude cautionary tale in outline that's elevated by Weber's directorial restraint and frank depiction of urban poverty. There's no Prince Charming or surprise inheritance waiting in the wings to "rescue" Eva from the slum. Weber directs a slyly accusing finger at her presumably mostly middle-class audience, calling for them to insist the working poor be paid a genuine living wage so such instances of compromised virtue no longer occur.

Among the few Weber features accessible today, Shoes is neither the best or the most daring. Others dealt boldly with birth control, abortion, alcoholism, infidelity, class injustice, capital punishment and drug addiction. Her ability to wrestle with hot-button topics in ways that enlightened rather than offended viewers was a personal signature, and the basis for her considerable box-office reliability. One of the finest examples, made for her own Lois Weber Productions, is 1921's The Blot, a remarkably sophisticated drama about how pride, charity, and material wealth/poverty conspire to separate fellow citizens in the same community. With richer dimensions than Shoes, it's warmly comic at times and always generous in spirit toward a large cast of well-defined characters.

That film was yet another hit. Nevertheless, Weber's fortunes were about to take a sudden turn for the worse, from which they'd never recover. Her company foundered, she divorced Smalley (apparently an abusive drunk), had a nervous breakdown and entered a second marriage that wouldn't last either. Her screen work grew sparse, then nonexistent. The sole “talkie”) after seven years' inactivity) she made was 1934's White Heat—no relation to the later Jimmy Cagney classic—a reportedly embarrassing, now lost potboiler about torrid interracial love on a tropical isle.

Five years later she was dead, reportedly living alone and broke. It was a sad end to a brilliant career that had a big influence on many—including the director of this year's Silent Festival opening night feature Upstream. That person was none other than John Ford, who some years earlier had apprenticed as her assistant. Imagining that cranky he-man taking orders from a woman requires a stretch of the imagination—but it's a gratifying stretch.

Other highlights in the four-day SFSFF include star vehicles (the delightful early Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Mr. Fix-It, Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped, a very young Marlene Dietrich in The Woman Men Year For), works from international master directors (Ozu's I Was Born, But..., Murnau's Sunrise, Mikhail Kalatozov's Nail in the Boot, Mauritz Stiller's The Blizzard), cinema's first Huckleberry Finn, Disney's pre-Mickey Mouse “Laugh-O-Grams,” a program of “Wild and Weird” shorts, two “Amazing Tales from the Archives” peeks at current film preservation efforts, and a panel on composing new music for silents. Of course as usual, every movie in the festival will have live musical accompaniment, from soloists as well as visiting ensembles.