Essay by Charles Musser On Shoes and Kisses

Charles Musser

Many of the earliest Edison films show women pirouetting against a dark background. Their bodies and what clothed them were at the centre of our spectatorial attention. The clothing concealed primarily so it could also reveal, arousing the viewer with a form of erotic foreplay. Indeed, eroticized dancing and then the kiss – in which tactility was made visual – were the two key motifs for sex in films of the 1890s. They may seem tame by today’s standards, but let us not take them lightly. I don’t. Even now Spanish dancer Carmencita lures me with her arching back, delicate limbs, and a daintily clad foot. She kicks her shoe towards the camera, then brings it back towards her body with a gesture that beckons me towards her. Entranced, I cross the footlights and penetrate the gauzy screen. I kiss her white-heeled pump. First its toe, then its laces and tongue. Reluctantly my lips leave the shoe to work their way up her calf. I gasp for breath as this first film of a woman made for commercial purposes ends. A year later, in 1895, Annabelle Whitford dared to perform the Serpentine “a la Trilby.” Trilby danced barefoot – and so did Annabelle. She exposes her perfect toes and her subtle ankles. Surely this was heaven on earth. (But then this film was not part of the official list of Edison films; it was probably made for private, all-male “Smokers.”)

The movies changed in the early 1900s as multi-shot narratives were used to integrate visual tropes and locate the stories in an eroticized space: the shoe emporium, the clothing salon, the department store. These are places where clothing comes off, and a substitute is put back on in a fort-da of scopophilic delight. The cinema was offering new ways for the spectator to imagine him or herself transported into such scenes. There were more pathways to titillate repressed desires. Cinema’s dancing girls were Victorian. The Gay Shoe Clerk was already Edwardian. It is creating a scene, one that is at once everyday and perverse. We still gaze, but the young woman no longer waves her shod foot in our direction. Instead, the camera moves in for a close-up, giving us a better view. The shoe becomes a source of foreplay, like cigarettes in 1940s Hollywood movies. The shoe clerk chooses a sample shoe and hands it to the girl, who caresses its surface and approves. He selects another in the proper size and helps her remove her old shoe. The lady slips her foot into his offering, which requires considerable assistance from the clerk whose hands find their way high upon her calf. The shoe on, the scene cuts to a closer view making the viewer an implicit part of a circuit of desire that is centered on the shoe. We lack the tactility of touch enjoyed by the shoe clerk and the customer, but we see all. The shoe clerk pats the shoe and delicately caresses her ankle. The customer raises her skirt in invitation. His fingers begin the climb up the leg. All this is concealed from her chaperon but not the movie spectator, for we are part of this conspiracy of pleasure.

The foreplay around the shoe leads naturally to a kiss. But then another fashionable accoutrement is brought into play – the umbrella. The shoe clerk’s pleasure ends abruptly with an orgasmic flash of pain. The girl’s chaperon, until now reading a newspaper, sees the kiss and gives the clerk a whipping. He now grovels on the floor, where the only thing he might be able to kiss is a shoe. But the exemplar of shod femininity has left the shoe palace and there is only the dirty floor. I laugh at my former surrogate’s expense and look down at the shoes worn by the woman sitting next to me.

© Charles Musser 2006

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