Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Blot is a restored 1921 silent picture, looking for the most part in far better
shape than many famous silents we're offered on DVD. Better yet, Photoplay's DVD provides a
fascinating commentary that tells the story of a silent film artist few of us have heard of,
Lois Weber. In the late teens and early 20s, she had her own studio and made a series of
independent pictures that, judging by the evidence of this film, are completely different from
anything being made in Hollywood at the time.
College Professor Griggs (Philip Hubbard) gets no respect in his classroom, and
his household is falling apart because of the 'blot' of an insubstantial salary. While his
uneducated immigrant neighbors the Olsens thrive from their shoe business, Mrs. Griggs (Margaret
McWade) is humiliated that she can't put good food on the table or even buy shoes for her
fine daughter Amelia (Claire Windsor). Amelia has two suitors, an equally low-paid
reverend and her father's spoiled rich student Phil West (Louis Calhern). Social pressure, sickness
and mother's desperation cause everyone to reassess the situation, with surprising results.
The things you learn when you think you already know a subject ... Lois Weber's film studio was
apparently only a few blocks from my house, but has been gone for eighty years. In partnership
with her husband, she made dramas with a socially-conscious edge and was heralded as one of the top
talents in Hollywood - only to be caught up in the growing consolidation of the business into a
few all-powerful studios. Her story entertwines with that of Frances Marion, the screenwriter
whose story was told in the docu biography
Without Lying Down. At her peak,
Ms. Weber had a full studio running, all to produce her custom photoplays.
The Blot would seem to practically invent the modern social-issue film. It's acted and
filmed in a naturalistic style that has more in common with the low-key Swedish dramas seen in
Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood
than with what survives of American films from 1921. With a realism that would be the envy of a modern
TV movie of the week, the film presents a believable portrait of working Americans of several
classes. It's rather fair-minded, even given its build-in bias - the up-and-coming Swedish immigrants
next door are seen as unworthy louts, while the noble and cultured Griggs family are the victims
of social injustice.
Weber's script and direction express the problems visually. The housecat that looks for scraps in the
neighbors' garbage represents Mrs. Griggs' inability to set a reasonable table. Mrs. Olsen feels
the need to flaunt her superiority placing the feast she's preparing in view of Mrs. Griggs'
The acting is very natural, especially from Claire Windsor and newcomer Louis Calhern (The Asphalt
Jungle). Nicely-judged closeups show Calhern's Phil West noticing worn out shoes, frayed furniture
and torn carpets. Phil starts as a thoughtless rich kid but becomes enamored of Windsor's Amelia and
tries to help her with rides from her job at the library. At first he stops bringing expensive
flowers, and foolishly tries to leave crumpled folding money around the house for Amelia's mother
The drama plays at a refreshingly basic level. Phil and the reverend both want Amelia's attention,
and the script questions why the more learned man hasn't much chance of winning her hand. The
Olsens' have a son who admires Amelia as well, but he knows he's out of the running.
Ms. Weber uses her story to underline her views. A banquet scene demonstrates that the fancy
delicacies for the rich
are prepared by people who could never afford to eat them. The main theme, that churchmen and
educators are badly compensated, is helped out when Phil talks to his dad (a college trustee) to
do something about Mr. Griggs salary. He also brings tutoring jobs to the professor's door, a much
more sensible thing to do than leaving money around to be found 'accidentally'.
All is resolved along a schematic that surprises us by its avoidance of cheap melodrama. Most of the
conflicts are resolved through simple compassion and understanding. In a moment of weakness and
desperation, Mrs. Griggs has stolen a chicken from next door. The abusive neighbor realizes
how dire Mrs. Grigg's situation is, and not only doesn't press her accusation, but openly shows
her willingness to pretend it never happened. Realizing that he's more interested in the poor
Amelia, Phil's society girlfriend graciously wishes the best for both of them.
The ending is unusually thoughtful. Amelia's choice of the rich student over the poor preacher
seems almost Darwinian, and not a romantic necessity. The Blot will probably only be
appreciated by confirmed fans of silent films, as it has little or no sensational content. But it
certainly is a fascinating show for those of us who thought that intelligent naturalism in movies
didn't appear until much later. Lois Weber is quite a talent.
Image and Milestone's DVD of The Blot is a good-looking transfer of an ancient print in
fine condition. There was only one short section of lower quality, and the movie seems complete.
Besides the information in the liner notes, the film is accompanied by an excellent commentary by
Shelley Stamp. In 90 minutes she tells the entire story of Lois Weber and her studio from beginning
to end, with plenty of time to point out details and insights about the film. It's free of rhetoric,
but does ponder the politics of the rising status of working-people, and the shame of being
'de-classed' in America. Ms. Stamp very astutely brings our attention to the fact that the liberalism
of the film goes only so far: The Griggs'es problem immigrant neighbors the Olsens
are "approved" Northern Europeans. In 1920, Mediterranean Italians or Greeks would be far
less acceptable, and black neighbors out of the question.
The very good commentary is scene specific, but is unfortunately offset a minute early, which can
sometimes be irritating. The tinted still on the box cover is attractive, but the big blue title
lettering will make some shoppers wonder if this is a silent version of The Blob.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Blot rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Shelley Stamp
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson