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The Blot

The Blot
1:37 flat full frame
91 min.
Street Date December 16, 2003

Starring Claire Windsor, Margaret McWade, Louis Calhern, Philip Hubbard, Marie Walcamp
Cinematography Philip R. Du Bois, Gordon Jennings
Original Music (DVD) Jim Parker
Written by Marion Orth and Lois Weber
Produced and Directed by Lois Weber

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' window.

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 to find.

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

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