- The Blot
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The Milestone Collection has released, on DVD, Lois Weber's 1921 The Blot, with an articulate commentary by Shelly Stamp, creating a welcome opportunity for cinephiles to examine Weber's work. The film is ostensibly about lovers from separate classes and stars a gangly Louis Calhern (still known for his role in John Huston's 1950 The Asphalt Jungle) as wealthy college boy Phil West, and a haunted Claire Windsor as poor local librarian Amelia Griggs. Her father is West's professor at the town's university, her mother a middle-class woman exhausted by the poverty in which she and her family must live, and her would-be suitor, the impoverished, artistic young minister, Reverend Gates. However, The Blot's true theme is money. The film explicitly argues the need to pay, and pay well, for education and spiritual guidance. Instead, money serves only commerce and consumption—represented by the Griggs family's neighbors, the well-to-do, uneducated Olsens, immigrants who have flourished through the father's shoemaking skills. Phil West also represents wealth's privilege. If the Olsens love and flaunt what they have, he simply takes his status for granted. The "blot" is society's dishonor in underappreciating teachers and clergy and keeping them poor.
Weber, wanting to raise social consciousness, guarantees that the audience recognizes her theme immediately. The first intertitle states that Griggs makes "less than bare living wage," and another recognizes that the family "lacked even the bare necessities of life." She goes to great lengths in a potentially tired boy-meets-girl story to ensure, both visually and structurally, that the "blot" is not abstracted and makes us see that "money" translates to a better life and that its lack causes humiliation and crime. Weber uses three means to get her points across: the polemic of intertitles, sharp visual details, and an accomplished use of contrasts and framing.
Lois Weber can only be described as a political director. The Blot was her most successful film in a long line of social realist dramas. Some of her films were attacked on legal and religious grounds and even closed by police, but these uproars only made Weber more famous. Driven to show how people suffered without social reform, she regarded cinema as a force or, in her words, a "powerful means of putting out a creed,"1 because she had "faith in the picture which carries with it an idea and affords a basis for the argument of questions concerned with the real life of people who go to see it."2 While her contemporaries D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. de Mille filmed well-known literary or Biblical texts, Weber wrote her own stories. She dramatized hot subjects untouched or untouchable by most directors: abortion, contraceptive rights, social inequality, spiritual and political corruption, the minimum wage, capital punishment, prostitution, education reform, anti-Semitism, drug addiction, and [End Page 153] poverty. Preceding The Blot, her strongest social films were The Hypocrites (1915), which, as Moving Picture World described it, "aimed to unmask the mean hypocrisies of modern society";3 Scandal (1915), which underscored gossip's destructiveness; Hop, the Devil's Brew (1916), about opium addiction in the middle class and the U.S. Customs Service; Where Are My Children? (1916), about abortion's perils; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), which pressed for contraception's legalization; and The People vs. John Doe (1916), which argued against capital punishment by dramatizing the real-life case of Charles Stielow, who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.
Her approach to these topics was head on: she had serious opinions and she stated them, not only in interviews but in the intertitles of her motion pictures. Despite this courage, Weber's focus has made it difficult, until recently, to set her comfortably in film history. Scholarship ignored her groundbreaking work for decades as just that of a "woman director," but when her films began...