By Ray Young
Written and directed by Lois Weber.
Cinematography by Philip R. Du Bois and Gordon Jennings.
With Philip Hubbard, Margaret McWade, Claire
Windsor, Louis Calhern, Marie Walcamp.
Originally released in 1921; black-and-white, 91-minutes.
Restoration by Photoplay Productions.
Music composed and conducted by Jim Parker.
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In February, 2004, 8.2 million people in the United States were out of work and collecting unemployment insurance. While the shortsighted may feel satisfied with that figure, it does not take into account those whose unemployment insurance has long since lapsed as their joblessness extends indefinitely. Since they report to no agency, their numbers (another 8 million?) are wide open for speculation. Less than a decade ago, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made mention of a ‘vast rightwing conspiracy,’ words that had her labeled as a paranoid kook by some, and a troublemaker by others. But that very conspiracy — its existence is confirmed daily under the G.W. Bush Administration — continues to distract public attention from the poverty choking America, and uses arrogance, lies, fear tactics and a smokescreen of dubious ‘morality’ to do so.
With this in mind, Lois Weber’s 1921 film, The Blot
, is nearly as relevant today as it was eighty years ago, when the cost of living in the jazz age escalated and eclipsed a working person’s salary. A film about middleclass polarization, it reflects present-day corporate downsizing and the outsourcing of labor, and should strike a chord with anyone with a conscience. Ironically, a moment in the film intended to alarm its post-World War I audience, when a character attempts to establish credit and take the dreaded plunge into debt, seems charmingly naïve in contrast to the current cancer of maxed charge cards and mortgaged futures.
Weber was no stranger to poverty: before acting in films, she had been a teenage runaway and street corner evangelist. As she began writing and later directing, her screenplays often dealt with social concerns, particularly deprivation in a consumer-driven economy. Produced at Universal Pictures in the teens, her films grew in popularity and Weber evolved as a pioneering auteur — easily on a par with (and, in some cases, surpassing) Griffith or De Mille. “Weber was described as a filmmaker involved in every detail of her productions,” biographer Shelley Stamp informs us on the audio commentary of the new DVD edition of The Blot
. “From wardrobe decisions and location scouting in the pre-production phase, to the editing and marketing in the final stages. As a director, she attends not only to the details of her productions, but personally goes over every inch of film.”
director should be absolute,” Weber once said. “He alone knows the effects he wants to produce, and he alone should have authority in the arrangement, cutting, titling, or anything else. We ought to realize that the work of a picture director, worthy of its name, is
creative.” Breaking off from Universal to form an independent production company with her husband, Phillips Smalley, Weber continued exploring class consciousness in films that remain largely unavailable.
One of the few that’s accessible and now beautifully restored, The Blot
’s scenario alternates between three groups: the educated working poor (embodied by a weary university professor and a clergyman), the moderately successful/nouveau riche (a self-employed immigrant tradesman and his corpulent family), and the wealthy (boorish university students from old money, preparing to run family businesses). “Men are only boys grown tall,” says a title card at the beginning. But the insinuation of sexism evaporates once Weber builds from the simpleminded beliefs of her proud characters, male and female, people who’ve been conditioned to stifle compassion and humility for anyone outside of their circle. When one of the preppy students, played by a young, young
Louis Calhern, falls for threadbare librarian Claire Windsor, he seems almost shocked by the chink in his own vanity. (Thirty years later, Calhern would deliver The Asphalt Jungle
its plum line, “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”)
Calhern’s character comes to bridge the socioeconomic gulf dividing this microcosm — though he’s not above turning a profit, using the experience to complete a term paper. “It’s a blot on the present day civilization that we expect to engage the finest mental development for a less wage than we pay the commonest labor,” are words he uses to get a good grade as well as the heart of the poor girl. (That her father happens to be Calhern’s professor isn’t by chance: the screenplay is acutely aware of the perks that forever advance the rich.) Humble, forgiving and ‘decent,’ she chooses him over two other (less affluent) suitors, guided by her stomach more than her heart, demonstrating the powerful seduction of comfort on one who’s never had it. At times awkward with his own opulence, Calhern’s character appears genuinely concerned about her and her family’s plight. This end of the film broaches (albeit simplistically) a capitalist anomaly: educators and the clergy make due on limited funds, while the fat cats hoarding the money are the same people they’ve shaped and nurtured toward power. (Weber conveniently neglects the possibility of wealthy teachers and gilded religious orders.)
On the domestic front, the girl’s downtrodden mother (played by Margaret McWade, waiting for the other shoe to drop) despairs to the brink of insanity. Maintaining a shabby house of tattered furniture and frayed carpets, no food in the pantry and her daughter sick from malnutrition, Weber traces the evolution and ‘necessity’ of crime — will the mother need to steal to feed her child? The drama intensifies when juxtaposed with the next door neighbors, the shoemaker’s obtuse, greedy family. It’s mentioned that he makes expensive, uncomfortable shoes, a denigration of the theoretically inferior (and overpriced) workmanship done overseas. Blatantly xenophobic, Weber casts them as plump, rosy-cheeked Scandinavians, ill-mannered and spending uncontrollably to deflect their nationality, consuming compulsively to appear more ‘American.’ A reaction to the throngs coming over from Europe to the United States, Weber may have been playing it safe by not depicting them as the more prevalent Irish, Italian or German. But her sympathies remain with the disfranchised ‘native’ (white) Americans, their struggle with oppression under patrician wealth, and this added interference of domineering, uncouth émigrés.
Predating Stroheim’s Greed
(1924), Eisenstein’s Strike
(1925), and Vidor’s The Crowd
(1928) — and eight years shy of the Great Depression — The Blot
may lack the aesthetic grandeur of those remarkable films, but shares in their consciousness of human nature and the distressed soul. Keeping up with the Joneses is a hard job for the worker restrained by low wages in a society rich with envy. To get this across and punctuate irony, Lois Weber indulges in obvious visual symbolism. As the shoemaker’s wife cries when chopping onions, through her kitchen window we see the professor’s wife cry from hunger. And as the sick daughter is brought flowers by two of her suitors, bouquet size is milked for metaphor, the rich man ‘hidden’ by his overpowering arrangement, and the poor man embarrassed by his scant posies. But Weber’s ideas and implications still hit a nerve, and continue to be relevant as long as grave social problems are glossed over among people influenced by appearance.