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Since the 1970s, Lois Weber has been heralded as the most influential woman director of the silent era. This honor has been a mixed blessing to her reputation. It testifies to her importance to the industry but the compartmentalization of Weber as a "woman filmmaker" has hindered an objective assessment of her talents.
Viewed through an eye unbiased by gender politics, her films are among the most emotionally powerful, carefully crafted, and thematically daring of the era. From Weber, the cinema learned how to artfully, yet unflinchingly, deal with taboo subject matter, a skill that continues to defy most filmmakers even today. She proved that smart, challenging films could be both entertaining and profitable, prompting Motion Picture Magazine to deem her, "the wonder girl who revolutionized the infant art of the photoplay."
Weber even made social conscience films palatable to the major studios. Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle, who was known more for his frugality and cunning business sense than philanthropy, said of Weber, "I would trust Miss Weber with any sum of money that she needed to make any picture that she wanted to make. I would be sure that she would bring it back."
Weber's most daring film was the contraception drama Where Are My Children? (1916). But not every film she made wrestled with controversial topics. Most fell within the domain of conventional drama, yet each was guided by a distinctive moral compass, and each imparted (subtly or overtly) some moral lesson. Weber's fearless outspokenness and definitive sense of right and wrong came from her experience in Christian missionary work, in a Salvation Army-like organization. Unlike a street-corner proselytizer, Weber the filmmaker is not a heavy-handed propagandist. She engages the viewer in the emotional fabric of the story, and shapes the narrative in such a way that the viewer comes to his/her own conclusion.
The Blot (1921) follows the financial struggles of the Griggs family, whose patriarch, Andrew Theodore Griggs (Philip Hubbard), is an unappreciated professor at a local college. His pupils, foremost among them Phil West (Louis Calhern) are pampered rich kids who lack intellectual curiosity and are likewise blind to the economic disparity between themselves and their professor.
The Griggs family lives next door to a family of Swedish immigrants, who have prospered even though they are contributing little to the world's social welfare (the father is a shoemaker). While most filmmakers would depict the Olsens as a model of American capitalism, Weber paints them as uncouth, unthinking consumers run amuck, to illustrate the widespread shift in American priorities, from ideas to things.
The Griggs family diligently conceals their dire economic straits, with Mrs. Griggs (Margaret McWade), whom one intertitle refers to as an "Old Mother Hubbard," shouldering most of the burden of penny-pinching. Eventually the family's lack of resources takes its toll on teenage daughter Amelia (Claire Windsor). Lacking adequate cold-weather clothing, she falls ill. When the doctor prescribes hearty, healthy food to nurse her back to health, Mrs. Griggs cannot provide it, and begins contemplating stealing one of the neighbors' chickens... or worse. In a line that seems alien to 21st-century viewers, a title card grimly states, "For the first time she decided to go into debt. She would ask for credit!"
Phil, the spoiled rich kid, has a crush on Amelia, and visits her at their home, and finally witnesses the poverty which the family has so proudly hidden. In one expertly managed scene, Phil leaves a wadded twenty-dollar bill on a table for them to find later. The viewer watches with mounting anxiety as this currency -- which is almost nothing to Phil but would be a colossal windfall to the Griggs family -- goes unnoticed, gets brushed aside, and is eventually swept into the fireplace.
Along with Prof. Griggs, another victim of social injustice is a young pastor (actor uncredited), who is also fond of Amelia. In another brilliantly-directed sequence, Mrs. Griggs spends the last of the family's funds on a formal tea for the upwardly-mobile Phil when he comes to visit. By the time the snack is served, Phil has departed and only the reverend remains. Mrs. Griggs's crestfallen expression is not lost on the pastor, who is thus reminded of his inferior social status.
Seemingly unable to dig themselves out of poverty, the Griggs family does not give up hope, but holds out for a miracle -- or perhaps more unlikely -- for one of the wealthy socialites to develop a conscience and see that the professors and pastors of the world ("the men who feed their souls and clothe their minds") are properly compensated.
Weber's gift for visual metaphor is evidenced throughout The Blot, most notably in the use of shoes. Shoes are the source of the Olsen family's excessive cash, but that family doesn't seem to appreciate their value. This is potently illustrated by a shot in which the Olsens' toddler plays in the mud with a new pair of eighteen-dollar shoes -- while Mrs. Griggs looks forlornly at her own disintegrating footwear. In another scene, the reverend tries to conceal his poverty by polishing his shoes with goosefat, a ploy that backfires when a dog persistently licks his shoes, much to his embarrassment. Weber had exploited the symbolic value of footwear before in her successful 1916 film Shoes (starring Mary MacLaren as a woman who sacrifices her dignity in order to purchase a pair of shoes), and no doubt realized she could get a little more mileage out of the metaphor before the soles wore thin.
Weber was inspired to make The Blot after reading the article "Impoverished College Teaching" in the April 30, 1921, issue of Literary Digest about the underpayment of educators and clergy (the text of the article makes a cameo appearance near the end of the film). With scenarist Marion Orth, she then crafted a melodramatic narrative to bring the issue to life.
According to historian Anthony Slide, The Blot was shot primarily on location, at a home in the Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. "Using a form of artificial lighting, invented by her cameraman Dal Clawson along with Pete Harrod, the director was able to use a real house to serve for the professor's home. The college scenes were photographed at the old University of California campus on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles." (Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History). Over the course of Weber's career, the film industry mushroomed from a pioneering group of companies working under primitive conditions, into the highly regimented studio system that survives today. Throughout this rapid evolution, Weber defiantly maintained her artistic and political integrity. Even though her films would be released through major studios (such as Universal and Paramount), she fought to achieve creative independence, so that she could, in her own words, make films "as I wanted to make them -- not under orders."
Weber once voiced her socio-political ambitions by stating that she aspired to become, "the editorial page of the Universal Company."
According to film historian Shelley Stamp, Weber consciously resisted the industry's movement toward assembly line-style studio filmmaking. "By concentrating on only one production at a time, and mobilizing her entire work force around that effort, Weber aimed for quality filmmaking rather than efficient bookkeeping."
She and husband Phillips Smalley formed Lois Weber Productions in June, 1917, a self-contained compound with offices and a 12,000 square-foot shooting stage. Weber and Smalley were often co-credited as directors, but it was the wife who clearly had the artistic vision to drive the business partnership forward. By the time The Blot was released, Smalley's contributions were being credited in more accurate proportion, as he is listed in the credits as "advisory director."
Weber's independence allowed her to shoot her films in sequence, as she preferred (rather than out of order to suit production schedules).
The studios apparently had no problem with this, and still vied to distribute her product. In 1920, Weber signed a five-picture contract with Paramount for $250,000, making her the highest-paid director -- not woman director -- in the industry.
Upon the release of The Blot, Variety proclaimed, "It touches the heart. It is sensibly and intelligently put together, points a worthwhile moral without offensive preaching and is on a live topic. In addition, its technical qualities are high in standard. The cast, headed by Claire Windsor, who can act in a delicate and appealing fashion and is a great beauty besides, is adequate throughout, and the story, direction, photography, and lighting please." (August 19, 1921). "The fertile mind of Lois Weber has turned aside from the marital problem or sex play to tussle with an economic problem. The result is far more entertaining than one might suspect," said Matthew A. Taylor in Motion Picture News.
Not every critic was so enthusiastic. The Moving Picture World complained, "The story she has written has a strong human theme but she has smothered it under a mass of plausible but unnecessary detail. In a four hundred page novel, where time is no object and the book may be picked up and read in sections, such a method of constructing a story is permissible. By using a dozen or so minor characters and introducing frequent bits of local color that do not advance the story, the author-director has weakened the vital points in the picture and deprived the theme of half its punch."
Today, The Blot is a historically important film not only for representing independent cinema of the early 1920s, or as a means of defining "women's cinema." There is something else to interest modern viewers. "The Blot is the ideal film to show to those who did not live through them what the twenties were like in America," says film historian Kevin Brownlow, "One can see what living spaces were really like, not what art directors imposed on them -- and what people really wore, not what fashion designers invented for them."
The Blot was lost in obscurity until Robert Gitt of the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored the film in 1986. The film was then produced for video by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill of Photoplay Productions, and it is this definitive version that is being aired on TCM.
Producer: Lois Weber; Kevin Brownlow, David Gill (producer, restored version)
Director: Lois Weber
Screenplay: Lois Weber, Marion Orth
Cinematography: Philip R. Du Bois, Gordon Jennings
Cast: Philip Hubbard (the Professor, Andrew Theodore Griggs), Margaret McWade (his Wife, Mrs. Griggs), Claire Windsor (his Daughter, Amelia Griggs), Louis Calhern (his Pupil, Phil West), Marie Walcamp (the Other Girl, Juanita Claredon).
by Bret Wood