Judge Bryan Pope was moved and quite impressed with this silent film drama.
"It is more blessed to give than to receive."—Acts 20:35
While most film enthusiasts will instantly recognize the names Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, the name Lois Weber may be less familiar. Weber was the most successful female filmmaker of the silent film era, having directed more than 100 films before her passing in 1939 and becoming the first woman inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association (the precursor to the Directors Guild). The Blot, one of her most acclaimed and popular films, has been restored and released on DVD by Milestone Film and Image Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Young librarian Amelia Griggs (Claire Windsor) is the daughter of Professor Griggs, who teaches at a small college. Their family barely survives on the meager wages paid to professors at that time. Meanwhile, their neighbors, the Olsens, make a fine living by manufacturing stylish and expensive shoes for women. Amelia's mother resents the Olsens, an immigrant family from Switzerland, for flaunting their wealth. Mrs. Olsen laughs at the Griggs for not being able to manage a decent living despite being well educated.
Amelia unwittingly attracts the attention of three potential suitors. The most prominent is Phil West (Louis Calhern), one of Professor Griggs's most mischievous students, but also the son of a prosperous college trustee. The other two suitors are the quiet but kindly and well-educated Reverend Gates and the oldest Olsen boy.
While trying to help support her family, Amelia falls ill from exhaustion and malnourishment. How her family, neighbors, and suitors respond results in unexpected lessons in compassion.
If that synopsis makes The Blot sound like melodrama, that was not my intent. On the contrary, this remarkable 1921 silent film constantly surprised and ultimately moved me.
It would be easy to write off The Blot as melodrama, but also misguided. The film establishes characters and situations that have become staples of contemporary dramas, then, in the third act, defies our expectations by sending them in unexpected directions. Weber's characters are more fully realized than those found in many of today's films. They are never virtuous or wicked simply because the story requires them to be. Instead, their actions are fueled by their emotions and situations. For example, it is entirely understandable why one character is tempted to steal food midway through the film. Her motivations are real, and the crisis of conscience she experiences as a result rings true. As the characters learn from their actions, they grow and change. By the end, they've experienced each other's pain and problems and they walk away better people.
According to film historian and Weber scholar Shelley Stamp, the film's title refers to society's disregard for intellectuals and the clergy. While this theme propels the plot, the underlying (and more crucial) theme is that of the transforming nature of kindness and understanding. Weber's story illustrates this theme in numerous ways, some obvious and some not so. The starving Griggs family receives a basket of food from an unlikely source. Two of Amelia's suitors look beyond each other's economic status and find friendship. Characters regularly (and often sympathetically) take note of the Griggs' tattered clothing, worn-out shoes, and frayed carpet. At one point, the film attempts to drive home its theme of giving by quoting scripture, but by that point Weber has so effectively illustrated her theme that the reference is redundant.
I was deeply touched by the humanity present in this film. Some of the characters did things that made me smile and feel hopeful. When the movie ended, I was reminded that we all have goodness inside of us. We simply have to find it. I was also moved by the naturalistic performances of Weber's expressive cast. This was my first experience with a silent film, and I found it easy to adjust to its slower rhythm.
The Blot has been restored and presented in its original full-screen aspect ratio. Considering that the film is more than 80 years old, one expects it to look rough, and it does. Scratches and static are present throughout (particularly in one early scene set in a library), and the black-and-white photography has lost its luster, but this is probably as good a restoration as can be expected for a film this old. Jim Parker's score is provided in Dolby Digital Stereo, and it fares much better. The instrumentals are clean and crisp, nicely showcasing Parker's mixture of chamber music and ragtime.
This package includes only one extra, but it's a winner. Shelley Stamp, Associate Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California in Santa Cruz, provides a feature-length commentary that is invaluable to those interested in silent films. The commentary is obviously scripted, but the material is compelling. Stamp discusses Weber's filmmaking philosophy, the development of Weber's production company, and the careers of many members of the cast. Stamp's voice is easy to listen to, making for an engaging commentary.
A vintage film with contemporary themes, The Blot is a piece of cinematic history. More importantly, it's a gentle reminder that mankind can demonstrate compassion, even if only in small ways. These days, that's the kind of reassurance we need.
Not guilty, and Ms. Weber receives this judge's sincere thanks for her contributions to cinema.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Commentary by Film Historian Shelley Stamp
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