Milestone Film & Video presents
The Blot (1921)
"I seem to be getting soft. It never mattered to me before that some people had too much to eat while others hadn't enough."- Phil West (Louis Calhern)
Stars: Claire Windsor, Louis Calhern
Other Stars: Philip Hubbard, Margaret McWade, Marie Walcamp
Director: Lois Weber
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:30m:38s
Release Date: 2004-03-02
DVD ReviewAlthough largely forgotten since her 1939 death, Lois Weber was at one time one of the most respected names in the film industry, frequently mentioned in the same breath as D.W. Griffith. Weber had made dozens of features for Universal, among others, and was able to set up her own studio, where she was able to write, produce, and direct her own pictures without interference. One of the last films of Lois Weber Productions was this social drama about class struggle and the cruelties that are intentionally and unintentionally wrought by otherwise well-meaning people.
The title refers to the blot on civilization that is the underpaid circumstances of educators and clergy by the same society that richly rewards speculation and to a lesser degree common laborers. Professor Griggs (Philip Hubbard) teaches at a small college catering to the pampered sons of the wealthy, who fail to appreciate the education being provided to them. Student Phil West (Louis Calhern) does, however, become interested in Griggs' daughter Amelia (Claire Windsor), who works as a librarian. West stumbles onto the impoverished circumstances of the Griggs almost by accident, and attempts to provide philanthropic aid in clumsy ways that provoke the pride of the Griggs family. Amelia's affections are also sought by the impecunious Rev. Gates, as well as next door neighbor Peter Olsen, the son of boorish immigrant shoemakers who have become newly prosperous and decline no opportunity to rub that in with their poorer neighbors.
Weber did have a reputation for getting preachy, and very often The Blot teeters at the very edge of annoying didacticism. But despite that, Weber manages to make an interesting little social drama by giving her characters credibly human reactions to events. The cast is excellent, most notably Margaret McWade as Mrs. Griggs, who valiantly but ineffectually tries to conceal the poverty of the household from West. Daughter Amelia's illness from malnutrition even drives her to attempt theft of a chicken from the Olsens' window (where Mrs. Olsen had deliberately flaunted it). The pathos of her guilt and Amelia's horrified reactions and rejection of her mother make for very moving cinema. All the performers use naturalistic performances for the most part, though Windsor does get caught on one occasion flinging her wrist to her forehead in clichéd silent manner.
Stylistically, The Blot is quite advanced. Weber uses juxtaposition and a mild form of montage for comment extremely well (recall that this is four years before Battleship Potemkin), giving significance to a variety of different events through crosscutting. A particularly notable example is the cutting between the miserable meal of the Griggs family, the plenty of the Olsens, and the ridiculously conspicuous consumption of the country club set. POV shots from Phil's perspective note the threadbare rugs and furniture in the Griggs household, allowing us to see with his eyes as he becomes conscious of what poverty really means. Weber also uses visual echoes of scenes as further nonverbal commentary; even though this is a fairly talky picture, few intertitles are necessary since Weber is able to communicate a good deal with her visuals alone.
There are some odd features to the story; particularly strange is a strong xenophobia represented in the fact that the Olsens are portrayed as recent immigrants. Granted, it could have been worse if Weber had used the 1920s bogeymen of Italy or the Slavic countries, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she was using these Scandinavians as code for the even-less-desirable immigrants in the wake of the Palmer Raids. That kind of attitude seems to run counter to the charity of spirit that Weber is advocating.
Believed lost for years, a print of this film did finally surface and was restored by Robert Gitt. This disc makes for a welcome addition to any silent film library.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Since there seems to be only one surviving original print, it's hard to be too critical. The second reel is in quite poor condition but the balance of the film looks very nice indeed, beyond the expected scratches and speckling. There's a good deal of detail and texture visible, and while black levels aren't the best they're certainly well within the acceptable range. As is usual for masters supplied by Kevin Brownlow's Photoplay Productions, there's some PAL-NTSC ghosting, but since there's very little in the way of fast motion it has a negligible effect upon viewing enjoyment; I was able to perceive it only stepping through frame-by-frame, and I'm fairly sensitive to this irritating phenomenon. Grain is well rendered, though there is also a fair bit of flicker evident. Under the circumstances, a very nice presentation.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
|DS 2.0||(music only)||yes|
Audio Transfer Review: Jim Parker provides a musical score with a chamber group. It's jazzy and appropriate, with a fair leavening of sentimentality that's appropriate for the subject matter. The sound quality is very good, with a nice and broad soundstage. Hiss and noise are only nominal. The woodwinds sound particularly nice.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Prof. Shelley Stamp
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: The sole extra is a full-length commentary by Prof. Shelley Stamp, who has studied Weber and her films. Stamp is a good speaker and provides a great deal of background information about Weber and her films, comparing techniques and themes of this picture and others. She finds an emphasis on consumerism that I only partly agree with; I think it's indirect and not really as primary a focus as she claims it to be, but it's an interesting discussion nonetheless. At about 14 minutes there are two brief audio dropouts in the commentary.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsOne of the prolific Lois Weber's later works, in a surprisingly good transfer, complete with a solid commentary make this a recommended release.
Mark Zimmer 2004-03-02