November 17, 2017
The Blot – US, 1921
Lois Weber’s The Blot begins with the following sentence: “Men are only boys grown tall.” The implication of this observation is that the world is filled with male “kidults,” young men for whom adulthood never truly began. Now, the concept of “kidulthood” is a fairly recent one, but it seems to apply most to adults who have the financial means to do the fun things in their later years that they either loved to do or wanted to do when they were younger. With money, the theory goes, one never really has to mature. In The Blot, we are introduced to three kidults – Phil West (Louis Calhern), Bert Gareth, and Walt Lucas. In the films opening scene, we see them doing everything but paying attention in class. Phil, for example, is drawing a caricature of their professor, Andrew Theodore Griggs (Philip Hubbard), and one of the other two is wrecking havoc with a lizard on a string. They are all in their twenties and wealthy, so, yes, the term kidult seems quite appropriate here.
It would not, however, be suitable for the other men in the film. They are more working-class and, perhaps more importantly, struggling to make ends meet. Therefore, they have a maturity and a purpose that the others lack. The professor, we soon learn, is woefully underpaid, as well as terribly under-appreciated. The film makes this clear by repeatedly contrasting the attire of the professor and his family with that of Phil and the other wealthy characters. It also makes sure that the audience knows the disparities that exist in the eating habits of Phil and his socialite friends and the professor’s family. The film also introduces us to a young reverend living on a small stipend that is sometimes paid late and a genuinely decent neighbor named Pete Olsen, who is aware of the plight of the professor’s family, but lacks the wherewithal to act on his altruistic impulses.
The film’s title, The Blot, is said to refer to one of society’s biggest shames: its appalling treatment of religious figures and educators, people who perform invaluable services, yet receive very little compensation for their diligence. And it is this message that Phil is tasked with learning. Luckily, the professor has a beautiful daughter named Amelia (Claire Windsor) who Phil has become smitten with, and as movies have shown us time and time again, the fastest road to an awareness of the needs and perspectives of other people is through the human heart. So, we watch as he visits the library she works at every day – each time returning the book that he checked out and “read” the previous night. One rainy day he gives her a ride home and sees her family’s hardship first hand and decides to help.
There’s a lot to like about The Blot. Its lead characters are generally well developed, and Phil’s arc is entirely believable. I admired the way the film explores important issues, yet does not provide easy answers or simplistic, fairy tale resolutions. In fact, for several of the characters, while the end brings closure, it does not bring happiness.
Weber gets good performances from her cast, in particular Margaret McWade, who plays Amelia’s long-suffering mother, a woman whose spirit has been broken by economic difficulty. When we first see her, the look on her face powerfully conveys the long-term impact of financial insecurity. I also enjoyed the work of the actress (her name is not listed in the credits) who plays Mrs. Griggs’s next door neighbor. She has a way of looking at Mrs. Griggs that fully communicates her disgust for poverty and the people living in it. However, I never got the sense that she had a particular grudge against the professor’s family. Instead, she came across as someone who blames poor people for their conditions, as if all they needed to do to better themselves was roll up their sleeves and work a little harder. In fact, I doubt she’s ever really talked to them.
As for Amelia, she is what the script calls for her to be – decent, calm, reliable. In other words, exactly the kind of woman a rich man falls in love with in movies and ultimately changes his ways for. Amelia has a particularly powerful scene toward the end of the film, but other than that, she isn’t given much to do other than be decent. A similar problem can be found in the character of the reverend. Again, he’s a decent person, yet he is misused. Instead of just being an example of someone society has neglected, the film uses him as Phil’s competition, in essence pitting the rich kid and the poor kid against each other. The film would have been better off devoting more time to the part he plays in Phil’s transformation. The same could be said of Pete Olsen. By having this character also pine for Amelia’s love, Weber further muddies the waters. Instead of a film on social issues, we have a film in which three men pine for the same woman, and this distracts from the film’s much more important themes.
Of course, the film belongs to Calhern. A 1921 newspaper article proclaimed him “the newest arrival in stardom,” and it isn’t hard to see why. He has a natural presence in front of the camera, and he conveys an impressive range of emotions. It is through his character’s eyes that we see everything, and his transformation is meant to be ours. In other words, we too are supposed to feel inspired to rise up against the system and demand better salaries for the underpaid, and so if the film becomes a bit preachy toward the end, it’s understandable. This is a movie meant to wake people up to a deplorable reality, and it is, for the most part, an effective advocate for those it seeks to assist. Sure, it’s a too obvious in its imagery, and it goes back to the same symbols of inequality too often, but the film works. I cared for the main characters, and I was intrigued by Phil’s journey. Released during a time that would come to be called the Rolling Twenties and known for its infamous excess and lavishness, the film must have been a sober reminder that America’s economic prosperity had not reached everyone. It is a message that everyone needs to be reminded of sometimes, and The Blot, despite its occasional unevenness, continues to be able to both drive home this message and entertain. (On DVD and Blu-ray as part of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology)