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The Blot

The Blot(1921)

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Before 1975, even the most hard-core movie historians knew little of writer-director-producer Lois Weber. That was the year a long-lost print of her movie The Blot (1921) was discovered and after that, many more Weber works were unearthed, sparking a renewed interest in one of the biggest filmmakers of the 1910's and 1920's. Now home viewers can see the film that sparked the revival with Milestone Film & Video's DVD issue of The Blot (distributed by Image Entertainment).

Weber, born in 1882 in Pennsylvania's coal country, ran away from home at an early age, ending up, not as one of the many prostitutes she encountered, but as a street corner evangelist, singing hymns and saving souls in Pittsburgh and New York City. Reuniting with her family, she took the suggestion of an uncle and became an actress on the stage. There she met and married Phillips Smalley, her company's road manager who was to be her creative partner for many years.

As with some of the less-prominent performers in the New York City area, Weber was pulled into the movies, joining the Gaumont Film Studio in 1908. It was here that her earlier call as a religious reformer returned as she found in film a new way to preach her message. She and her husband directed their first film, A Heroine of '76 in 1911, but Weber's breakout movie was Hypocrites (1915) about a clergyman's pursuit of Truth, here portrayed by a naked woman. The nudity brought in the audience, but what they got was a sermon told in pictorial form.

Weber's didactic method was popular throughout the 'Teens making her one of the most lauded directors of her time. However, by the time she made The Blot, her career was beginning its downhill slide. Weber's mixture of progressive politics and ardent Christianity was popular during the Woodrow Wilson period, but after America fought "the war to end all wars," the country decided it had had enough of high-minded ideals. With the election of Warren G. Harding, the country turned to protecting its own interests and pursuing its own pleasures.

The Blot tries to point to a different direction for the 1920's. Phil West is a college student and son of the wealthy class, showing no respect for his impoverished professor. However, when he falls in love with the professor's daughter, Amelia, he discovers the family's poverty and the sight of their threadbare surroundings drives home the waste and inequity of his class' excesses. He begins his search for a way to erase this "blot" on society.

Weber discovery Louis Calhern plays Phil West. Calhern, then at the beginning of a long career as a character actor, is now known best as the villainous ambassador Trentino in The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) and Marilyn Monroe's sugar daddy in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Here he is a be-sweatered patrician, a Gatsby four years ahead of Fitzgerald's novel, who rejects the jazz age for old-fashioned values. However, he is not the movie's focus, nor is the professor. It is the women who are the center of this movie, particularly the professor's wife, struggling to keep up appearances, feed her family, and nearly forced to crime to do it. Weber uses her camera to give us the wife's point of view, showing us close-ups of the unraveling upholstery on her parlor chairs and the splitting leather on her shoes.

These details and other elements that might escape the casual viewer are well covered in a commentary by Weber scholar Shelley Stamp that is available on this DVD. The print quality is remarkably good throughout for a film of this age and, as with other films originally prepared by Kevin Brownlow for his Thames Silents television series, the movie is accompanied by an excellent score by Jim Parker.

Milestone Film & Video is performing a valuable service by releasing these DVD's of Brownlow's British television presentations. Now U.S. viewers can see works like The Blot, a hidden triumph by one of our country's own greatest filmmakers.

For more information about The Blot, visit Image Entertainment. To order The Blot, go to TCM Shopping.

by Brian Cady