BLOT, THE (Lois Weber, 1921, USA, 90m, BW)
Cast: Marie Walcamp, Margaret McWade, Claire Windsor, Louis Calhern, Philip Hubbard
Director: Lois Weber
Writer: Marion Orth, Lois Weber
Running Time: 78 min.
Amelia (Claire Windsor) is a young librarian with several potential love interests. One is Phil West (Louis Calhern), a wealthy young man and a student of Amelia's father, Andrew (Philip Hubbard). However, Phil's affluence keeps Amelia at bay. When Amelia becomes malnourished because her family cannot afford food, her mother (Margaret McWade) has no choice but to turn to thievery. Seeing that his professor and his love interest are in a dire situation, Phil comes up with a solution.
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.
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