Monday 5 January 2009

The Blot (1921)

Written and directed by Lois Weber, this film proudly proclaims early on. Yes, Lois Weber was female, making this a film of significant historical value even if it doesn't turn out to be any good. Hollywood was a boys club for decades, if it isn't still, and it's a rare woman who broke through the door to make movies herself. In fact she was very possibly the first to direct a full length feature, The Merchant of Venice, in 1914. Weber, who also wrote, produced and acted in a long list of films dating back to 1911, is mostly unknown today because few of her films have survived, yet in 1920 signed a contract with Paramount that made the most highly paid director in Hollywood. Note: that's 'director', not 'woman director'.

And it's not an uninteresting film, even were it made by someone less interesting than Lois Weber. It's a social study, a little preachy in nature, that looks at a perceived imbalance between income and class, as highlighted by a couple of families who live next to each other. On one side are the Griggs, led by Andrew Theodore Griggs, a college professor of long and distinguished service who makes so little money that his family are barely getting by. On the other are the Olsens, led by Hans Olsen is a cobbler. OK, he makes high priced shoes for a high priced clientele and they make the Olsens a lot of money, but they're still shoes.

This leads to a combination of 1920s attitudes that would seem surprising today: Mrs Griggs looks down on the Olsens because of their profession and woudn't stoop low enough to socialise with them, but she apparently has no problem stooping so low as to scavenge from their garbage in order to feed her cats. In return, Mrs Olsen looks down on the stuck up Mrs Griggs because she's poor and has outdated notions of importance. The drama that writer/director Lois Weber weaves is full of such 1920s attitudes, making this film a fascinating historical artifact and in its way as alien as anything seen on Star Trek.

There's also a romance involved, in fact a complex web of romance. Prof Griggs has a lovely daughter by the name of Amelia, who works at the public library and is much admired by a number of young men: Peter Olsen, the neighbour's son; the local priest, the Revd Gates, who is also poor; and Phil West, a rich student of her father's who also happens to be the son of the wealthiest of the college trustees. And while West chases after Amelia, Juanita Claredon chases after him. Of course, class never leaves the picture: even West isn't immune, because however rich he is, Grandma Griggs still looks down on his habits of smoking while conversing and not removing his hat.

Even had I not known that The Blot was written, produced and directed by a woman, it would have been impossible to miss the woman's touch that runs throughout. The entire thing is driven by characterisation, with most of those characters being women, who drive much of the film. Mrs Griggs gets an especially huge amount of screen time, tortured by the fact that her neighbours have so much but need so little and the additional unspoken caveat that they don't deserve it as much as her own family because the Olsens are lower class. There's also a pivotal scene revolving around the temptation she feels to steal a chicken from out of the Olsen's window, which sets up a good deal of the plot from then on. The sheer presence of so much of Mrs Griggs, let alone the other women focused on throughout, suggests a woman's hand is at work, though to label it simply a women's picture would be highly unfair.

There's also a highly utopian outlook that would lean towards a feminine touch. Weber has a real point to get across and she makes absolutely sure that it can't be missed, though if truth be told, it could have been a lot more preachy. She then weaves a drama around how she addresses that point and carefully knits all the various subplots together neatly. My only real complaint is how perfectly it knits. The last ten minutes doesn't just see the salary of Prof Griggs addressed, which is optimistic on its own, but the leading man also gets the girl and all his challengers seem at least decent at losing out; the leading girl gets well and happy; the students who don't bother to work get an successful education; and all these people who don't like other people for reasons of class or income suddenly get on fine. In fact it all ends up so happy that it's almost surprising not to find cats sleeping with dogs and the whole Depression fixed in a jiffy.

This is a powerful film though, regardless of its faults and totally regardless of the sex of the person who made it. I'm still in two minds as to whether the message is overdone or not, but it's certainly an effective drama full of detail and nuance and it really stands out over other films I've seen from this era. While it certainly doesn't carry the sheer genius of something like The Kid, it has more depth of character than anything else I've seen that's comparable. In fact that puts it in a slightly strange position: some of the critics of the time didn't appreciate that detail and wished that all that pointless exploration of the minor characters would just vanish, something that seems strange today: it's this very attempt at an appropriately fleshed out story that doesn't just focus on a couple of leads that makes it so interesting. Yet it's a silent film with silent film acting styles, maybe more realistic than was usual but still very melodramatic, making it seem dated to the average viewer today, as dated as Mrs Griggs's horror at buying something on credit. It's sad that this means that it'll only find an audience among silent film afficionados.

Beyond the story, there's also some solid cinematic imagination in play, such as a transition between a pencil drawing of the head of Amelia Griggs and the real thing, in the same exact profile. One title card is shown with a corner cut out to show a scene containing the character it refers to. The various plot triggers are handled very nicely indeed, often with subtle impact, like the youngest Olsen playing in the mud with a pair of shoes that would have fed the neighbours for a month. Either the Olsens don't realise the full value of Hans's products or they simply don't care. There's much to set up comparisons in our minds, subtlety that's as surprising as it is welcome.

While Lois Weber may be mostly forgotten today, that can't be said for the leading actor. That isn't Prof Griggs, who really has very little to do, it's Phil West, played by a 26 year old Louis Calhern. Calhern, while never a huge star, was instantly recognisable to a couple of generations for a long and distinguished string of high profile performances, playing opposite everyone from the Marx Brothers to Marlon Brando. This film is ten years older than anything else I've seen him in, making him seem unbelievably young. He always looked so old and distinguished that it's surprising to suddenly realise that he was once a young man.

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