Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Complete control... The Blot (1921)

"I am proud of the two productions, The Blot and What Do Men Want; they were made as I wanted to make them and not “under orders…” Lois Weber (1921)

Lois Weber was one of the most successful directors of her period and was arguably only excelled by Mr Griffith in pre-Twenties American cinema as she ran out over a hundred films. She not only directed but often wrote and performed, controlling the films she made in almost every respect: a true auteur.

The Blot is now acclaimed as her masterpiece and yet it did not prevent her slide out of fashion and out of favour in a show business intent on channelling creativity into more marketable product. Even now in this golden age of digitally-enabled silent enlightenment: who really knows Lois Weber?

Weber felt the developing medium provided a platform to inform as well as entertain and she didn’t hold back from holding forth, addressing issues such as abortion, organised religion and social reform with more ideological cohesion perhaps, than many of her contemporaries.

Like Griffith, Weber’s agenda is difficult to contextualise for modern audiences but her concerns were altogether different from that Southern gentleman’s. Often mistaken as a strict Christian fundamentalist, Weber was clearly a twentieth century thinker with more in common with liberalism than the self-help doctrine dominating the late Victorian period (and Griffith’s thinking).

 Along with her husband Wendell Phillips Smalley, she made a string of inventive and commercially successful films for which the titles say it all: Hypocrites (1915) dealt with the Church whilst Where Are My Children?  (1916) and  its follow up Shoes (1916) addressed, head on, issues of abortion and women’s place in society although she was at pains to avoid the trap of being associated too closely with the suffrage movement: she was broader than that and, too concerned about the impact it could have on her film-making freedom.

She saw faults in society and wanted proactive, redressing of the in-balances – certainly on the basis of The Blot with its portrayal of the impoverished professional classes – teachers and preachers left behind by new money and commercialism at all levels. Yet her plea is to the businesses and moneyed classes to provide more support and not the government.  She is also clearly reaching out to the better nature of her audience to help save these worthwhile people from their genteel poverty trap.

The Olsen's child plays in $18 shoes whilst Mrs Griggs shoes are worn
But, as the twenties began to roar such thoughts were morally too robust and far too didactic for an audience wanting a good time and easier resolutions.  As the New York Times reflected in November 1921: the film appeared as a "simplified sermon" that provided "pat answers" which ignored "the real facts of life”… harsh words for what is clearly an earnest enterprise.

Yet The Blot is a smartly-made film that reflects Weber’s experienced eye from her mentoring by Alice Guy Blaché and her decade of film-making. Make what you will of her politics but she was technically advanced and The Blot is full of smooth transitions, fresh direction and calmly naturalistic direction.

Margaret McWade and cat
Weber used locations as much as possible, using a special lighting rig when natural light would not suffice – super cinematography from Gordon Jennings.  She also filmed in continuity which was rare even then and presumably considered better for keeping the cast in the story.

The story is centred on the middle class poverty trap of the family of Professor, Andrew Theodore Griggs (Philip Hubbard) an underpaid and under-respected college teacher whose pupils – a bunch of wealthy wastrels – barely acknowledge his words during class.

Amelia in Phil's sketchbook and in the library....
 All this changes as his pretty daughter, low-paid, librarian Amelia (Claire Windsor), attracts the attention of Phil West (Louis Calhern) the son of one of the wealthiest fathers who also happens to be a trustee of the college. Phil spends an awful lot of time lending library books in an attempt to woo Amelia and he’s not the only one with designs.

Louis Calhern and Claire Windsor
Next door live an immigrant family, the Olsens, who make a pretty good living out of shoemaking and – in the wife’s case at least – make no secret of their desire to rub it in the face of the proud but poor Griggs family whose education hasn’t brought them wealth. But Weber doesn’t paint them as the bad guys; the shoemaker has compassion and is as hard done by his tarter of a wife as anyone whilst their son Peter has the biggest of crushes on the elegant Amelia.

Mother Griggs (superbly played by Margaret McWade) is particularly frustrated watching their new car and array of fresh chickens when she can barely provide afternoon tea. She even has to sneak their cat over the fence so she can feed of the Olsen’s scraps.

The lovely librarian’s choice of suitors is completed by Reverend Gates (frustratingly, not all of the actors are named in the credits or IMDB), another erudite individual struggling to make ends meet as his pauper’s salary is often paid late by the church governor’s – successful, businessmen all yet poor payers…

Phil and the Reverend
As the film progresses attitudes begin to change as Phil becomes friendly with the Reverend with their bonding over a mutual interest in sketching – there’s a nice transition early on between Phil’s drawing of the object of his affection and the profile of the woman herself.

Phil’s increasing interest in Amelia also ennobles him as he realises the struggles of these not so common people who society relies on yet who can barely feed and clothe themselves. He begins to distance himself from his well-heeled buddies as well as his former sweetheart Juanita Claredon (Marie Walcamp).

Claire Windsor
Amelia gets ill from over work and confined to her bed is prescribed a diet of rich food that her mother knows they can’t afford. Phil sees Mrs Griggs attempt to get some chicken on credit but she is rejected. He arranges for some to be sent in a hamper but these compounds a miss-understanding…

Louis Calhern
Throughout the film we see the interactions between the well-off Olsens and the impoverished Griggs and the two mothers are at the centre of any tension, Mrs Olsen deliberately placing items from their bountiful larder in the kitchen window so Mrs Griggs can suffer. With Amelia ill it’s almost too much and she resolves to steal one of the Olsen chickens. From her sick room Amelia sees her mother’s disgrace and she reels back from the window thereby missing the second thoughts that make her place the poultry back. Unfortunately Mrs Olsen and Peter also witness this and begin a fight over whether to reveal the crime or not…

Amelia sees Mother go after the chickens...
No spoilers: There are twists and turns aplenty in the film’s resolution and I’ll not spoil the ending which is not quite what you might expect and certainly more… unspecific than Griffith.

Ultimately Weber makes her point but she also utilises a group of engagingly realistic characters who are all far from black and white. The walls come down through mutual understanding, social responsibility and a willingness to learn.

All of which still works for me.

I watched the Milestone DVD which features the Brownlow and Gill restoration for Thames Silents. There’s a winning new score from Jim Parker which highlights the comedy and  the humanity well, paying respect to a creator who could have been so easily dismissed for her directness. But at the end of the day that’s what modern silent film watching is all about: a search for substance and subtext through the haze of a century of thematic and technical development.

It’s a mission to reconnect with the sentiment and motivation of these marvellous creators and, in the end, their contemporary context. In this respect Lois Weber still has a lot to say and would I urge you to seek her out and engage.

"In moving pictures I have found my life's work. I find at once an outlet for my emotions and my ideals. I can preach to my heart's content, and with the opportunity to write the play, act the leading role, and direct the entire production, if my message fails to reach someone, I can blame only myself." Lois Weber speaking in 1914

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