Louis Calhern and Claire Windsor in The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)
One of the prolific and once-celebrated Lois Weber's few surviving films, The Blot makes me wish that there were many more. The IMDb credits her with 137 titles, almost all of which seem to be lost. She had a reputation for "message" films, and The Blot is no exception: It was apparently inspired by articles in Literary Digest that denounced the poor payment of teachers and clergymen as a "blot" on our civilization; we even see excerpts from the articles on-screen near the end of the film. As unpromising as that sounds, Weber (who co-wrote the screenplay with Marion Orth) uses humor and deft characterization to make her case. She focuses on Professor Griggs (Philip Hubbard) and his wife (Margaret McWade) and pretty daughter, Amelia (Claire Windsor), who are just barely scraping by on his salary plus some extra money he makes by tutoring and that Amelia brings in from a job at the library. But they also have next-door neighbors, the Olsens, who are prosperous middle-class types from the money he earns making shoes; Mrs. Olsen snubs the Griggses, thinking them stuck-up, but their son, Peter, is smitten with Amelia. So is Phil West (Louis Calhern), one of Prof. Griggs's students. Phil is a rich young playboy whose father is on the board of trustees of the college at which Griggs teaches. Another suitor for Amelia is the Rev. Gates, a young minister. Weber skillfully interplays all of these characters in ways that are sometimes comic, sometimes heart-tugging. The effect is almost novelistic: I kept thinking of Booth Tarkington's dated but still effective books as I watched it. Moreover, after the story crisis is resolved Weber doesn't give us a pat ending: We still don't know which of the several suitors Amelia will wind up with. An extra delight for me was seeing one of my favorite character actors from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, Calhern, as a romantic leading man. Though it's clear that his magnificent nose is going to doom him to character parts, he makes a credible go of it as a young swain -- he was only 26 at the time.