The title of this silent film, The Blot (1921), refers not to the librarian profession (thank goodness), but rather the blot of poverty, as well as societal disregard for intellectuals. Most definitely a message film — one whose message is, unfortunately, not blunted by modern times — it was directed and co-written by Lois Weber, one of the first major female directors.
Weber, who directed over 100 films, was the first woman inducted into the Motion Picture Directors Association, which was basically reformed into the Directors Guild in 1936. She and her husband, Phillips Smalley, had formed their own production company, Lois Weber Productions in 1917 (see the logo in poster, below). After signing a $250,000 deal with Paramount Studios in 1920, the year before The Blot was released, Weber was the highest-paid director in Hollywood.
This socially conscious film — shot in sequence and mostly on location in the Boyle Heights neighborhood and the old University of California campus in Los Angeles — contrasts a poor college professor’s family with their more affluent neighbors, immigrant shoemakers. The professor’s daughter, Amelia Griggs (played by Claire Windsor), works at the public library. Throughout the film, Amelia attracts three potential suitors: one of her father’s students, a rich and rowdy young man called Phil West (Louis Calhern); the quiet, serious Reverend Gates; and the eldest son of their neighbors.
We first meet Amelia behind the Circulation desk counter, and she is quite pretty, with long, curly dark hair pinned back. A sign warning SILENCE is visible behind her. (And it’s in a SILENT film, hah!)
Amelia’s co-worker (uncredited) is an older female librarian, also seen behind the Circulation counter. Generally nondescript, she appears middle-aged, with her brunette hair pulled back in a bun. Although the two woman dress similarly — high-necked blouses, cardigans, hair pulled back in buns — Amelia seems much more stylish. The older librarian is obviously well on her way to spinsterhood.
Overall, from the few scenes set in the library, the ladies seem efficient, pleasant, and well-liked by community members. They display a variety of library-related tasks: answering the telephone, helping users in the stacks, shelving books, checking out books, and answering reference questions.
Phil comes to see Amelia at the library — unbeknownst to his friends, of course — but Amelia is suspicious of his attentions. She even catches him in a lie about reading books! However, she’s more worried about ruining her sensible heels by walking home; therefore, she rides home with the prospective suitor. She is later impressed by the flowers the rich boy gives her, but also displays a quiet pride when the young man brings up her father’s poverty.
The young man describes her as a “working girl”, but she is also referred to as “stuck up” by their neighbors. This is because the Griggs family tries desperately to conceal their financial plight. The movie’s plot turns when Amelia’s mother steals food. Amelia is appalled by her mother’s behavior and wishes “if only she had the courage” to force her mother to return the stolen food. Amelia seems happier at work, going back even when she becomes ill from a combination of malnutrition and severe exhaustion. Amelia is quite admirable — winning the affections of many throughout the film — even if she does come off a little too saintly. She does the honorable thing by finally admitting to their poverty and talking to their neighbors about her mother stealing food. Amelia fulfills the Spirited Young Girl character type: a young, stylish woman who works in the library — a temporary job — who meets the leading man while working. She is not a Liberated Librarian, because she doesn’t really change throughout the film; rather, Amelia’s strength of character and innate goodness changes others.
The film is quite unusual, especially in its theme of examining the poverty of professionals — educators, ministers, librarians, etc. — which is also a (surprisingly?) timely subject for modern times. There is also an underlying message of how the love of a good woman can change a man to good works.
So why a librarian? I’ve categorized the film as Class II, in which a major character is a reel librarian, but the profession has no direct effect on the film. After all, Amelia’s wages as a librarian are so low that she makes no apparent contribution to the family’s income; there is no mention at all about her salary in a movie about poverty (!), which is quite revealing in and of itself. But by this time, the early 1920s, librarianship was an established profession for women — a respectable profession for respectable young (and older) ladies. And, of course, women who work in respectable professions have better opportunities of meeting respectable young men, with the aim of marrying and eventually leaving the profession — a classic plot for many reel librarians.