Director: Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom). MGM
Producer: Irving Thalberg. Writer: Frances Marion. Camera: Henrik Sartov. Sets: Cedric Gibbons, Sidney Willman.
Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Henry B. Walthall, Karl Dane, William H. Tooker, Marcelle Corady, Fred Herzog, Jules Cowles, Mary Hawes, Joyce Coad, James A. Marcus.
Hester Prynn (Gish) is a seamstress in a Puritan community in 17th Century Boston. She has an affair with the handsome new preacher Arthur Dimmsdale (Hanson), forgetting to tell him she is married to a man who has been missing for many years. She has a baby and faces the scorn of her town, whose elders make her wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on all of her clothes. Refusing to name the father of her baby, mother and child are ostracised to the far corner of the town. As Dimmsdale’s health slowly deteriorates due to the stress of his hypocrisy, Hester is visited by her long absent husband (Walthall) who wants revenge for her being unfaithful to him.
One of fledgling studio MGM’s most prestigious productions at this time, The Scarlet Letter almost never got off the ground as boss Louis B. Mayer baulked at Church opposition to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Victorian sexual morality tale. The unassailable Gish convinced him otherwise by noting that the novel was recognised classic of world literature, taught in most American schools.
Admittedly, Marion’s adaptation is a free one of Hawthorne’s drama and there are derisory moments (the comic interludes with Dane as Giles are vulgar and the unfathomable insults he uses such as “wood-pussy” and “parrot in petticoats” seem silly), but Seastrom’s painterly, pastoral piece glows as if a loving hand has created it.
Actress Louise Brooks later wrote a series of acclaimed, critical articles chronicling the people whom she worked with during her brief movie career. She recollected that Seastrom and Gish shared a similar love of escaping time and place and letting their imaginations run wild in their work and there is plenty of evidence of that here (pointedly, the first title refuses to date the story).
Seastrom made his name in his native Sweden with a series of rural dramas, making him the right choice to helm this film. He makes effective use of a mobile camera to follow the lovers and shows his mastery of light and shadow when Gish confesses her adultery – the silhouette of Hanson hanging his head in shame is cast over her entire house. He also builds the tension up expertly to a surprising, devastatingly unhappy ending.
There are also some daring scenes inserted along the way, including Hanson self-harming as he falls deeper into depression and Gish starting to breast-feed at one point.
Gish later wrote that, after spending time in Italy (where she had earlier made The White Sister and Romola) learning a more exaggerated style of acting, working with Seastrom enabled her to try a more restrained, Scandinavian acting method. Her performance throbs with a soulful sexuality that belies her virginal screen persona as one of fiction’s most famous single mothers. Whether she tempts Hanson into lust with her inviting eyes, hangs her knickers on a bush, or seals the deal, so to speak, by letting her waist length hair cascade around her shoulders, it is an alluring performance and one that towers over Demi Moore’s slattern interpretation in Roland Joffe’s woeful 1995 remake.
Bug-eyed Hanson was never the most restrained of silent performers and gives himself away in hammy fashion when Gish is led to the scaffold. Surprisingly for such an all-seeing town, no one twigs he is little Pearl’s dad.
Better support for the star comes from early matinee idol Walthall, Gish’s old co-star from their days with director D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation), who makes for a sinister and mean-hearted villain.