The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

This is my contribution to the Gish Sisters blogathon, being organised by  Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures blogs. Please note I will be discussing the whole plot of The Scarlet Letter, both the film and the book.
The Scarlet Letter 9Great Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) is regularly hailed as one of the very greatest silent films. However, The Scarlet Letter, a movie he made just two years earlier with the same screenwriter, Frances Marion, and the same main stars, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, tends to be strangely overlooked. Yet, for my money, his adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel is another masterpiece – and, as with The Wind (which has at least had a Spanish release), I can hardly believe there isn’t a DVD available.

It is about time Sjöström and Gish got the recognition they deserved, and  that both these great films were released on DVD, and preferably Blu-ray too. Sadly, the only way I could see The Scarlet Letter was on Youtube, where the picture quality wasn’t very good – but the film’s astonishing power shone through all the same. (It is occasionally shown on TCM in the USA, but I don’t think it is ever screened on TV in the UK, where I live.)

Portraits by Jenni has also reviewed The Scarlet Letter for the blogathon and her review includes a fascinating account of how Lillian Gish campaigned for the film to be made and how it was her project all the way. I won’t go over all this ground again, but please do read Jenni’s posting.

During filming for MGM, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson acted their parts in English and Swedish respectively – something which was possible in the silent era – but you would never know that by watching. They both give great performances as the heroine, Hester Prynne, and the tortured young clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale, while another fine actor of the era, Henry B Walthall, dominates several scenes as the vengeful Roger Chillingworth. (His name exactly suggests his chilling personality.) Gish  expresses her character’s suffering and passion through her eyes, as she also does in The Wind.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Hawthorne’s novel is set in Boston in the mid-17th century, where a young “fallen” woman, Hester, is treated as an outcast by the Puritan community, and forced to wear a large scarlet letter ‘A’, standing for adultery, on her dress as a constant reminder of her “sin”. The book begins as Hester and her baby are fetched out of the jail and forced to stand on the platform of the pillory. It is immediately hinted that the young man watching in anguish, the Reverend Dimmesdale, is the father of Hester’s daughter, Pearl, but this isn’t stated outright until late in the book. Instead, the truth slowly dawns on the reader through a series of suggestions and half-statements.

Lillian Gish as Hester with her caged bird

Lillian Gish as Hester with her caged bird

Surprisingly, however, the film doesn’t start with the prison scene, but by filling in the “back story” which is only glimpsed in the novel. At the start of the film, Hester is seen as a lively and happy young woman and her love story with Dimmesdale is shown – so there is never any doubt about the identity of the baby’s father. In the film, Hester originally incurs the wrath of the righteous Puritans because her caged bird escapes and she runs after it on a Sunday. Cinematographer Hendrik Sartov’s shots of the bird are haunting, and it is clear that a comparison is being drawn between Hester and her pet, especially when she later lands behind bars herself.

Hester is forced to sit in the pillory for running on the Sabbath, and the young pastor, Mr Dimmesdale, goes to minister to her there. They are immediately drawn together and fall in love – but, when he proposes, she reveals that she is already married. She says that her family forced her to marry an older man who she never loved, and that she told him so. When they discover she is pregnant, Arthur wants to reveal that he is the father immediately, but  it is Hester who insists that he must keep quiet for the sake of his ministry.

Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish

Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish

All this has the effect of making Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy easier to excuse in the film than in the book. However, the scene where Hester is forced to stand in front of the condemning public clasping her child, with the father of little Pearl among those sitting in judgement, is still just as shocking as it is in the novel.

After the back story, the film stays closer to the book, showing Hester’s loneliness as she struggles to bring up her “Pearl of great price”. There is one scene where mocking children throw mud at Pearl and then at her mother, too – expressing just what the society is doing to them. Adding to Hester’s misery, she is pursued by her husband, the elderly doctor, Roger Chillingworth – Henry B. Walthall, whose dark clothes and foreboding appearance emphasise his role as a shadow from her past. In the novel, Chillingworth also pursues Dimmesdale, but this aspect is rather played down in the film.

Gish with Karl Dane as Giles

Gish with Karl Dane as Giles

The whole film is compelling to watch and convincingly creates the small, claustrophobic world of the Puritan town. There is some comic relief of sorts, from a boorish character called Giles (Karl Dane), who mocks a woman reputed to be a witch, Mistress Hibbins (Marcelle Corday) – but this comedy turns very dark when the old woman is ducked as a result.  Ann Hibbins was a historical figure who was executed for witchcraft.

Hester at her daughter's bedside

Hester at her daughter’s bedside

One aspect which changes a lot between book and film is Pearl’s character. In the book she is frequently described as an elf or sprite and has a sense of wild mischief which seems almost other-worldly.  Probably no child could really capture this, and Joyce Coad, the little girl taking the role, instead makes Pearl seem like an ordinary happy child – with one memorable scene where she arranges seaweed on the beach into the shape of her mother’s Scarlet Letter.

In the famous climax to the book, a dying Dimmesdale finally confesses to his congregation, by tearing open his shirt and showing that he has a letter A branded on his chest. Hawthorne then discusses how the letter appeared there, suggesting it might be a stigma caused as a result of Dimmesdale’s mental suffering, or that he might have branded it there himself. The film definitely comes down on the side of physical branding, as in an earlier scene the pastor was seen holding a poker while sitting in front of the fire. However, as with the earlier scene where Hester stands in front of the crowd wearing her original letter, the film’s extra explanations can’t take away from the shock of the visual image.

All in all, I think this is a superb adaptation where Lillian Gish gives a fine performance, bringing out the agony of a woman crushed by the society she lives in, and I would definitely recommend it

Gish and Henry B Walthall

Gish and Henry B Walthall

I had also hoped to write about the talkie adaptation of The Scarlet Letter from 1934, starring Colleen Moore as Hester, but I’ve only been able to find very poor quality Public Domain versions available for streaming to me in the UK. However, there is a restored version from Nuray Pictures, which is currently available for streaming in the USA only – the picture quality looks great from the trailer. I also see that DVDs of the restored version are available, so I do plan to see the film soon and write another posting. If you have seen the 1934 film, please do let me know how you feel it compares with the silent classic.

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26 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

  1. I’ve just finished reading the book and hope to watch both the versions soon. I couldn’t find the silent one even on YouTube, but the talkie is there. Thanks for the informative post and for the kind comment on my blog.
    Kisses!

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    • Hi Le, thanks so much for the comment. I’ve also just finished reading the book… I did find the talkie on Youtube but the picture quality was so bad I gave up, though I may look to see if I can find a better version there. Here is a link to the silent film on Youtube – the picture quality isn’t great for this version either, but it has a good musical soundtrack (posted by the composer!):

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  2. The film is analysed by McFarland in a chapter in his Novels into Films. Yours is as good. The Gish sisters were powerful: I recommend their Orphans of the Storm. I enjoyed this one.

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    • Thank you very much, Ellen. I do hope to see ‘Orphans of the Storm’ soon and must also renew my efforts to track down the Brian McFarlane book, which is sadly out of print.

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  3. Very nice essay Judy. I love this film and wrote about it last year after it played on TCM. I still have not deleted it off my DVR because I want to keep it as long as possible….same with The Wind which I DVRd. Gish’s performance here might be the best she ever did. Sjostrom does a great job of letting the camera stay on Gish. I love everything about this film. As an interesting note, Gish has those brief moments where her hair is let down in this film…..sometimes I forget just how long and beautiful her hair was even though it isn’t let down all that often.

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    • I know that feeling, Jon, there are several films which I’m loth to delete as I’d like to see them again. Sadly there is probably zero chance of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ ever turning up on TV in the UK, although ‘The Wind’ has been shown here in the last couple of years. I do agree that the way the camera stays on Gish is wonderful and yes, those moments where her hair is let down are telling – I noticed that Hester also lets her hair down in the book when she is in the forest. I’ll be over to read your contributions to the blogathon and look at your earlier piece about ‘The Scarlet Letter’. Thank you very much!

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  4. Judy, I liked your comparison of film to novel; it does illuminate how Hollywood film approached narrative differently (for instance, filling in the implied back story) from the written word. I’m surprised to learn that this film has not come out on DVD, as it’s a major work of the silent era. Gish and Seastrom seemed to have had a special working relationship; he drew out of her a poetic yet at times almost wild and sensual sensibility that I don’t think any other director achieved, except maybe Griffith. I hope that The Scarlet Letter and The Wind are released on one DVD soon, so audiences can see the results of this creative collaboration between a great actress and director.

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    • Thanks very much for your interesting thoughts on the working relationship between actress and director, G.O.M. I agree it would be great to see this and ‘the Wind’ issued on DVD together – maybe Criterion could do a set! I see from Jenni’s posting that ‘The Scarlet Letter’ did have a DVD release in 1997, but this must have been long since deleted.

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  5. Pingback: The latest and Gishiest news! Gish Sisters Blogathon Schedule | Movies, Silently

  6. Hi Judy, thanks so much for participating in the blogathon! This is yet another one of my favorite silent films (so many Gish movies are on that list) and I loved the comparisons you drew between the novel and the film. I’m not gonna lie, Lars Hanson revealing his branded “A” makes me cry every time. You did a wonderful job of explaining why this film is important and why it deserves more recognition.

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    • Thanks to you for organising the blogathon, Fritzi! That ending certainly comes as a massive shock even when you know it is coming. I need to see a lot more of Gish’s films and will be calling in to read your reviews – the blogathon has been a pointer to many of those that I haven’t seen. Thanks so much!

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  7. Pingback: The Gish Sisters Blogathon is here! | the motion pictures

  8. Loved your write up of The Scarlet Letter, Judy, and thank you for the link to my post about it-very kind of you to do that. I also highly recommend Orphans of the Storm, it is also a moving film, and it stars Lillian and Dorothy. I only wish Lars Hanson could have been in it-he is also excellent in The Wind.

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    • Jenni, I definitely hope to see ‘Orphans of the Storm’ soon, and agree that Hanson also makes a great combination with Lillian Gish in ‘The Wind’. It was a pleasure to link to your post. Thanks so much for the nice comment!

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    • Thanks, Ruth – hope you enjoy the film. I have put a link to one version of it on Youtube in my answer to Le’s comment – the picture quality in that print is not very good but there is some great music. I do love looking at studio stills, and in this case I especially like the one with the caged bird. Thanks again!

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  9. THE SCARLET LETTER is one of the great American novels and two by Hawthorne (the other, THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES) that rate as masterpieces. You do a great job sizing up both forms in a comparative sense here Judy, and I can’t agree with you more on the distinguished artistry of this best of all the versions of the book. It is outrageous that the film is still M.I.A. on legitimate DVD or blu-ray, but like you and many others I’ve owned a good print of it on a DVDR for quite some time. Without question one of Gish’s most extraordinary performances, rivaling her work in THE WIND. Sjostrom was at the height of his powers then as well.

    Outstanding piece as always Judy!

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    • Sam, I have read ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ but it didn’t make as strong an impression on me as ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and some of Hawthorne’s short stories – sounds as if I should revisit it. I’m interested to hear you say that this is the best adaptation of the book – I haven’t as yet seen any of the others, but hope to do so. And yes, it is a great shame that it hasn’t as yet had a proper DVD/Blu-ray release. The time must surely be right for a box set for either Gish or Sjöström! Thanks for the great comment, Sam.

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  10. The Scarlet Letter was one of my required readings in high school literature class, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve never seen a film version of it, though. I need to remedy that, and while I’m not a silent film fan, I just may take a chance on this one. Your review is wonderful…as always.

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    • Patti, I used not to be a fan of silent films either, but they have increasingly grown on me. I am glad to hear you love the book, as i do – I’d read it years ago and didn’t remember it all that well, but it gripped me all over again on a repeat reading. Hope you do get to see the film, and that you enjoy it! Thanks so much for the kind comment.

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  11. What a wonderful review. Both book and film are on my ‘must’ list, this has convinced me that I need to get round to both sooner rather than later! In your post, I really enjoyed reading the insightful comparisons between the two – thank you.

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    • Thanks very much – i always enjoy comparing books and films. In this case both of them are great and I’m sure you will love them.

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