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.
Great 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.