Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter and the 1926 MGM silent movie adaptation by Frances Marion (who later wrote the screen adaptation for “Camille” and won Oscars for “The Big House” and “The Champ”) are American classics: one of the enduring and canonical texts of 19th-century American literature, and the vehicle with perhaps the greatest of Lillian Gish’s silent film performances.
It is Gish who wanted the movie made and who got a very reluctant Louis B. Mayer to fund the project. Gish wanted Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom (“Seastrom” in his American credits, 1879-1960) to direct, but contrary, to some accounts, he was not imported at her behest. He had, in fact, directed the very first MGM production, “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924) with Lon Chaney in the title, costarring Norma Shearer and John Gilbert. Charlie Chaplin had called Sjostrom “the greatest director in the world” in Motion Picture Magazine. The only one of Sjostrom’s silent films made in Sweden that I have seen “The Phantom Carriage” (1921) is impressively spooky. Though Sjostromm had lived in the US as a child and spoke English, with the coming of talking pictures he returned to Sweden and worked as an actor, most memorably as the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman’s “Smultronstollet” (Wild Strawberries, 1957).
Gish’s power enhanced by her great success in “La Boheme” not only could choose who would direct movies in which she starred, but her costars. John Gilbert was too dashing for the guilt-wracked Rev. Dimmesdale, the father of the out-of-wedlock baby girl of Hester Prynne (Gish) whom Hester insists must not give up his position of trust among the Pilgrim busybodies. (BTW, the illegitimacy rate in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century was not lower than in other North American colonies… and Hester was married, though the marriage was unconsummated and her husband had not been heard of for seven years).
Mayer suggested Gish watch “The Saga of Gosta Berling,” a Swedish movie that had so impressed him that he imported its director, Mauritz Stiller, and stars, Stiller’s protégée Greta Garbo (who, btw, watched “The Scarlet Letter” being shot) and Lars Hansen. Gish agreed that Hansen would be perfect. That he spoke no English was not a problem for a silent movie, with Sjostrom able to communicate to both of them.
There are some histrionic gestures that those of us watching silent movies on the “cool medium” of televisions (however large-screened) may wish had been toned down, but if you’re going to watch silent movies, you gotta accept what would be overacting in sound movies as part of the genre. Sjostrom and Gish seemed to know better than most the power of faces revealing emotions, and Gish was far more effective as the disgraced mother with the scarlet A on her chest than earlier as the flitting Nature Girl (well, out chasing her bird that flew its cage and trying to hide the drawers she had washed from male eyes). As Hester she must silently overcome the Rev. Dimmesdale’s urge to “do the right thing” and join her on the scaffold (where she is publicly chastised, not hanged).
Gish had gone to a scaffold (equipped with a guillotine) in her mentor D. W. Griffith’s melodrama of the French Revolution, “Orphans of the Storm” (1921) and stoicness in the face of mobs was no stretch for her. She was petite, and often imperiled in Griffith movies (Birth of a Nation, Way Down East, Broken Blossoms), but did not wilt under pressure. She would show this again in a reunion (Sjostrom, Marion, Hanson) of the “Scarlet Letter” team, “The Wind” (1928) and much later (1955) facing down Robert Mitchum to protect her grandchildren in “Night of the Hunter.”
Some measure of comic relief at the expense of the busybodies (that I don’t remember from Hawthorne, but it’s been a long time since I read The Scarlet Letter) was supplied by the big galoot Giles (Karl Dane, who played Slim in “The Big Parade, the janitor in “La Bohème”) who cannot stand Mistress Hibbins (Marcelle Corday) and manages to get her taken down (dunked in the pond).
I think the movie is more focused on Hester than the novel was, though more openly a critique of intolerance than the book was (Hawthorne seems so long ago that it is startling to realize the movie was made closer to the original publication of the book than to today). Marion’s screenplay condenses some of the action for a bigger (that is, more melodramatic) ending. Gish has more screen time than Hanson, and is the more sympathetic character as the shunned sinner than the covert sinner minister. It takes two people to make a baby, though it is easier for one of them to pass unrecognized by others. As has so often happens, the woman bears the public shame and humiliation. As sometimes (less frequently, I think) the man suffers some secret guilt and wish to denounce himself.
The Rev. Dimmsdale, btw, is not a grand-style hypocrite making his living denouncing what he secretly does himself (take Eddie Long, for example). He preaches compassion for sinners (even before this can be interpreted as special pleading in his own interest), though he does not use his influence on Governor Bellingham (William H. Tooker) to change the harsh sumptuary and other laws.
Looking at the name of the cinematographer, Hendrik Sartov, I thought he perhaps came as part of the MGM package from Sweden that included Garbo, Sjostrom, and Hanson, but he, also, was Gish’s choice, having shot not only her recent great triumph “La boheme” (directed by King Vidor) but the earlier Griffith-directed “Orphans of the Storm” (1921). Before that, he had also worked on “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and “The Big Parade.” Sartov went out when sound came in (he lived until 1970 but has no film credits after 1928). John Arnold (the cinematographer of “The Big Parade” photographed Gish and Hanson for Sjostrom in “The Wind.” (Arnold also ceased shooting movies with the advent of sound, with no credits from 1929 until his death in 1964). At any rate, Sartov shot the close-ups, the crowd scenes, and the scenes out in the woods very well.
For more on the making of the movie, see www.moviediva.com/MD_root/reviewpages/MDScarletLetter.htm. I have written here about Hawthorne’s next (and next best-known) novel, the Gothic The House of the Seven Gables (1851) an here about the actual house. At least once upon a time, my favorite Hawthorne novel was the one following that, the satire of utopian communities, The Blithedale Romance (1852).