The Scarlet Letter (1926)
I’m repubbing this review of The Scarlet Letter, starring Lillian Gish, originally published in July of 2011. Am I being lazy? Yep, but I’m excusing it by saying there’s a lot of new faces here these days. Welcome everyone!
After being a bit bamfoozled by The Phantom Carriage, I was excited when TCM aired another Victor Sjöström movie, The Scarlet Letter, for “Silent Sundays.” As I was left feeling flummoxed by the praise heaped on The Phantom Carriage, I was eager to watch another Sjöström (though, this being one of his Hollywood efforts, he directed as the Anglicized Victor Seastrom) film, and I counted it as a bonus that this one is based on a classic American novel and starred the always riveting Lillian Gish. The Scarlet Letter did not disappoint and left me far better informed about the subtleties of Sjostrom’s direction.
The Scarlet Letter is, of course, based on the classic American novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. As I was watching the movie, I found myself wracking my memory for the particulars of the novel. It has been
almost twe some amount of years since I last read the book, and the 11th grade lit class discussions were a little foggy. A quick check of the Wikipedia entry for the novel confirmed that the film is quite faithful to the novel with only a few dramatic licenses, so I won’t recap the plot here. Suffice it to say that the largest difference is in the relationship of Hester Prynne and the illegitimate Pearl to Dimmesdale. In the novel, Pearl repeatedly asks her father to publicly acknowledge his parentage, while in the movie Hester implores Dimmesdale to keep the secret, for the sake of the congregation’s faith in him. The ultimate outcome remains the same, and this minor revision makes for a far more romantic (in the personal relationship sense) movie narrative.
Initially, I wondered about the wisdom of hiring a Swedish filmmaker (and Swedish male lead, Lars Hanson as Dimmesdale) to direct a fundamentally American story. The import of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter hinges mostly on understanding how harsh and rigid Puritainism underpins the development of American culture. From founding ideals to manifest destiny to preemptive war, so much of the American story hews to the divorce of moral obligation from physical realities. How else to explain the wholesale slaughter of native populations against a rigid adherence to “God’s law” or the propagation of human enslavement in the name in the name of progress? An examination of what it means to repress our physicality and deny our natural desires are at the heart of The Scarlet Letter. However, outside looking in, the Swedes do seem to have some things in common with our Puritan forebears, or at least what my American eyes perceives as an icy reserve. According to the TCM programming notes, Lillian Gish, the proponent for hiring Sjostrom, agrees with me. “Gish felt that he had a major impact on her work, introducing her to the Swedish style of acting, which involved repression of emotions so that they only briefly rose to the surface.” The resultant movie proves Gish correct, I think.
I find that same emotional restraint evident not only in the performance of Hanson, but in Sjöström’s direction itself. In the Scarlet Letter, Sjostrom proves himself not only technically masterful as in The Phantom Carriage, but emotionally masterful as well. The Scarlet Letter is not action packed by any means. It is an emotional story, focused on the frictions caused by what society demands and deems good and what feels individually right. Sjöström strikes the right balance between artful direction and the natural emotional narrative delivered by his actors. The editorial presence is felt when necessary, such as the opening shot of the village, where we see a busy, oppressively populated town. But the director all but vanishes when Gish’s luminous face appears. Her eyes tell us more than any clever camera shot ever could, and Sjostrom has the directorial sense to get out of the way.
And that brings me to Lillian Gish. Gish is always superb and it is refreshing to see her perform a far more subtle and complex role than the melodramatic simplicities offered by D.W. Griffith. I can’t think of another actress of the day who could have delivered Hester Prynne with so much depth and empathy. While it’s true the Hester always ultimate rejects the Puritantic strictures she has the wisdom to appreciate the comfort that this order delivers to other people. While she will not go so far as to be ashamed of her bloomers, she will at least make an effort to shield them from the male gaze. In The Scarlet Letter, the demands of Hester Prynne’s character falls right in line with Gish’s exceptional talents. Gish never delivers a discrete emotion. With her we don’t get happiness, we get happiness tinged with sorrow, or despair with an aura of hope, or… well, you get the picture. In this movie, she is absolutely riveting and brings to life some rather obtuse thematic tropes.
With two Sjöström pictures under my belt, I’m quite keen to see more of both his Swedish and (limited) Hollywood output. Thanks to a Twitter recommendation by @GrandOldMovies from the Grand Old Movies blog, The Wind (1928) is next on my Sjöström viewing list, as soon as I can my mitts on it.
- The Scarlet Letter at IMDB
- The Scarlet Letter at The Silent Era
- The Scarlet Letter at TCM
- Buy The Scarlet Letter on DVD
Watch a scene from The Scarlet Letter on YouTube. Here the villagers try to take Hester’s child as punishment for her sins.