My Classic Movie Picks: The Scarlet Letter

My post today is about a silent film and is also a contribution for the Gish Sisters Blogathon, which is being hosted this weekend by two great blogs dedicated to classic films, Movies Silently and Motion Pictures.  Click on the posted links to read more wonderful blogs by other classic film fans to learn more about these two talented actresses and sisters, who got their start during the silent film era.Gish Sisters Blogathon

In 1925, Lillian Gish was at the top of her game in the movie world.  She was a popular leading lady in dramatic films, popular with the movie-going audiences in America, and she decided that she wanted to make a film about Nathanial Hawthorne’s classic novel , The Scarlet Letter.  She approached the head of MGM studios, Louis B. Mayer about getting this film made.  He pointed out to Miss Gish that the book was on a list of banned books that would not be allowed to have movie versions of them created.  With this answer not deterring her in the least, Miss Gish wrote a letter to MGM’s head of censure, Will Hayes, and then she wrote letters to the heads of church groups and ladies groups around the country, pleading her case that a tasteful and important film about Hawthorne’s book could be made.  Miss Gish must have had a way with the pen. Her letter writing campaign worked and her project was given the greenlight.  TSL movie poster 1

Since this was Lillian’s project, she had a say in who the director would be and who the leading man would be.  For a movie about Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, she made two very interesting choices for director and leading man: she picked Swedish director Victor Sjostrom and Swedish actor Lars Hanson.  In her memoirs, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, Miss Gish said she felt that the Swedes were closer in feeling to the actual Puritans than the Americans of 1926.   Frances Marion wrote the adapted screenplay from Hawthorne’s novel, and the cast also included Henry B. Walthall, Karl Dane,William H. Tooker, Marcelle Corday, Fred Herzog, Jules Cowles, Mary Hawes, James A. Marcus, and Joyce Coad as Pearl.

I had read Hawthorne’s book about 5 years ago and as I like to do if a movie is based upon a book, I like to find that movie and watch it.  I knew there was a movie made in 1995 starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, but when I read some of it’s reviews, I decided that that version was not the one I wanted to see.  Over and over again, I kept running into commentaries that said the 1926 silent version, starring Lillian Gish, was the best version of Hawthorne’s book.  Turner Classic Movies came to my rescue when they aired the movie during their “Silent Sunday Nights”, which is when the channel shows silent films.  I set the dvr machine and voila!  I was able to view this silent classic.

I, like a lot of movie viewers, had a distorted view of silent films.  They’re all about a damsel in distress, tied to railroad tracks by a villain in a black cape with a huge black moustache, and she’ll be saved by a handsome hero.  The acting will be hammy and over-demonstrative, and the music will be by either a piano or an organ.  I am now the first to admit that I have been wrong about silent films.  The acting isn’t hammy, the stories and plots are interesting, and many have been set to new orchestrations with various instruments that enhance the films quite a lot.

Gish’s The Scarlet Letter follows Hawthorne’s book well and the acting of it is superb.  Gish and her leading man, Hanson, do so much with their eyes as they depict their characters’ feelings.  Theirs is not an effort of histrionics but of subtle shifts, keyed in on their faces, and their eyes.  The sets looked very authentic, as did the costuming, and Sjostrom’s direction kept the telling of Hawthorne’s tale moving along at a good pace; it doesn’t get slow or draggy.

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne

Swedish actor Lars Hanson as Rev. Dimmesdale

Swedish actor Lars Hanson as Rev. Dimmesdale

Gish portrays Hester Prynne, a beautiful Puritan woman who’s husband has been lost at sea.  She has had an affair with another man in the community, became pregnant, and has given birth to a daughter, Pearl.  The story opens with Hester being presented to the community, she standing on a platform holding her infant and refusing to name the father.  She is informed that she must stand there for 3 hours to suffer from her shame, and a huge, red letter A must be worn by her on the front of the bodice of her dress.  As Hester stands there, hearing the grumbling commentary from her neighbors, she notices her husband, Roger Prynne( Henry B. Walthall) in the crowd!  He’s not dead!  He, seeing his wife’s shaming, asks people near him in the crowd what has happened.  After he is informed as to why Hester is being punished, he vows to find the father of the child.

Hester being publicly shamed

Hester being publicly shamed

After the 3 hours are up, Hester is escorted from the platform back to the jail.  She has refused to name the father of her child to the one of the  local ministers of the community, Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, and after Dimmesdale leaves the jail, Hester’s long, lost husband Roger arrives to see her, saying  he is a doctor, who ‘d like to check on the health of the baby and the mother.  Once Roger is alone with Hester and has checked over Pearl, he tells Hester not to reveal who he really is, he’s taken a new name, Roger Chillingworth, and if she ever reveals who he is, he’ll cause the destruction of the child’s father.

Rev. Dimmesdale praying with Hester, after she refuses to reveal the father of her baby

Rev. Dimmesdale praying with Hester, after she refuses to reveal the father of her baby

The rest of the movie’s plot follows Hester and Pearl  and how their life evolves over time in the community, how some busybodies in the town think Hester is an unfit mother due to Pearl’s misbehavings and they seek to have Pearl taken away from Hester, Hester going to Rev. Dimmesdale for help in convincing those with authority not to take her child from her, and Prynne/Chillingworth, a diligent detective, figuring out the puzzle of who Pearl’s father is.  I don’t want to reveal all of the plot as I want the readers of this post to find the film and view it for themselves.  I cannot stress enough that this version of The Scarlet Letter, albeit a silent film, is the best version of the story ever made!

Asking Dimmesdale for help leads to deeper feelings being revealed!

Asking Dimmesdale for help leads to deeper feelings being revealed!

To add a bit more information about Lillian Gish, and her sister Dorothy, I thought I would mention the college that I attended, Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio.  The Gish sisters were natives of Ohio and BGSU(as the college is ususally referred to)decided in 1976 to dedicate a small theater in Hanna Hall after the two sisters.  Lillian was delighted with this effort and through the years that followed, she sent items from her and her sister’s careers to be put on display.  When Lillian passed away in 1993, many more items from Gish’s estate were sent to BGSU.  You can read all about the Gish Theatre here at this link.  I kick myself quite a lot that when I was a student there in the middle 1980s, that I didn’t take any advantage of visiting this on campus theatre nor did I take any advantage of expanding my limited viewings of classic movies, silent or talking.  I would like to visit the theatre the next time I am in Ohio, after I visit with my relatives first, of course!

Lillian Gish, probably at the time the theatre honoring her at BGSU was opened.

Lillian Gish, probably at the time the theatre honoring her at BGSU was opened.

Please seek out The Scarlet Letter, the 1926 version that Lillian Gish had the foresight, talent, and endurance to see that it was made.  It is a moving film, tenderly acted, a film made with real craftmanship.  The film did come out on a  dvd in 1997 so that would be one way to see it.  There have been some scenes from the film placed on Youtube, and  Turner Classic Movies  will also be airing the film on October 14th at noon est/11:00 cst.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. […] A wonderful contribution to the Gish Sisters Blogathon, which I co-hosted back in 2013, gave us insight into one reason why this is such a remarkable film: Lillian Gish’s efforts to have it made. Prior to Lillian’s campaigning, the book from which the film’s story is sourced had been banned from production in a good ol’ case of 20th century censorship. […]

    Reply

  2. I had no idea how actively Lillian Gish campaigned to have this movie made. What a powerhouse!

    Also interesting to read about the theatre named after her, and how she & her sister donated items from their careers. This post has made me admire the both of them even more.

    Reply

  3. I must admit that when I am looking through the TCM guide, I immediately pass over any film made in the 1920’s. I attempted a silent one time (one of my very beloved Gary Cooper), and even my love for Coop couldn’t get me through it. I gave up after 20 minutes, and I have not tried another silent since then.

    That said, “The Scarlet Letter” was one of my favorite things about high school literature class. I loved the book, and I feel sure I would equally love seeing a film version of it. Both your review and Judy’s have whet my appetite to give this film a try.

    I understand what you mean about not taking advantage of the campus theatre when you were younger. For this blogathon, I reviewed 1987’s “The Whales of August.” It occurred to me that at that period of my life, I would no more have seen a film with a bunch of “old actors” than I would have flown to the moon. Ah, the folly of youth!

    Great review, and I found the background information interesting too.

    Patti,
    They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

    Reply

    • Thanks for your great reply, Patti. I hope that when you view The Scarlet Letter, 1926 version, that it will open your eyes to how good silent movies can be. 🙂 I also enjoyed your review of The Whales of August, a film I need to view!

      Reply

  4. I caught this on TCM once, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful silents I’ve seen and had an astounding performance from Lillian Gish. I vaguely knew she was involved in bringing Hawthorne’s story to the screen, but I had no idea how integral she was to the process. Thanks for the informative post!

    Reply

    • You are most welcome! Another great silent to view, imho, is The Wind, which also starred Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, her leading man from The Scarlet Letter, and once again, Victor Sjostrom directed it, too.

      Reply

  5. The story about books fobidden to be adapated let me thinking about how many great movies weren’t done because of this problem.
    I’ve just finished reading the book and I can’t wait to see this adaptation! I’m also crazy for books adapted to the screen, since I love to compare the two mediums. And very nice to know about how you were connected with the Gish sisters by your alma mater.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!

    Reply

  6. […] by Jenni has also reviewed The Scarlet Letter for the blogathon and her review includes a fascinating account of how Lillian Gish campaigned for […]

    Reply

  7. Jenni, I’m reviewing this film as well and was very interested to see your take on it – great piece, and I was especially interested in the information about how hard Lillian Gish had to work to get this one made.

    Reply

  8. I love how Gish wouldn’t let the small matter of a blacklisted book get in her way; her actions say so much about her character! I haven’t seen this movie before – I’ll definitely be looking out for a copy now. Thank you!

    Reply

  9. Thanks so much for mentioning the Gish Theater! If you ever make that trip, be sure to write a post about it 🙂

    This is one of my favorite Gish films. Everything about it is just superb. Thanks for the great review and the nice little plug for silent films in general.

    Reply

  10. I am very happy this movie expanded your ideas about silent movies. This is one of the best. You were wise to skip the most recent movie version. It was very interesting to learn about the Gish Theater. Than you for sharing.

    Reply

  11. […] portraitsbyjenni – The Scarlet Letter + BGSU’s Gish Theater […]

    Reply

  12. […] portraitsbyjenni: The Scarlet Letter + BGSU’s Gish Theater […]

    Reply

  13. I am kicking myself for missing this film when it aired on TCM!! I’ll have to get my hand on it elsewhere. Sounds wonderful! Great write-up, Jenni!!

    Aurora

    Reply

  14. I’ll have to make a trip down to Bowling Green to visit the Gish Theater! I believe it’s only about an hour and a half away. Free film screenings AND the opportunity to see their collection of Gish memorabilia — they can count me in!

    Thank you for a wonderful contribution to our blogathon. 🙂

    Reply

    • You are very welcome, Lindsey. Doing the work for the blogathon caused me to re-watch The Wind yesterday, which TCM had aired earlier in the week. Just made me appreciate all the more Gish’s abilities as an actress, and Lars Hanson’s, as an actor, too.

      Reply

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