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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.