Scarlet Letter, The (1926)

“Take heed, therefore! If ye sin, ye must pay — there is no escape!”

Synopsis:
In Puritan New England, young Hester Prynne (Lillian Gish) has a child out of wedlock with Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and is forced to wear an “A” for “Adultress” on her clothing at all times. When her estranged husband (Henry Walthall) arrives in town after being held captive by Indians for years, she must deal once again with the consequences of her actions.

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Review:
Victor Sjostrom is perhaps best known by film fanatics for his performance as the elderly protagonist of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957); but he was an esteemed silent film director before this, and several of his titles — including The Wind (1928), The Phantom Carriage (1921), and this film — are listed in Peary’s book. Lillian Gish successfully convinced the Hays Office to allow this adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel to be made — and as silent films in general go, it’s among the more satisfying tales I’ve seen. The thematically dense novel is distilled into a series of vignettes which effectively portray both the authenticity of the lovers’ forbidden romance, and the repressive context within which they are each trying to survive. Gish is as lovely as ever, giving a typically moving performance; and while some accuse Hanson of “scenery chewing”, I find him nicely suited for his role as the kind-hearted minister who longs to do right by both his lover and his child. (Both occasionally “over-act” in typical silent-film fashion, but this is to be expected for the era and genre.) Also of note is the fine attention paid to historical detail — we get the sense we’re really eavesdropping on this little corner of society (as when we see a young couple courting by speaking to each other through tubes).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne
  • Lars Hanson as Reverend Dimmesdale
  • Fine period detail

  • Victor Sjostrom’s masterful direction
  • Hendrik Sartov’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine literary adaptation by a premiere silent film director. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Scarlet Letter, The (1926)”

  1. First viewing – and, agreed, a once-must for its place in cinema history.

    I believe I have not read Hawthorne’s novel since high school – where, of course, it was a staple of necessary literature. (That’s why I found it amusing when, during promotion for her *abysmal*, modern remake, Demi Moore made a statement to the effect that “it’s based on a book that hardly anybody has read.” 😉 ) I took to Hawthorne’s work in general as a result – but it has been too long to recognize how this silent version compares, in terms of content.

    That said, Sjostrom does indeed capture the mood that I recall from the novel, even if a condensed screen version has its limitations. A good deal of the sentiment rings as faithful.

    I am a huge fan of some of the director’s other work, i.e. ‘The Wind’ and ‘The Phantom Carriage’ (in particular). By comparison, ‘TSL’ does seem to fall a bit short in terms of ambition and effect. Nevertheless, it’s successful enough to merit the attention of film fanatics.

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