Lillian Gish gives one of her finest performances in the powerful 1926 silent version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER, beautifully filmed by the great Swedish director Victor Sjostrom.
In 17th century Puritan Boston, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) falls in love with seamstress Hester Prynne (Lillian Gish). He tells her that he has to go to England and asks her to marry him, but she reveals that she's already married, albeit to a wealthy surgeon whom her father forced
her to wed before she left England, and that her husband has never come to join her in America. Dimmesdale leaves, and when he returns months later, he discovers that Hester has given birth to a girl, and that she is to be condemned as an adulteress. He tells her that he wants to admit that he is
the father and share in her punishment, but she refuses to allow him to destroy herself. In the public square, an angry mob tries to force her to name the baby's father, but she won't tell them and is sentenced to wear a brand of shame--the letter "A"--for the rest of her life. A group of locals
then tries to take Hester's baby away, but Dimmesdale stops them and baptizes the child, whom Hester names Pearl.
Years go by, and Pearl (Joyce Coad) grows into a happy girl, despite being shunned by other children. Roger Prynne (Henry B. Walthall), Hester's husband, appears in town, claiming that his boat was wrecked and he was held prisoner by Indians for seven years. Hester sees him and asks him to help
Pearl, who's ill. He cures her, but demands to know who the father is. She refuses to tell him and he leaves, but he begins to spy on her and Dimmesdale, and discovers their love. Hester secures passage on a Spanish ship for Dimmesdale, Pearl, and herself, but as Dimmesdale is about to join them,
Roger confronts him and says he'll hound him forever. Dimmesdale, who already suffers from a weak heart, is terrified, and runs into the public square and confesses that he's the father of Hester's baby, then rips open his shirt to reveal the letter "A" burnt into his chest. He collapses in
Hester's arms and rips off the letter from her dress as he dies.
Most people only know of Victor Sjostrom as the superb actor who played the Professor in Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES (1957), but in fact, Sjostrom (who's credited as "Seastrom" for his American films) was one of the finest of all silent film directors, and is generally acknowledged as being
the founding father of Swedish cinema, along with Mauritz Stiller. After a distinguished career in Sweden, which included his masterpiece THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE (1917), Sjostrom came to the US and directed the very first film produced by MGM, Lon Chaney's HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924). THE SCARLET
LETTER was a project initiated by Lillian Gish, who won approval from Louis B. Mayer only after she convinced a number of religious groups that the film would not be offensive. To direct she chose Sjostrom, who in turn brought Lars Hanson over from Sweden to star as Reverend Dimmesdale. One would
never guess that Hanson couldn't speak or understand a word of English, so convincing are his love scenes with Gish. Sjostrom acted as an interpreter between his two stars and drew moving and restrained performances from both of them, conveying their love and anguish through subtle facial
movements and close-ups of their eyes, while Gish's acting is virtually free of the histrionic arm-flailing and other mannerisms that sometimes infected her performances in D.W. Griffith's films.
As in all his films, Sjostrom utilizes nature brilliantly, with flawless compositions framing his characters in stark and brooding landscapes to comment on their psychology, and his sensuous use of fluid camera movement is superb. His sensitive handling of Hawthorne's story of intolerance,
hypocrisy, and repression is extremely serious and mature, and the ending, where the Reverend reveals the "A" burnt into his flesh, is still a shocker. There is also some biting humor in scenes that demonstrate the absurdity of the archaic laws, such as speaking through long tubes during
courtship, or women washing their clothes down at the river so as to keep their undergarments out of the sight of men. Despite the obviously dated elements of the story, the film draws its intense emotional power from the timelessness of its theme, which Hester expresses at one point when she asks
Dimmesdale: "Why are we taught to be ashamed of love?" Gish loved working with Sjostrom and reunited with him and Hanson for another silent classic, THE WIND (1928), but after directing the disappointing early-talkie A LADY TO LOVE (1930), Sjostrom returned to Sweden and directed only two more
films, then mysteriously abandoned directing altogether and concentrated exclusively on acting. (Adult situations.)
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