The Scarlet Letter (1926) Directed by Victor Seastrom. Lillian Gish, Lars Hansen, Henry B. Walthall, Karl Dane. (79 min.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850. An accepted classic of American literature, it is less concerned with romance than guilt, retribution and a repressive community’s effect on an individual; a plea for tolerance. New England Puritan Hester Prynne is married, but her much older husband has disappeared. Her love for the village minister has resulted in an illegitimate child. Hester must live in exile from her community, wearing the red “A” for adulteress, which she has defiantly embroidered on her bodice with elaborate beauty, not simple shame. She refuses to let Rev. Dimmesdale confess to his part, for fear of undermining his spiritual leadership, so Hester and her daughter Pearl suffer alone.

Lillian Gish grew up with the movies under D. W. Griffith’s tutelage, and was a powerful creative force at MGM in the 1920s. Her salary was $5,000 a week. After her triumph in La Boheme, directed by King Vidor and co-starring John Gilbert, she suggested The Scarlet Letter. Unfortunately, the Hays Office, responsible for censoring films, had put it on an unofficial blacklist. Gish appealed personally to the church and women’s groups that had insisted on the ban, and they gave her permission if she would be “personally responsible” for the film. Her virtue was unimpeachable. She had envisioned a La Boheme devoid of physical embrace, insisting the audience’s repressed emotion would dissolve at the sight of her in Gilbert’s arms. At the preview, the MGM executives were baffled. Where were her love scenes with the screen’s Great Lover? Miss Gish submitted reluctantly to retakes, forced to spend her days kissing John Gilbert.

Irving Thalberg assigned the script of The Scarlet Letter to three staff writers, but the results were uninspiring; they proposed elaborate back stories and happy endings. One even suggested changing the letter “A” to another letter representing a word less shocking than adultress. Frances Marion, one of cinema’s great scenario writers, wanted to work for Gish and undertook the literary adaption that would retool The Scarlet Letter as Hester Prynne’s story. Gish was undecided on the casting of Rev. Dimmesdale until Mayer suggested she watch The Saga of Gosta Berling. The film had so impressed him that he’d signed the director Mauritz Stiller and his protégée Greta Garbo, as well as the other two stars, Mona Martenson and Lars Hansen. Gish agreed Hansen was “perfect.”

Location photograph: Miss Gish seated center, Seastrom seated on ground to her right, and Lars Hansen next to him in black Puritan hat.

Victor Seastrom (spelled Sjostrom in Sweden) who, with Stiller was Sweden’s most prominent director, would direct. In the teens and early 20s, Seastrom acted in and directed silent films based on native literary sources, particularly the works of Selma Lagerlof. “Sweden made and exported films that were head and shoulders above those of other countries for intelligence and integrity. They also had a psychological profundity never before in the motion picture, and a great visual beauty. Seastrom was the unquestioned pace setter of this Swedish film art.” Seastrom was lent out to MGM in 1923, as part of a distribution deal. Seastrom had lived in the US as a child and spoke English, and Svensk Filmindustri hoped that Seastrom would return to Sweden with the ability to make films that would be as popular internationally as those from Hollywood .

Seastrom had been hired by Samuel Goldwyn, but they immediately disagreed on script possibilities. Seastrom thought Ibsen a good choice, but Goldwyn envisioned something more along the lines of a racy story by Elinor Glyn. Seastrom finally directed He Who Gets Slapped with Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert, the first film to be made under the banner of the newly merged Metro Goldwyn Mayer. In 1924, Charles Chaplin was quoted in Motion Picture Magazine; “There is a wide discrimination between Seastrom and the rest of us. He distinguishes himself with finer feeling and better taste. He is the greatest director in the world.”

Miss Gish said, “I knew that we must have a Swedish director. The Swedish people are closer to what our Pilgrims were, or what we consider them to have been, than are present day Americans. Irving Thalberg selected Victor Seastrom, a splendid choice. He got the spirit of the story exactly, and was himself a fine actor, the finest that ever directed me. I never worked with anyone I liked better than Seastrom. He was Scandinavian, thorough and prompt. If Mr, Seastrom said we would start at eight, or half past, the camera was ready at that time, and so were we.” She also said, “It seemed to me that he had Mr. Griffith’s sensitivity to atmosphere.” High praise, indeed. Seastrom wrote of Miss Gish, “It was a great pleasure to direct her. At first, I was rather overwhelmed with the idea of directing a star of her fame. But, I found no one could make the director’s work easier or pleasanter.” He considered The Scarlet Letter to be the best picture he ever directed. Their friendship was life long, and they continued to correspond until Seastrom’s death, shortly after starring for Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries (1957). Seastrom would also direct Gish and Hansen in The Wind, and Hansen and Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman.

When the talkies came in Seastrom returned to Sweden, and he resumed his career, but primarily as an actor. Miss Gish played her scenes in The Scarlet Letter in English and Hansen in Swedish, but their emotional intensity was universal. Greta Garbo was an almost daily visitor to the set, in order to be near her friend Hansen, and to speak Swedish to alleviate her homesickness. Garbo also observed, and absorbed, Gish’s artistry. She would soon put her observations to good use in her first American film, The Torrent. The Scarlet Letter has both the psychological realism and the feeling for landscape that characterized Seastrom’s Swedish films, and he collaborated felicitously with Miss Gish’s favorite cinematographer, Henrik Sartov.

Karl Dane has a memorable supporting role as Giles. Dane was Danish (the original spelling of his name was Daen) and had been a studio carpenter. His towering, tobacco chewing pal of doughboy John Gilbert in The Big Parade brought a warmth and humor to the often grim subject. His goofy looks and naturalistic acting are always a welcome sight. Dane had a few good roles in the late 20s, including The Trail of ’98 and La Boheme, and starred in a series of comedies with George K. Arthur. But, by Montana Moon in 1930, starring pushy flapper Joan Crawford, his Danish accent had relegated him to the background, nervously singing (or maybe just moving his lips) in the crowd around the piano with Cliff Edwards and Benny Rubin. In 1934, he spread his old clippings and photos on a table in his furnished room and shot himself; another victim of the talkies.

Lillian Gish’s delicate appearance–on screen and off– belies the force of her radiant intelligence. Hansen’s performance has not aged as gracefully as hers; he was primarily a stage actor, and his misery seems a bit overstated. Yet, her quiet suffering acts as a restraint to Hansen’s quivering guilt. Robert E. Sherwood wrote, “Her performance of this role establishes her true worth as it has never been established before…for here Miss Gish reveals substantial dramatic power; she proves that her Dresden china fragility is backed by a Bessemer steel strength…the scarlet letter of shame, as she wears it, appears as a red badge of courage.”


(Location photograph from Deems Taylor’s A Pictorial History of the Movies (1943) one of the early film history books, and the one Martin Scorcese says he pored over as a child. Portrait of Miss Gish and Lars Hansen from Silent Movies, A Picture Quiz Book by Stanley Appelbaum (1974), Karl Dane photo from Moviediva’s collection. When I was in high school, my mother took me out of class so my brother and I could meet Lillian Gish, who was signing copies of The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. My brother got the autobiography (he was and is a passionate admirer of hers), and Miss Gish signed my copy of Joe Franklin’s Classics of the Silent Screen. Thanks, Mom!)