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The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter(1927)

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Only Lillian Gish could have gotten The Scarlet Letter (1926) past thecensors of the late '20s and only she could have made it such an authenticAmerican classic. Ironically, she did it with the help of two Swedes,director Victor Seastrom and leading man Lars Hanson. As she would say inher memoirs, however, "I have always believed that the Scandinavians arecloser in feeling to New England Puritans than are present-dayAmericans."

Gish had long wanted to star in a film version of Hawthorne's classicnovel, but when she suggested it to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer as afollow-up to her popular La Boheme (1926), he warned her that it wascurrently on the list of books banned for film adaptation. To get past theban, Gish personally wrote to Will Hayes, the studios' moral watchdog, andheads of women's and church groups around the country, assuring them thatshe would guarantee the film was made in good taste. As a result, the banwas lifted. In fact, the film was produced with the cooperation of theFederal Council of Churches of Christ.

Having Seastrom direct was Gish's idea. She had been impressed with hiswork for some time, and he was currently working at MGM on a specialloan-out from Svensk Filmindustri. The Swedish studio, where he madehis first impact as a director, allowed him to work at MGM in return forthe right to distribute their films in Sweden. Gish felt that he had amajor impact on her work, introducing her to the Swedish style of acting,which involved repression of emotions so that they only briefly rose to thesurface.

For the leading role of the Reverend Dimmesdale, Hester's secret lover,studio production chief Irving G. Thalberg recommended Lars Hanson, anotherSwede who had scored a hit in the film that introduced Greta Garbo to U.S.audiences, The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924). Although he spoke no English,Hanson had no trouble communicating with his fellow Swede Seastrom.

Rounding out the company were Henry B. Walthall as Hester's long losthusband, whose return triggers a crisis for his wife and her lover, andcinematographer Hendrik Sartov. Both had worked with Gish at the start ofher career when she was director D.W. Griffith's biggest star. Walthallwas best known as "The Little Colonel" in Griffith's The Birth of aNation (1915). From there, he had become a respected character actor.Dutch-born Sartov had trained under Griffith, for whom he filmed Gish insuch great pictures as Hearts of the World (1918), Way Down East (1920) andOrphans of the Storm (1921).

For the picture, an entire colonial village was constructed on the MGM backlot, complete with cobbled streets and a dunking pond. Hanson's directionbreathed life into these settings, creating an authentic picture of 17thcentury America. Unlike the novel, which focused on the influence ofPuritanism on early American life, Seastrom focused the film on Hester andDimmesdale's forbidden love, creating a subtle erotic tension between hisstars. This was particularly strong when Hester lets down her hair andDimmesdale steals a chance to touch it, one of the great love scenes inHollywood history.

During the next-to-last week of filming, Gish learned that her mother hadhad a stroke in London and was not expected to live much longer. Hersister, Dorothy, urged her to get there on the first available boat. Whenshe informed Seastrom of the need to finish the film quickly, he created ashooting schedule that crammed two weeks worth of shooting into three daysof non-stop work. The crew worked without complaint so that she couldfinish the film early and catch the earliest possible train to New York.Whether it was good luck or her daughter's presence, Gish's mother actuallyimproved and was able to return to the U.S. with her daughter.

Meanwhile, Seastrom finished the film, which so delighted Mayer andThalberg that instead of the customary $5,000 bonus given to directors forcompleting a film on time, they gave him $10,000.The picture opened torave reviews and strong business in New York, where it played at theCentral Theatre for five months. It did not do as well in the rest of thecountry, however, and with the failure of the next Gish-Seastromcollaboration, The Wind (1928), her days as a film star were over. Overtime, MGM reedited The Scarlet Letter, and for a while the originalversion was thought lost. When the Library of Congress restored the lostfootage in recent years, fans could once again appreciate one of thegreatest performances in film history. There would be three moreadaptations of The Scarlet Letter in the U.S. -- a low-budget '30sversion starring Colleen Moore, a PBS miniseries in 1979 starring MegFoster and the ludicrous Demi Moore version of 1995 that tried to improveon Hawthorne with nude scenes and a happy ending -- but none can match theoriginal.

Director: Victor Seastrom
Screenplay: Frances Marion
Based on the Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Cinematography: Hendrik Sartov
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Sidney Ullman
Music: Lisa Anne Miller, Mark Northam
Principal Cast: Lillian Gish (Hester Prynne), Lars Hanson (The Rev. ArthurDimmesdale), Henry B. Walthall (Roger Prynne), Karl Dane (Giles), JoyceCoad (Pearl), Polly Moran (Townswoman).

by Frank Miller

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