Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by Victor Sjöström
New York Premiere: August 9, 1926
Cast: Lillian Gish (Hester Prynne), Lars Hanson (The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale), Henry B. Walthall (Roger Chillingworth), Karl Dane (Giles), William H. Tooker (The Governor), Marcelle Corday (Mistress Hibbins), Fred Herzog (the Jailer), Jules Cowles (The Beadle), Mary Hawes (Patience), Joyce Coad (Pearl), James A. Marcus (the Sea Captain)

Places in the Heart: The Scarlet Letter

by Paul Rice

This past fall I took a Silent Film class, and our professor offered a very insightful foreword before we watched the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter:

"There are, generally speaking, two kinds of people out there. When confronted with grief or suffering, people either show that suffering in a very visible way, or they internalize and suffer silently (no pun intended). This film is about internalization, which means some of you may take it to heart more than others will."

While it is true that The Scarlet Letter holds a significant appeal for those who don't display their emotions willingly, the film is brilliant enough to capture anyone's attention. With Lillian Gish in the role of Hester Prynne, Swedish director Victor Sjöström (often Americanized as Seastrom), fellow Swede Lars Hanson (both hand-picked by Gish) in the role of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and Henry B. Walthall as Roger Chillingworth, The Scarlet Letter is concerned primarily with that which is hidden: that is, with the secret recesses of the heart. There may not be another subject so well suited to silent film. Consider what Hungarian critic, theorist, screenwriter and librettist Béla Balázs has said of silent film:

The gestures of visual man [i.e., the film actor] are not intended to convey concepts which can be expressed in words, but such inner experiences, such non-rational emotions which would still remain unexpressed when everything that can be told has been told.

This Scarlet Letter is not the first film version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's romance: three films preceded the 1926 version. In spite of these precedents, Gish, the driving force behind the creation of the film, met with some opposition from MGM (which feared the reactions of certain religious groups) in her choice of subject matter. Adultery may have been just as popular then as now, but stories and films about such a topic were not discussed openly among the sanctimonious. However, these groups withdrew any opposition with the condition that Lillian Gish, and no one else, play Hester Prynne, as Gish was in very high standing. One thinks of what Mrs. Meriweather says in Gone with the Wind: "If Miss Melanie says it's all right, it's all right."

So, with director Sjöström; screenwriter Frances Marion, whose adaptation made The Scarlet Letter 'appropriate' for screening; and a team of actors hand picked by Lillian Gish, production began. Speaking perhaps to the style of the film, Gish remarked afterwards that she "felt the Swedes were closer to the feeling of New England Puritans than modern Americans." Certainly, critics would later agree that in "choosing a Swedish director, Victor Sjöström, and a Swedish co-star, Lars Hanson, Gish succeeded in giving the picture the aura of the early Swedish cinema classics. Time and place became powerful characters, compensating for the necessarily delicate handling of the adultery theme" (Richard Koszarski, An Evening's Entertainment). Furthermore, Gish also observed that Sjöström's "direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy .... The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression" (David Robinson, Hollywood in the Twenties), and indeed, an emphasis on repression is pitch-perfect for The Scarlet Letter. Lars Hanson also received high praise for his role. Known as the Nordic John Barrymore, Hanson spoke no English; yet, as Gish later said, "so great was his power to interpret a mood or an emotion, we were not aware that he was speaking in a foreign tongue. At the finish of one dramatic scene, the crew on the set spontaneously applauded" (Charles Affron, Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life). With Gish, Hanson, and Sjöström, The Scarlet Letter retains some of the best of both the American and Scandinavian schools: the Puritanical fervor of the plot is set against the austerity of Swedish cinema, just as Gish's subtle and mature performance is contrasted against Hanson's stylized acting.


The Scarlet Letter (referencing the restored version featured on TCM) opens with truly beautiful panoramas of early morning in Puritan Boston, with each shot centering itself on the integral scaffold as the townspeople make their way to the church. As the scenes become less sweeping and more closely framed, images of imprisonment become more frequent: bonnets, a curtain over Hester's mirror that reads "Vanity is an Evil Disease," and even the cage that Hester's pet bird occupies. These scenes also introduce us to both Gish and Hanson. Gish's innocent eyes and primping with a bonnet foreshadow her defiance of the village's conventions, while Hanson shows his character's intensity and caring through his words to a villager undergoing punishment: the act exemplifies his own potential divergence from the judgment of the town.


However, if this film is about things hidden, it is also about the struggle for freedom from the curse of internalization. Thus, Hester's bird escapes from its cage and leads her in a chase into the untouched forests of New England. This move from the austere Puritan town and the lush, untouched woodlands sets up a sublime juxtaposition throughout the film. For instance, the scene in which Dimmesdale declares his love for Hester takes place deep in the forest, and opens with a marvelous shot of Dimmesdale and Hester's reflection in a forest pool. Much of the camerawork in the forest especially captures the transformation from captivity to freedom. In the scene, Dimmesdale is actually concealed by a large bush for most of the time he is speaking to Hester. As Hester gives in to his entreaties, he moves out from behind the bush; as she tries to rein in her emotions, he sinks back. Finally, Dimmesdale and their love appear to blossom from the bush as he and Hester embrace, indicative of the liberating nature of the woodlands.

Many of the riskier moments of the film take place within the woods. However, if religious groups were worried about the indecency of Hester and Arthur's affair, they made the right decision in trusting Gish and MGM. Perhaps the most sensitive part of the film is the scenes of courtship, in which Dimmesdale accidentally discovers Hester washing clothes, something men aren't supposed to witness. What follows is a playful game of chase around a large bush and a sweet walk down a path together. Gish's eyes sparkle in these scenes, but they do so with an innocent sort of adoration, rather than the lust or passion found in the 1995 version of Scarlet Letter or 2010's Easy A. Many times when Hester looks at Dimmesdale, her eyes soften, and the corners of her mouth turn up ever so slightly. In another scene toward the end of the film, Hester and Dimmesdale express their longing for freedom in the forests again after Hester's husband has made himself known. As David Denby writes in his New Yorker article "The Artists: Notes on a Lost Style of Acting": "Gish's Hester Prynne rips off the scarlet 'A,' removes her cap, shakes loose a magnificent pile of hair, and, just for a second, primps. She is no less dignified and brave for that moment; the touch of vanity eliminates the distance between her and us. The boldest silent acting always burrowed under the outlines of the story and added a layer of commentary, sometimes a dissonant layer. [T]hat act suggests a vein of contrariness and complication, the astonishments of art. When silent-movie acting is great, it risks everything."

Imprisonment of Town

As established at the beginning of the film with shots of men behind bars and in stocks, the Puritan village is very much a prison, a motif reiterated after the scenes of Dimmesdale and Hester in the forest, when Hester must reveal her marriage to Dimmesdale. Here, the tone becomes much grimmer as shadows of the spinning wheel in Hester's cottage, like prison bars, cloak the two in Hester's dimly lit cottage, and Hester's wedding ring looks more like the link of a chain when she unveils it for Arthur. In a later and very gripping scene, Hester is confronted by a crowd of Puritan leaders who wish to take her unbaptized child away to be raised with some 'real' Christians: a large collection of chains hangs on the prison walls in the background. Here, however, the imprisoning nature of the town is conquered through the presence of Dimmesdale, who enters and takes his place beside Hester: the scene is shot such that his body immediately covers the chains, and later hides them again with a jar of holy water as he baptizes his child.

Gish's Sublime Acting

According to Joe Franklin, "Lillian Gish's performance here is almost certainly her finest in any film" (Classics of the Silent Screen), and there are several moments of brilliance throughout the film when she truly shines. One of these scenes occurs fairly early in the film: Gish is brought before Dimmesdale and the entire congregation for running on the Sabbath. Here, hope is contrasted with the inevitability of punishment, and Gish's fragility is captured in her eyes, which sink lower and lower throughout the scene. However, in another scene, Dimmesdale has just returned from England to find Hester about to mount the scaffold in punishment for their adultery, and pleads with her to let him be punished as well. Gish's fragility in other scenes is completely gone: her expression is stoic and solid as a rock -- she absolutely refuses to let Dimmesdale dishonor himself. When the village guards enter to escort her to the scaffold, Gish uses only her eyes to direct warnings to Dimmesdale: don't say anything! In one of the most powerful moments in the film, when Gish is actually atop the scaffold and must answer Dimmesdale's obligatory questions about the identity of the father, her inner life is hauntingly conveyed. As soon as Dimmesdale begins to question Hester, Sjöström gives almost unbroken attention to Gish's phenomenal performance. Throughout the shot, her eyes widen in a warning for Arthur not to speak out the truth, her mouth tightens and her eyes soften in love for him, her eyebrows raise in defiance of the town's censure, and her eyes fall to look only at her child. It is one of the most memorable moments of the film, a real crucible of emotion and drama. Or, as Charles Affron puts it:

Hester's strength and independence are Lillian's. And the actress's years of experience show not in obvious demonstrations of technique charm or personality but, as always, in her ability to capture the undulating texture of the character's inner life and to transmit it, still inner, to the viewer. Here, as in the best of silent film, Lillian goes beyond language to express that which words labor to convey. She provides an access, a point of entry, to an experience in all its many dimensions and temporalities. (Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life)

Immediately following the drama of the scaffold, Hester is confronted by a large crowd of Purtians who wish to take her child. Gish looks like a tigress backed into a corner in this scene, her fury palpable. Several other moments in the film echo this raw strength: when Chillingworth discovers that Dimmesdale is Hester's lover, she shields Dimmesdale in a corner and keeps eye contact, as one stares a wild animal into submission. Gish begins this film as a very timid or fragile Hester, yet continually shows the character's great emotional power throughout in a rising crescendo.

In Time with the Baton

I'd like to take just a moment to mention that the musical score for The Scarlet Letter, written by Lisa Anne Miller and Mark Northam, is simply fantastic. The film begins with a single, wild violin note that swells into a thunderous undercurrent of piano, followed by a more somber and steady section of horns that will figure prominently throughout the rest of the film. Certain themes are evident throughout the film: when Chillingworth enters the scene, he is continually accompanied by a section of mournful French horns, and the flute that accompanies Hester's pet bird is particularly chipper and light. The music also especially augments scenes like Hester's mounting of the scaffold: a low violin and snare drum follow her, with the violin gradually growing stronger and more impassioned as the intensity heats up, the thunder of the piano underscoring Dimmesdale's torment throughout the scene.

Specters of Boston

Just as the film is concerned with location and its inherent meaning, there is also the matter of Hester's seclusion after her public shaming. Rather than dwelling in her village cottage, she now resides in a secluded cabin surrounded by hundreds of clumsily sawed stumps, and her cabin lies under the auspices of a gruesome gallows upon a hill. It seems like a place meant only for persecution. Hester and her daughter are not left alone -- there are some hard-to-watch scenes in which the townspeople spatter Hester and Pearl's white dresses with mud. However, perhaps the most brilliant shot in this location comes when Roger Chillingworth returns to Boston. In this shot, which could have been very prosaic, Chllingworth in silhouette rambles among the stumps, his dark cloak billowing in the wind like some wraith or vengeful spirit.

Ending - A Furioso

After moving through the secluded forests and the wastelands near Hester's cottage, the conclusion of the film takes place at its center: the scaffold. Tormented for years now, Dimmesdale climbs up to the platform himself and flings out his arms in the fashion of the crucified Christ to declare his guilt and shame. Capturing the intensity and desperation of the lovers, Sjöström's close shots of Hanson and Gish serve to isolate their own drama within the spectacle of the watching villagers. Hanson's rising and falling, his gestures, and especially the desperation in his eyes all contribute to the fevered nature of his Dimmesdale; his revealing of his self-branded 'A' is particularly haunting. Gish's care and attempts to rescue Dimmesdale are captured by her wild gestures and the myriad emotions that storm in her eyes: shock, anxiety, love, and grief. Gish's performance here is as incredible as Hanson's: the scaffold almost operates like a magnifying glass of the human heart. As Pauline Kael puts it: "He [Sjöström] stages Lars Hanson's final revelation scene with a power and conviction that justifies Lillian Gish's hunch: these two Swedes understand Hawthorne's guilt and suffering." (5001 Nights at the Movies) It is a desperate scene, made all the more so by the immense populace around the scaffold, whose reactions of surprise and transformative sorrow unify the crowd in such a way that it seems a third, single performer acting alongside Hanson and Gish. The scene, the conclusion of the film, ends with a panoramic shot of the entire village, caught in the act of bowing their heads to an expired Hanson, whose message of true forgiveness has transformed them.

In considering The Scarlet Letter, one might think of what David Denby has said of silent film: "The stories of silent drama may often have been elemental, yet, within the broad outlines, the artists among the actors could bring out shadings that had no immediate analogue in language. The ineffable had been re-introduced into art." This understanding of the inexpressible is particularly apt for The Scarlet Letter through the performances of Gish and Hanson, as well as the larger themes of hidden guilt and a longing for freedom. Ultimately, the film is an intense and searing depiction of the depths of inner human suffering, and the power and hope of revelation found in the places of the heart.

Copyright 2013 by Paul Rice. All rights reserved

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