Starring: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Henry B. Walthall
Plot: In puritanical seventeenth century Massachusetts, a young woman is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her dress for bearing a child out of wedlock.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel is brought brilliantly to life in this excellent Silent film from MGM. Because the book was on the censored list, Lillian Gish, unarguably the era’s finest actress, had to campaign vigorously with both the studio hierarchy and civic morality groups around the country to be allowed to make the film, causing her to ironically deal with the same sort of moral strictures her heroine would face in the film.
Her persistence paid off. She was able to obtain the services of director Victor SjÃ¶strÃ¶m and actor Lars Hanson, both from Sweden. SjÃ¶strÃ¶m instructed Miss Gish in the Scandinavian method of natural acting and he gave the film a blunt, no-nonsense look, crisp & clean, utilizing the Studio’s excellent sets to the best of their advantage. Frances Marion, the most celebrated screenwriter of the day, was responsible for the literate script.
As the much harried Hester Prynne, Gish is beatific, her face radiating as if from an inner glow. She is playfully sweet as the community seamstress, wanting to cavort on the Sabbath or wear frilly clothing, only two of the actions proscribed & punishable by the Puritans’ implacable rigidity. Later, with Hanson, she takes the viewer along as she delights in her new, hidden joy as he returns her love. Whether calmly standing on the scaffold to endure her shame, or fiercely protecting the unbaptized offspring of her forbidden passion, Gish never for an instant loses her grip on the pathetic character she’s portraying.
Although he spoke no English, this was not a hindrance to Hanson. Playing the conflicted Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, Boston’s saintly parson, he paints the portrait of a good man literally dying of guilt, a weak man who dare not defend his wife & child. Hanson’s face reflects his agony, his left hand twitching at his own breast where his secret symbol of shame is hidden. With Gish unobtainable in this world, he moves steadily towards the inevitable, and deeply poignant, conclusion.
Henry B. Walthall, Miss Lillian’s costar in Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), has the supporting role of a mysterious stranger whose arrival in Boston foreshadows a dire denouement for the wretched lovers.
Also in the cast are Karl Dane who acts out the viewers’ dismay at the solemnity of the Puritans, most especially in the person of vindictive gossip Marcelle Corday; there is no love lost between this pair. Movie mavens will recognize diminutive Polly Moran & dour Nora Cecil as rigid Puritan matrons, both uncredited.