A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

It's been many a year since I read The Scarlet Letter, but I'm pretty sure that any high school students who think they can get by watching Frances Marion's adaptation of it instead of reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel are likely to be disappointed in English class. That said, no film version is going to reproduce the depth of characterization, the symbolic force, or the intellectual density of Hawthorne, so we should be grateful for what this one does give us: one of Lillian Gish's greatest performances. This was Gish's second film for MGM, after La Bohème, and it suggests that her talents were better suited to a contemplative director like Victor Sjöström -- or Seastrom, as MGM insisted on anglicizing his name -- than to King Vidor's more action-oriented style. If her Mimi in La Bohème was disturbingly hyperactive, her Hester Prynne is a marvel of understated acting. She uses her eyes and mouth and the tilt of her chin to convey a miraculous range of emotions, from stubbornness to fear, from strength to frailty. It's a pity that her Dimmesdale, Lars Hanson, doesn't match her in subtlety. He's more successful in this regard in their 1928 collaboration The Wind, which was also directed by Sjöström.