review for The Scarlet Letter on AllMovie

The Scarlet Letter (1926)
by Hans J. Wollstein review

"I knew that we must have a Swedish director. The Swedish people are closer to what our pilgrims were than we present day Americans," Lillian Gish told her biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. The Swedish director in question was of course Victor Seastrom, on loan to M-G-M from Svensk Filmindustri in return for the latter receiving sole distribution of Metro films in Sweden. It was a brilliant choice, and so was the casting of Lars Hanson, yet another Swede and apparently the suggestion of Louis B. Mayer, who had enjoyed his work in The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924). But The Scarlet Letter belongs wholeheartedly to Gish, without whose participation this potentially censurable film would in all likelihood never have been made. And Gish's Hester Prynne, an outcast forced to wear an embroidered letter "A" for adulteress, is perhaps the actress' finest performance. No one but Gish, with her spotless, even virginal, reputation, could have made a more alluring Hester. We understand perfectly why the Reverend Dimmesdale is so attracted to this hothouse flower slowly wilting in the Puritan cold. When Gish literally lets her beautiful hair down, Hanson's Dimmesdale steals a whiff of its alluring scent and it becomes a truly erotic moment. They are alone in the woods and Dimmesdale has not yet learned of Hester's devastating secret -- that she is very much married, if only on paper. Although their relationship is decidedly taboo, a glimmer of hope is still present. Filmed in warm sunlight, the scene is so different from Seastrom's otherwise stark Scandinavian compositions that it truly does remind the viewer of a beautiful dream that shall never come true. Prynne's unsuspected arrival in Puritan New England forever ruins every chance of happiness between the two, of course, and Tully Marshall's performance is as shaded as those of Gish and Hanson. Marshall, whose silent villains were often overly ripe, is given a believable reason for his actions this time around, both by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his original novel and by screenwriter Frances Marion. But despite fine performances and Seastrom's masterful depiction of Puritan New England, The Scarlet Letter disappointed at the box-office. The influential trade-paper Variety's opinion that "it is not a Special when ranked with productions like The Big Parade, Ben-Hur, Don Juan and others of that ilk" was obviously shared by many. But restored by the Library of Congress and with added footage not seen since the initial release, the film remains a true American masterpiece, in no small way due to Seastrom, Hanson and, especially, Lillian Gish. The latter's Hester Prynne has simply not been bettered by the later attempts of such a diverse group of actresses as Colleen Moore (1934), Meg Foster (1979), or Demi Moore (1995).