If Lillian Gish's films with D.W. Griffith were known for the melodrama, epic scale, and a penchant for depicting Gish's saintly qualities, her films with Victor Sjostrom seemed to tip the scales in favor of naturalism, and darker elements, allowing Gish to play characters who were not so perfect. They were women who were flawed and conflicted, allowing Gish's range to extend beyond the strict formality of Griffith's films like Orphans of the Storm (1921) or Way Down East (1920). Last month, TCM aired a full day of Gish's work and I recorded nearly everything I could. There were two films that aired that day that are not available on DVD and in the case of The Scarlet Letter, has never been available either on DVD or VHS to my knowledge. It was the single film in Gish's career that I've been itching to see and have never seen before.
The Scarlet Letter has of course been filmed on numerous occasions throughout cinema's history and is based on Hawthorne's classic novel. Hester Prynne (Gish) is a seamstress living alone in Puritan Boston. She catches the eye of the local minister and begins a courtship with him. She reveals to him after some time that she is already married and has been for 7 years, but has not been able to track down her husband in that time. The minister leaves for England on a trip for several months, but comes back to find Hester has had a child (with him) and is being publicly scolded and shamed to wear an "A" on her dress from then on. She refuses to let him share in the shame of it and wants him to keep his fatherhood a secret. Their lives go on in a state of suffering for years until Hester's husband finally shows up and throws everything out of balance. The minister reveals his sin at the end to the town and joins her in the public shame that he has longed to have for years. I'm not really concerned with how this film adheres or doesn't to Hawthorne's source material, nor how it compares to other screen adaptations of the story. I'm concerned with mainly how Sjostrom turns this into a marvelous vehicle for Gish.
Sjostrom's naturalist approach allows the film to feel less formal and provides Gish with a character that, although destined by literature, feels somewhat freer than her characters created by Griffith. He achieves some of this by choosing to film some sequences outside in nature and also by employing a playful angle. I particularly enjoy the sequences where Hester is washing her underwear and the minister happens upon her. She tries to hide her underclothes, throwing them into the bushes and rushes off to catch up with him after he has walked away. There is a magnificent little tracking shot following them along the road as they walk and talk together. It's a breezy and lovely scene, playful and fun. Sjostrom allows Gish to let her hair down (literally) in a couple scenes and there's one in particular that provides some wonderful irony after Hester has taken off her bonnet and thrown down her "A" on the ground. She is reminded of her state when her daughter picks up these things and brings them back to her. Some examples of Gish's freedom as an actress here can be found inherent to Hester Prynne. Gish is required to play a character that is morally conflicted and flawed. This allows so much more nuance for Gish to play with compared to much of her work with Griffith. I enjoyed watching her in a role where she is not so much put-upon (Broken Blossoms (1919) etc.), but rather brings on her own undoing through her own choices. This requires Gish to work with a greater range of characterization.
Sjostrom's greatest achievement in this film is, as I mentioned, allowing Gish room to breathe. I tend to think that with certain actors, there is a sort of "auteurist" angle to those that have such deep, ingrained talent and screen presence as someone like Gish. Especially from this era of the star vehicle, Lillian Gish tends to make a film come across a certain way. No matter what the director, there is a certain quality to her films. What Sjostrom allowed to come across in particular is the massive amounts of subtlety that Gish was capable of. Sjostrom, even more so than Griffith, was content to let the camera rest on Gish's face and let the film roll. She has such small changes in facial features, if the camera were to cut away we would miss so many nuances. I think her work here, although not as big and iconic as her work in say, Orphans of the Storm, Way Down East, or later in Sjostrom's The Wind (1928), is as good or better than anything else she ever did. Yes the film's story is well known, but Gish makes Hester her own. She makes her flawed, conflicted, impassioned, tragic. It's a magnificent star vehicle kind of film with fine, assured direction from Sjostrom. I just wish it was more available for people to see.