The Scarlet Letter (1926)

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

Release Date: 8 January 1927 (USA)

Director: Victor Sjöström

Writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne (novel) Frances Marion (adaptation)

Lillian Gish learned that her mother had had a stroke in London and her sister, Dorothy Gish, urged her to get there on the first available boat. When Lillian informed director Victor Sjöström of the need to finish the film quickly, he created a shooting schedule that crammed two weeks worth of shooting into three days of non-stop work. The crew worked without complaint so that she could finish the film early and catch the earliest possible train to New York. Lillian Gish’s puritan costume from this film was at one point housed in The Crocker Museum in Hollywood, the first museum dedicated to props and other artifacts from American films. The museum was started by actor Harry Crocker, circa 1928, and was located on Sunset Blvd.


  • Lillian Gish … Hester Prynne
  • Lars Hanson … The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
  • Henry B. Walthall … Roger Prynne
  • 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 … A Sea Captain
Lillian Gish - Hester Prynne - There's No Escape from Ye sins
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne – There’s No Escape from Ye sins

“Work on ‘The Scarlet Letter’ went off smoothly until we were within two weeks of the end. Then, one day in April, I got a paralyzing cable from Dorothy in London. Dorothy had been over for a brief visit during the Winter, and Mother had presently followed back her to London. Sha had not wanted to go-not really. She had not been well for years. Commuting back and forth across six thousand miles, trying to be with both of us, had been too much for her. That last time she would not let me go to the train with her. Dorothy’s cable said that she was dying.

I cabled and got the latest news of her; she had had a stroke. I said I would take the first ship I could get from New York.

I found that by leaving Los Angeles in three days, I could catch the Majestic out of New York, which would put me in London the last day of April. It was the I5th that she had been struck down.

Hester Prynne - My Wedding Ring - The Scarlet Letter

At the studio, Seastrom said that by working day and night we could do the remaining two weeks of the picture in the three days I had left. I asked the company it they would stay with me through it, and every one said yes. They were all so fine.” – Lillian Gish  (Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine, 1932)

“Lillian Gish parted company with Griffith in 1921. After she had done independent work with a number of directors, Louis B. Mayer in 1925 offered Gish a lucrative and unusual contract that gave her the rights of script selection as well as director and cast recommendations for the films in which she would appear. Under these arrangements Gish helped give MGM two of its last great silent masterpieces: The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson SFr Standing W

Renowned for her fragile, vulnerable screen personae and for transparency in conveying human suffering, Gish saw in The Scarlet Letter’s heroine, Hester Prynne, a character ideally suited to her acting acumen. Playing a woman branded for adultery in a puritanical society, Gish superbly conveyed a victimized but stoic sufferer.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

She had recommended and won for the project the acclaimed Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (or “Seastrom” as he called himself while under contract at MGM in the 1920s). It was a good choice. Seastrom’s talent for creating an environmental mise en scene that underscored character emotion and psychology was evident in his pastoral rendering of a 17th-century New England landscape. Together Gish and Seastrom turned The Scarlet Letter into a critical and popular triumph for MGM.”

Source: article by Frank Beaver – film historian and critic and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Film, Television, and Media at U-M.

Mono Print

Directed by Victor Sjöström • 1926

A project instigated by Lillian Gish when the actress’s stature and clout exceeded that of her collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, The Scarlet Letter is that rarest of things: a movie adapted from a great work of American literature that doesn’t embarrass the source material. Indeed, this tale of adultery, hypocrisy, and mutilation purportedly reached the screen only because Gish’s wholesome bona fides, not Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary reputation, assuaged church group skepticism. Gish stars as Hester Prynne, the Puritan woman whose affair with pastor Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson) brings an out-of-wedlock birth and the injunction that the adulterous wife be forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ affixed to her dress.

Hester Prynne and Rev.Dimmesdale - The Scarlet Letter - 1926 (Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson)
Hester Prynne and Rev.Dimmesdale – The Scarlet Letter – 1926 (Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson)

The director, Victor Sjöström, had made his reputation with Swedish classics such as Ingeborg Holm and Terje Vigen, and that seems to have been the main thing that recommended him for this quintessentially American story. (In the US, his name was Anglicized to Seastrom.) “The Swedish people are closer to what our Pilgrims were, or what we consider them to have been, than our present day Americans,” mused Gish, who would work with Sjöström and Hanson again on The Wind. Beautifully photographed by Hendrik Sartov, who had spent much of the decade as D.W. Griffith’s cameraman, The Scarlet Letter was a critical success that played for five months in New York but found little traction in the still-Puritan American Heartland.
100 min • M-G-M • 35mm

Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter - Lillian Gish - Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 (Hester Prynne) — with Lillian Gish.

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