American Silent Film – European Influences
by William K. Everson
1978 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Victor Seastrom’s eight American films are a remarkable showcase of Swedish temperament and extroverted puritanism. The best of them are so stark and austere that, if it weren’t for the presence of Lillian Gish, Garbo, and other Hollywood names, they could pass as Swedish imports. Many of them seem interrelated, particularly Name the Man (based on a Hall Caine novel of sin and perhaps excessive redemption) and the beautifully photographed and acted The Scarlet Letter (based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, which could be described in identical terms). Lars Hanson’s impressive but far too stylized acting (in The Scarlet Letter in particular, though also in The Wind, in both of which “grand manner” acting is in marked contrast to the subtle and graceful underplaying of Lillian Gish), further stresses the “non-American” quality of these films.
Nevertheless, on the whole, Seastrom’s American career can be considered a success. The Scarlet Letter ( 1926 ) was undoubtedly his masterpiece, an adaptation of the Hawthorne novel, in which the stark, puritanical fervor of the original novel was matched by the austere echoes of Scandinavian cinema. Even though the scenario somewhat muted and romanticized Hawthorne’s original, Lars Hanson’s extremely stylized playing and Hendrik Sartov’s superb camerawork, full of delicate pictorial symbolism, restored the balance. Lillian Gish’s mature and sensitive performance, in a role that was a far cry from the Victorian innocents that she had played for Griffith, was superb.
Gish, Hanson, and Seastrom were reunited by MGM for The Wind, a strange amalgamation of themes and elements from Greed, White Gold, and traditional westerns. A bizarre, shapeless affair, devoid of any real sense of period ( even Lillian Gish’s costuming seemed to exist in a vacuum ) , it was a monumental example of talent triumphing over scenario. Even changing the original tragic ending (in which the Gish character goes insane and wanders off into the desert) to a happy one (she kills the villain who has earlier raped her, buries his body in the desert, and is reunited with her previously estranged husband ) seemed not to affect the film, except perhaps for its commercial betterment. The plot, though based on a 1925 story, seemed too old-fashioned and erratic to be taken seriously, and the switch from tragedy to happiness hardly represented a box-office sellout. The atmospheric photography (John Arnold),
Seastrom’s beautifully underplayed direction (the killing scene was a brilliant essay in suggestion, the whole act of the body falling to the floor being conveyed by a shot of a dust-laden plate jarring, and resettling), and the superb control exercised by Lillian Gish over potentially flamboyant theatrics, all represented the silk purse of silent screen art at its peak, despite the sow’s ear on which it was squandered. Commercially, he was able to fall back on Hollywood stars (Gish, Chaney, Shearer, Gilbert, Garbo) to counteract his somewhat austere style. And in any case, while Swedish directorial styles (many of which derived from the German cinema) were not exactly emulated by other Hollywood directors, lesser imported directors like Sven Gade, and the use of Scandinavian-oriented material as vehicles for Swedish stars (Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil, from a Suderman story, starring Garbo, Gilbert, and Hanson, is a case in point), did tend to make the Swedish point of view, if not commonplace, then at least visible. Seastrom’s Hollywood career was certainly more successful than Stiller’s.