FLASHBACK – A Brief History of Film – “The Scarlet Letter” Louis Giannetti/Scott Eyman 1986

  • FLASHBACK – A Brief History of Film – “The Scarlet Letter”
  • LOUIS GIANNETTI (Case Western Reserve University)
  • SCOTT EYMAN
  • © 1996, 1991, 1986 by Prentice-Hall. Inc. Simon & Schuster / A Viacom Company Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632

If the standard truism about america being a nation of immigrants is even close to the truth, it was never more so than in the years before World War I. In Europe, royalty was living out the last moments of what social historian Frederic Morton called “A Nervous Splendor.” In America, the upper and middle classes alike were enjoying what Mark Twain had rightly called “The Gilded Age.” Under a succession of presidents frankly power brokered by kingmakers like Marcus Hanna, American industry and its gospel of the dollar began to spread across the world, even as the country fell into an aesthetic trough. The theater was moribund, subsisting on threadbare melodramas as vacuous as they were popular, marking time until Eugene O’Neill’s poetically morbid meditations on human frailty made later writers like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee possible.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter 1972

The Scarlet Letter (VS.A., 1926), with Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall, directed by Victor Seastrom. By the time she made “The Scarlet Letter” time and tide were both running against Lillian Gish, for it was the era of the flapper, of the carefree Clara Bow. At Gish’s own studio, the exotic Greta Garbo was the new sensation. At the age of thirty-two, Lillian Gish was about to be fobbed off as a prissy antique, in spite of the tact that she was doing some of her finest work. Gish insisted on the Swedish emigre Seastrom as director because she believed his Scandinavian temperament was aptly suited to Hawthorne’s powerful morality tale of Puritan repression. Gish proved to be as astute a production executive as she was an actress. (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) ***

A genius of innuendo, a crafty careerist, Lubitsch immediately assumed the role he instinctively felt Americans expected of a European, the naughty sophisticate. In a series of social comedies for Warner Brothers, most of which took their blase attitude from C’haplin’s A Woman of Paris, Lubitsch satirized sex, fidelity, and bad faith in intimate relations. Mostly, Lubitsch appreciated elegant manners.

The Swedish cinema was very nearly decimated by the departure of art director Sven Gade, directors Victor Seastrom (1879-1960) and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928), and leading man Lars Hanson (1887-1965). When Stiller set sail for America, he was accompanied by his protegee and leading lady, a tall, somewhat horsy young actress who photographed like a goddess from Olympus—Greta Garbo, nee Gustafson. Stiller’s protegee did better than he did. Driven, high-strung, he was fired by MGM after ten days’ shooting on his first picture. He went over to Paramount and made the intense Hotel Imperial (1927) with Pola Negri. Stiller made one more film in the town that he felt had betrayed him. Then, a sick, defeated man, he went back to Sweden to die.

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

Of the Swedish enclave, it was Seastrom who seemed to acclimate himself most comfortably, successfully directing stars as varied as Lon Chaney, Garbo, and Lillian Gish. Seastrom’s films were notable for their unrelenting psychological intensity and painstaking character development that never became mere clinical observation (3—12). This avuncular, well-liked man appears to have been one of those lucky people who could achieve success at whatever they turned their hand to. Shortly before his death, Seastrom starred in Wild Strawberries (1957) for his friend and idolater Ingmar Bergman. The undemonstrative but palpable humanity that Seastrom achieved in his directing was revealed to be a function of his own personality, as he provided the vital spark for one of the normally dour Bergman’s warmest works.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman John Arnold and Lillian – backstage The Wind

*** Admin Note: By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did  best. Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies. “No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.” (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown)

Mr. Goldfish /Goldwyn forgot his birth, “his” MGM built on “Birth of a Nation”. Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:

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