Victor Seastrom’s direction is that of a master, and the Scandinavian’s sympathy with the traditions of our rock-bound New England is strongly manifested in every scene. 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.
Lillian Gish’s performance in “The Scarlet Letter” recaptures all the praise ever bestowed on her, and by the same token should erase all memory of the shortcomings charged against her. For her Hester Prynne is shimmering perfection, and is completely her own. The scenario of “The Scarlet Letter” is not wholly, however, the story of Hawthorne’s novel, though the liberties taken with it could scarcely offend the most captious. As you see this beautiful picture on the screen it occurs to you that there was no need to have followed the letter of the book at all. What has come from it is fine and true.
Henry B. Walthall as Roger Prynne, Hester’s sinister husband, plays with repressed power, and Karl Dane and William H. Tooker offer lifelike characterizations.
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 … 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
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)