The Scarlet Letter (1934)

Director: Robert G. Vignola

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This is an entry in The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon hosted by Shadowplay.

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Staying true to its title, Silent Star: Colleen Moore Talks about Her Hollywood discusses, in passing, only one of Moore’s sound pictures, 1933’s The Power and the Glory. In the first-person narrative, Moore says, “… I thought it was the best film I ever made, and the critics agreed with me. But the part I played in it was a heavy dramatic one in which I went from a young girl to a woman of sixty. The public didn’t care for me in that kind of part. They wanted me to go on being a wide-eyed, innocent little girl. I was too old for that—and too tired of it in any case. So I bowed out.”

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Well, not exactly. Miss Moore, my favorite actress of the silent era, neglected to mention the three films she made in 1934 after The Power and the Glory: Social Register for Columbia, a return to her flapper persona helmed by Marshall Neilan, the director of her 1927 triumph, Her Wild Oat; Success at Any Price, directed by J. Walter Ruben during his three-year stint with RKO; and her final film, The Scarlet Letter, made by Majestic Pictures. Larry Darmour, a shrewd producer who released such crowd-pleasing series as The Whistler, Ellery Queen, and Crime Doctor under the Larry Darmour Productions moniker during the early 1930s, created Majestic as a prestige division of LDP. Majestic products were often indistinguishable from the formula westerns and crime films of its sister studio, leading one to assume that this adaptation of a classic American novel was an attempt to live up to its loftier ambitions.

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The Scarlet Letter arrived at the start of serious enforcement of the Production Code, which may explain why its introductory title card assures us that the harsh punishments the Puritans imposed for moral lapses were necessary for the survival of the fledgling colonies of the rugged New World—certainly a call from the wild of pre-Code Hollywood to its fickle, sex-and-gun-happy audiences to stay the course. The sight of the town gossip being punished with a tongue splint, to the relief of her henpecked husband, we’re told, lightens the mood considerably.

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However, the denunciation of the adulterous Hester Prynne (Moore), paraded before the town with baby Pearl in her arms as evidence of her sin of having sex following the presumed drowning of her husband at sea, brings the gravitas of the story to center stage. Moore, slim, pretty, and noble in her refusal to name her partner in moral crime instantly earns our sympathy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the town’s minister and her illicit lover, the presumed saintly Arthur Dimmesdale, is played by the preternaturally handsome Hardie Albright, or that her husband (Henry B. Walthall), delivered just in time for the spectacle by the heathen who saved his life, is old and desperately in need of a shave and a haircut.

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Despite the very unfortunate insertion of several comic characters and situations played with tepid enthusiasm by Alan Hale, Virginia Howell, and William Kent, this version of the familiar story is much better than one might expect. Although a sound picture, the film is executed with a strong flavor of silent film technique. Characters clutch their bosom when heartsick, the romantic blocking for Albright and Moore in their first scene alone together is all cheated-forward hugs and upright declamation, and Walthall looks slyly around him when he changes his signature from “Pr” to “Ch” in assuming a new identity as Roger Chillingworth. The strong visuals work well in delineating the life of the town, for example, a row of women rubbing their dirty clothes on long washboards by the river’s edge and some of the children pelting Pearl with mud in quite a savage scene. Details such as tepee-like assemblages of rifles standing in the center aisle of the church as Dimmesdale delivers his sermon and Roger speaking to a Native American in his own language are worthy of a prestige picture.

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Moore delivers a generally strong performance within some of the creaky conventions of a movie that wanted to be both accurate and audience-friendly. She is dignified and convincing in her faith in both God and Dimmesdale, though not nearly as scared as Chillingworth correctly perceives she should be. She matches Dimmesdale for saintliness of deed and demeanor and is nearly rehabilitated in the opinion of the town. At the climax, when Arthur reveals the “A” he has burned into his chest to mirror her cloth one and falls dying at her feet, little Pearl (Cora Sue Collins) sheds the tears that never come to Moore’s eyes, nearly upstaging them both. This scene may reflect Moore’s own lack of enthusiasm for yet another part that she could have shaded with the moods of an outcast living precariously amid an intolerant populace, but that made her into just another wide-eyed innocent. It was time to step away.

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Moore married her fourth and final husband, Homer Hargrave, and took up residence in Chicago, where the Museum of Science and Industry displays her beloved fairy castle to this day along with clips from her movies, including The Scarlet Letter. As a career capper, Moore needn’t have omitted this decent work from her recollections, but she must have preferred to remember her good notices in The Power and the Glory to living in the shadow of Lillian Gish’s indelible portrayal of Hester Prynne in the 1926 The Scarlet Letter. Moore says, “I wasn’t a girl any longer. And I had learned a number of things along the way which were more important to me in the long run than how to make successful movies. Back in Chicago, I had the husband and the home I had prayed for. I had two children who needed me. I had experienced there the satisfaction which comes from helping to make a community a better place in which to live. I had become at last a ‘private’ person.”

  • D Cairns spoke:
    1st/12/2013 to 5:11 pm

    Thanks for this! I only realized Moore HAD a talkie career recently. I must see this to compare with the Sjostrom-Gish version.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/12/2013 to 5:25 pm

    Hi, David. Yes, she did have a talkie career, but at least with this film, she didn’t break the mold of her silent stardom. This has nothing on the Gish version, but it is definitely worth seeing and has an attention to detail that would belie its Poverty Row origins.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    1st/12/2013 to 6:32 pm

    I wish she’d had a longer silent career, she was a very good actress. I haven’t seen this one ages, since my college daze, so I’ll look it up again, altho my recollection was Moore was the only interesting aspect.

  • Pat spoke:
    1st/12/2013 to 6:48 pm

    Coincidentally, I just watched the silent Victor Sjostrom-directed version yesterday, with Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson. As I read your review of the 1934 sound version, I felt like I was reading a summary of the film I just saw. I guess that tells me that both films were probably pretty faithful to the source material ( I never made it through Hawthorne’s novel myself, though I did try.) Have you’ve seen the Gish/Sjostrom version, and if so, how would you say they compare?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/12/2013 to 7:44 pm

    Van – She made a goodly number of films (63 acting credits), but so many are lost that it seems as though she hardly did anything. I think if she’d had the training and the desire, she could have had a long career in talkies.

    Pat – It has been a long time since I saw the Gish version, but it is the better of the two. This one is marred by comic relief. I think the actors are a bit better in the silent version, and Sjostrom directs them with more shading, not so black and white.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    2nd/12/2013 to 10:09 pm

    I just realized I wrote silent, when I shoulda wrote sound. Oopsie.

  • mark fuller spoke:
    8th/12/2013 to 4:02 am

    Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see this film one day; but just to say how much I agree that she had the potential to have a superb career in talkies; her performance in The Power and The Glory is astonishing, and somehow even overshadows a very decent Spencer Tracy effort. Utterly convincing from schoolgirl to bitter pensioner, it blew me away; you can understand her decision to prioritise her family and home life, she had been on screen for over a decade, but it was our loss.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/12/2013 to 9:00 am

    Hi Mark. Tastes change and the lot of the middle-aged actress, even in the 1930s, was not a happy one. I think she was enormously talented, and agree that it was our loss, not hers.

  • Le spoke:
    9th/12/2013 to 2:28 pm

    I’ve read The Scarlett Letter recently and now I want to watch all the versions! Too bad this one inserts comic characters to such a dense, sad story. As for The Power and the Glory, this is another film I want to see, sounds so interesting!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

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