Welcome back to After the Silents, where we examine the careers of silent movie stars, directors and technicians after the coming of sound. I asked my backers on Patreon to vote on which film I would review and this was their choice. Yay, democratic trappings on my vile dictatorship!
Today, we will be learning about an adaptation of a great American novel, 1934 version starring Colleen Moore, one of the great silent flappers. First, we’ll discuss the film and then we will talk about Moore’s career and her evolution from an ingénue with long curls to the embodiment of flaming youth to her retirement from the screen.
The Scarlet Letter (1934)
A woman whose husband has been lost at sea for two years gives birth to a child and ignites a scandal in colonial Massachusetts. Hester Prynne (Colleen Moore) further enrages the populace by refusing to name her lover. As her punishment and as a warning to others who might follow her example, she is obliged to wear a scarlet A on her chest. (Or, curiously, her midriff in this version.) Hester’s lover, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Hardie Albright) watches her punishment but does not have the courage to confess his part in the affair.
Meanwhile, Hester’s husband (Henry B. Walthall) has finally turned up and becomes obsessed with discovering the father of her child. He takes the name of Roger Chillingworth and contrives to room with Dimmesdale in order to investigate further.
Years pass and Hester continues to keep her silence as her daughter, Pearl (Cora Sue Collins), grows and starts to realize that hers is not a normal life. Meanwhile, Chillingworth has discovered that Dimmesdale was Hester’s lover and sets about destroying him psychologically, which proves to be rather easy as the minister is a sensitive, neurotic creature teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
And in a final touch that Nathaniel Hawthorne would surely have included if only he had thought of it, Alan Hale and William Kent play wacky puritan bros who spend the film quipping and playing practical jokes on one another. The seventy minute film has no time to spend examining the softening of the townspeople toward Hester but it sure as heck has time for wacky hijinks with a wagon wheel! Whoop, whoop whoop.
I am that rarest of creatures: someone who enjoys Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, bane of many a teenage English lit student. (Though, admittedly, much does depend on the quality of one’s English teacher.) Perhaps it helped that I took up the novel on my own and did not have to create book reports or take quizzes regarding its contents. What can I say? It appeals to my dark impulses. I kind of love it.
Such an introspective work is always going to be a challenge to adapt but that didn’t stop Hollywood from giving it the old try. The challenge was even greater in the silent and classic film eras as prudish church groups bristled at The Scarlet Letter’s pointed criticism. (If the shoe fits…)
You may recall that MGM, Victor Seastrom and Lillian Gish had to walk quite a narrow tightrope to get their adaptation of The Scarlet Letter released in 1926 and things had only grown more puritanical in the intervening eight years. The 1934 version of the story also had the misfortune of being released just two months after the Hays hammer fell and the Code began to be strictly enforced.
This change in movie mores is obvious from the very start. While the 1926 film opened with a title card condemning the stern, unforgiving nature of the puritans, this version of the tale has the audacity to open with a title card assuring us that the sadistic punishments meted out on the populace were necessary. However, this nonsense is undermined by a shot of man being placed in stocks for laughing on the Sabbath. Yeah, necessary punishment there.
The shadow of the 1926 production casts itself across the 1934 production and the latter film makes matters worse for itself by casting Henry B. Walthall as Chillingworth, the same role he had played in ’26. (Remember, never draw attention to a better, more famous version of the same story!) Unfortunately, it has neither the freedom of the pre-Code days nor the lavish budget of the MGM production and these two challenges can be viewed with sympathy. However, the 1934 version also manages to shoot itself in the foot and unforced errors are always the most painful.
While it is based on a famously dense and deep novel, this version of The Scarlet Letter is a stupid as a box of rocks. When Chillingworth first arrives in town, he is greeted by an innkeeper (silent sex symbol Betty Blythe) and tells her that he has been shipwrecked for two years. The innkeeper breathlessly tells him about impending punishment of Hester Prynne, stating that her husband has been missing for two years. What a coincidence! Chillingworth responds that he is “her husband… s friend.” Oh lordy.
And as Hester is getting her A, Dimmesdale is practically spelling out in semaphore that he is her lover but no one notices. The dialogue is pretty close to the original novel but the scene is wildly overplayed. Subtle this ain’t. (Director Robert G. Vignola, silent veteran and Marion Davies favorite, only made two films after this and it’s easy to see why.)
The biggest groaner in the picture occurs when Dimmesdale begins to tutor Pearl and he asks her if she knows her alphabet. She chirps that she knows the letter A and Dimmesdale actually asks her how she learned it. Oh dear.
But the worst? The absolute worst? The comedy relief that was invented especially for the film. Because Nathaniel Hawthorne made a huge mistake when he neglected to add wacky puritan dudes playing practical jokes on one another. And what about the goofy romance? A story of adultery, guilt, shame and hypocrisy just screams for a wacky romance among the B cast.
The 1934 film suffers from simultaneously being too faithful and too loose an adaptation. We are given inappropriate comedy relief and the books dark tone is muffled but the cast is also obliged to speak Hawthorne’s stiff, old-fashioned dialogue. As long as they were playing fast and loose, screenwriters Leonard Fields and David Silverstein may as well have modernized the language a bit. All of the performers seem quite awkward and unable to deal with the colonial verbiage they are forced to spout.
The film is further done in by its Dimmesdale. Hardie Albright is simply in over his head and his weak performance drags everyone else down as well. See, everyone obsesses about who should play Hester but Dimmesdale is the real issue. He’s a complicated character and he needs to be played by someone who can pull off the sensitivity, neuroses and bursts of emotion, not to mention occasional bouts of self-flagellation. He’s a hypocrite, a weakling, a coward who cannot quite pull himself together in order to confess and relieve his own guilt. In short, the guy has issues.
Lars Hanson was marvelous (if romanticized) in the role but Albright seems to think he’s playing a straightforward romantic lead and behaves accordingly. The self-mutilation is toned down to respectable levels (boo!) and we are not given the scene in which Dimmesdale refuses to take Pearl’s hand publicly and she calls him out. Meanwhile, Henry B. Walthall has finished consuming the scenery and is gnawing on his own leg.
Pearl is similarly sanitized in the 1934 film. She is presented, not as the wild problem child of the novel, but as a generic cute 1930s tot. I am grateful that she was not directed to stick her lips out and simper the way too many talkie children did but she’s not terribly interesting. Certainly not the elf child of the book. Moore plays well against Cora Sue Collins but their relationship is a little too sunny. (At one point in the novel, Hester contemplates killing the child and herself. Dark, dark stuff.)
But now we must discuss the main attraction: Colleen Moore. In the first scenes, she is stiff and awkward but she quickly adapts to the highfalutin Hawthorne dialogue. I have to say, she is considerably looser and more relaxed when delivering the more modern dialogue invented for the film. Moore has great chemistry with Collins and the two are cute together, though this rather undermines the dreariness of the text.
All in all, the film is undone by bad screenwriting and the wave of puritanism that was sweeping Hollywood. The screenwriter clearly read the book for all the good it did them but the Code made a proper version of the tale all but impossible. How can you film a book that involves an enormous amount of religious hypocrisy when criticizing the clergy is off limits? How can you show Hester’s reclamation of her scarlet letter and present her as a strong woman when the censors are the very sort of people who would be sewing the letter to her bosom? Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the film manages to miss the point of its source material. Oh, those wacky puritans and their goofy corporal punishment!
Of course, this is nothing compared to the 1995 version, which infamously contains a happy ending. Roger Ebert did a nice little takedown back in the day and it’s well worth reading. Highlights:
The film version imagines all of the events leading up to the adultery, photographed in the style of those “Playboy’s Fantasies” videos.
Director Roland Joffe says “the book is set in a time when the seeds were sown for the bigotry, sexism and lack of tolerance we still battle today . . . yet it is often looked at merely as a tale of 19th century moralizing, a treatise against adultery.” Actually, it is more often looked upon as a tale of 17th century moralizing and a treatise against hypocrisy. But never mind. Joffe adds, “Of course, it is also a marvelous romance.” Not so marvelous, really.
(Methinks our intrepid director did not actually read the book. And I wonder if he realized that The Scarlet Letter is described as a “romance” on its frontispiece but that just meant “novel” back in the day. Given his creative decisions, nothing would surprise me. Star Demi Moore complained that the book was “dense and not very cinematic” and the sad ending was, like, a bummer, which leads one to wonder why she bothered with a movie adaptation at all.)
The 1934 version is an awkward mess but not exactly a catastrophe. While it only runs about seventy minutes, the movie drags like heck thanks to the idiotic characters and painful comedy relief. However, Colleen Moore has some good moments and the film has a family reunion feel thanks to the numerous silent veterans in the cast. It’s not very good but it’s not embarrassing. That being said, this is one you can safely skip if you are not a Colleen Moore completist.
Colleen Moore’s career can be divided into three sections: long hair, bobbed and talkie. It’s amazing the difference a haircut can make.
In her entertaining memoirs, Silent Star, Moore writes about the start of her career as a “bribe” from D.W. Griffith in exchange for her uncle helping him with the Chicago censor board. She bounced around the majors for a while and seemed about to make a breakthrough as “the Riley girl” in a series of films Selig was making based on the twee works of James Whitcomb Riley. Alas, Selig was going under and from what I can tell by watching Little Orphant Annie, the series was doomed to drown in its own treacle anyway.
(By the way, you really must read Silent Star if you love silent films. The best part is Moore’s humorous description of a day’s work in Hollywood. She shares in-jokes, upstaging tricks and other goodies. It’s delightful.)
Moore was nothing if not tenacious and she soon found roles opposite Charles Ray (and John Gilbert in The Busher) and Tom Mix. She particularly enjoyed her work with Mix. Her career was doing just fine and if it had ended there, she would have been remembered as a charming leading lady. Then Colleen cut her hair. (Adela Rogers St. Johns takes credit for it but then she would, wouldn’t she?)
Moore’s slim frame and sleek bob were perfect for the flapper aesthetic and her bubbly screen presence soon made her one of the most popular youthful leads. I am sometimes asked to choose between Moore and Clara Bow but I find this ridiculous—why choose? Both women were so very different. Bow was a wild child with a heart as big as all outdoors. Moore’s persona was a little more innocent and a little more sensitive but she could still Charleston with the best of ‘em! I am personally rather partial to Ella Cinders, Moore’s twenties take on Cinderella.
We must sympathize with poor Colleen: her two signature films are missing and presumed lost. The flapper film Flaming Youth is gone except for a few fragments and Moore’s “See, I can act!” film, So Big, is also gone. We can take comfort in the fact that Dinty, one of her personal favorites, survives in the Amsterdam Filmmuseum.
So, what the heck happened with sound? Frankly, when you read her memoirs, you can feel her weariness at the movie industry. Her first marriage was crumbling and she had a brief second marriage during her hiatus from motion pictures. In any case, she made four talkies in all, the last of which was The Scarlet Letter. She fails to mention the film in her memoirs but she was quite proud of The Power and the Glory, which she made opposite Spencer Tracy.
In Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star, Jeff Codori writes that Moore made The Scarlet Letter strictly for the paycheck and a chance to work with some of her old friends. (You can spot Betty Blythe, William Farnum, Walthall, Hale and others.) She was completely preoccupied with her epic dollhouse and was about to take it on tour. As a fan of miniatures myself, I can certainly understand her eagerness.
The movies went on without Colleen Moore but she did just fine without the movies. Oh, and her voice? Exactly what you might expect: pleasant and a bit girlish.
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