The Scarlet Letter - an Old American Classic
The Scarlet Letter
1 hr 9 min Drama/Romance 1934 5.3 stars
Director: Robert Vignola
Cast: Colleen Moore - Hester Prynne
Hardie Albright - Arthur Dimmesdale
Henry B. Walthall - Roger Chillingworth
Cora Sue Collins - Pearl
Alan Hale - Bartholomew Hockings
Virginia Howell - Abigail Crackstone
William Kent - Sampson Goodfellow
Lobby Card for the Movie
A Summary of the Plot
This movie adaptation of Hawthorne’s great American classic is better the second time you see it. I’ve never read the book so I’m commenting on just the movie and the story it portrays. Having seen the movie I would like to read the book and since I have an interest in both history and theology there is plenty in here which commends itself to me.
The movie was made in 1934 but it depicts a time in the 1640s. It’s 1934 history showing 1640s history. It stars Colleen Moore as Hester Prynne. This was her last movie. Her daughter in the movie, Pearl, was played by Cora Sue Collins. The lead male roles are played by Hardie Albright as Arthur Dimmesdale and Henry Walhall as Roger Chillingworth.
The story takes place in Puritan Massachusetts and opens with a sentencing scene. A young woman with a newborn baby stands before the whole town while a sentence is given – the charge is adultery. This young woman, Hester Prynne, has been widowed for two years. The town council is really trying to determine who the father is, but Hester is keeping the father’s identity a secret. Why? Because the father is the town minister, the Reverend Dimmesdale. He is well beloved by the townsfolk who really look up to him for spiritual guidance. If that isn’t enough of a plot a stranger comes into town right during the sentencing. He identifies himself as Roger Chillingworth, but he keeps his true identity a secret from everyone in town except Hester. He is none other than Hester’s husband, Roger Prynne. Hester was not a widow after all. Her husband had been lost at sea and presumed dead, but he had survived somehow, had come ashore and was living with Indians during the intervening years. He is a doctor and decides to stay in town as the local physician. He also wants to know who the father of the baby is, but Hester will not say. He declares that he will study the townsfolk and draw the man’s identity out. He takes a room coincidently next door to Reverend Dimmesdale and they become friends. Reverend Dimmesdale appears to me as a weak man. He wants it to be known by the congregation that he is the child’s father but he does not have the strength to make that confession for to do so would subject him to punishment and he would be defrocked. Worst of all, he fears, is that this town would suffer irreparably with the falling of their spiritual leader. He truly cares for them more than for his position. As a result he is an internally tortured man whose inner turmoil comes out in several expressive confessive scenes. He laments over his sin and plays the “chiefest of sinners” role before his congregation constantly. In his one sermon depicted in the movie he cries out the words of Psalm 51.
After a period of several years we see the baby, young Pearl, grow from an infant to a child of about 4 years. Her mother, Hester, is shunned in the community and Pearl is mocked terribly by the other children. As time goes on however Hester nurses a sick older woman in the town till she is restored to health. She bears no grudge against this woman who has shunned her, but instead demonstrates the love of Christ towards this, her enemy. The older woman, Mrs. Allerton, realizes this and she asks Hester’s forgiveness. Hester grows saintly but Reverend Dimmesdale continues to writhe in guilt. His anguish leads to physical manifestations and he often clutches his heart or stomach. Roger notices this and eventually concludes that the Reverend is the father, and he adds to the Reverend’s torture by what he says and does.
The Reverend Dimmesdale is the father of Pearl, and he adds to the his torture by what he says and does. He embodies the man who cannot confess his sin and trust God to work out the details. His guilt eats him alive and is his undoing. His name, Dimmesdale is suggestive of his being a fading, dimming light.
Hester embodies the forgiven sinner, “for all have sinned” Romans 3:23, and she is on the road to redemption in the eyes of the community.
Roger Chillingworth is the embodiment of jealousy and vengeance. As a Puritan one would expect the capacity to forgive but he has no spirit within him for such a virtue. He has been wronged, yes, but he freely admits in an earlier scene with Hester that he understands that he had been presumed dead and that the age difference between him and Hester had always been unfair to her (he being considerably older). Roger lives for vengeance upon the father. His name, Chillingworth is suggestive of his chilling ways in which he psychologically tortures his friend, the Reverend.
Pearl is the innocent victim of a town which shuns her and circumstances that she has no way of understanding. But by the godly example of her mother and the Biblical education given to her by the Reverend, who she does not know is her father, she grows up right. Her name is suggestive of the beauty of a pearl which is produced by an oyster that has been annoyed by a difficulty, a grain of sand.
Hester Prynne is a proper woman in a town which exacts a lasting punishment. Her name is suggestive of “prim” which means straight-laced or puritanical.
Each character’s character determines how they fare in the end.
There is also comic relief added in the characters of Bartholomew, played by Alan Hale, Sampson, played by William Kent and Abigail Crackstone, played by Virginia Howell.
Diminutive Sampson enlists virile Bartholomew’s help to win his love, Abigail’s heart. But Abigail is interested in Bartholomew who has no interest in her. Sampson and Bartholomew are completely separate from the central focus of the story, but they do give the audience a comical glimpse of the culture of the times. It is very different from ours today and their story line is helpful in getting our thoughts into that time.
Abigail Crackstone does come into the central story as she is one of the main shunners and she rents the rooms to both Reverend Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth.
The movie is old and the quality of the footage is much less than what we expect today. But the story is intriguing and the acting is pretty good, although Albright’s acting is a bit overblown and he clutches his heart well below where his heart is – it causes me to wonder if he’s clutching his heart or his stomach.