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Colleen Moore and The Scarlet Letter

by Susan King

Colleen Moore’s career during the silent era was golden. In fact, she was more than an actress. She was a cultural cyclone. Moore personified the Roaring ‘20s flapper with her short skirts and Dutch bob hairstyle. She starred in some 100 films — half are considered lost — during her 17-year career. Moore, who had one brown eye and one blue eye, made $1 million per year during the height of her popularity as the star of such films as 1923’s “Flaming Youth,” 1924’s “The Perfect Flapper,” 1927’s “Naughty but Nice” and 1928’s “Lilac Time.” Her biggest flapper rival was Paramount’s Clara Bow. But they were 180 degrees different. Bow was the wild child of the era while Moore was the wide-eyed innocent who may lose her way, but would return to her good-girl approach to life.

In 1929, Moore segued successfully into talkies before taking four years off to spend time with her second husband. After the marriage dissolved, Moore would return to films. But this time around, the films were not hits; though the Preston Sturges-penned 1933 drama “The Power and the Glory” with Spencer Tracy earned strong reviews and is even considered an influence on Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.”

Her final film was "The Scarlet Letter,” an independent 1934 production of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 morality novel set in Puritan Boston in the late 17th century. Though the film tanked at the box office, the film gives Moore the opportunity to showcase her dramatic chops as Hester Prynne, a young woman who has given birth to a child out-of-wedlock and refuses to name the father. Because she won’t reveal the baby's daddy, the townspeople force her to wear a large letter A for "adulteress" on her dress.

Her husband, Roger Chillingworth (Henry B. Walthall) arrives in the town and becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the baby Pearl’s father. Soon realizing the father is the beloved young minister Arthur Dimmesdale (Hardie Albright), Chillingworth sets out to torture the man of the cloth.

“Scarlet Letter” was in the public domain and for years only available in faded, well-worn prints. But UCLA Film and Television Archive has restored the 70-minute production from the original camera negative; on Nov. 21, Film Masters is releasing the DVD and Blu-Ray of the restored “The Scarlet Letter” in a new 4K scan with tons of extras.

And on Sept. 1, the 59th Cinecon Classic Film Festival, which took place this year in El Segundo, California, screened the restored “The Scarlet Letter” and welcomed 96-year-old Cora Sue Collins, who played Hester’s daughter Pearl in the 1934 adaptation. She took part in a short Q&A before the film was shown.

Scarlett Letters Through the Ages

Cinema was in its infancy when several versions of “The Scarlet Letter” were produced, including 1908’s from the Kalem Company directed by Sidney Olcott. The greatest version was made by MGM in 1926 with Lillian Gish, whom the New York Times proclaimed that “in this vehicle, she gives an excellent conception of the courage of a young woman in the face of sneering, scorn and tittle-tattle.”

Lars Hansen and Walthall, who also plays Chillingworth in this adaptation, offer strong support. Victor Sjostrom directed this masterpiece.

Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire”) proffered a German-language version of the tale in 1973 starring Senta Berger as Hester. The film didn’t arrive on our shores until 1977.

Of course, who could forgot — though many of us wish we could — the R-rated version directed by Roland Joffe and starring Demi Moore as Hester, Gary Oldman as Dimmesdale, and Robert Duvall as Chillingworth. Nominated for seven Razzie Awards, honoring the worst in cinema, it won for worst remake or sequel.

Emma Stone came into her own in 2010’s “Easy A,” a clever 2010 teen romantic inspired by “The Scarlet Letter,” in which she plays a high school student who lies that she lost her virginity and is soon described as a “dirty skank” by her classmates.

“Scarlet Letter” has also been adapted for the small screen. CBS’ award-winning live anthology “Studio One” presented a live telecast directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who would win an Oscar for 1970’s “Patton,” and starring Mary Sinclair as Hester.

NBC’s “Kraft Television Theater” went live May 26, 1954 with its version of “Scarlet,” starring the legendary Kim Stanley as Hester and Leslie Nielsen of “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” fame — then in his dramatic phase of his career — as Dimmesdale.

PBS took on the classic in 1979 with a four-part miniseries starring Meg Foster as Hester, John Heard as Dimmesdale and Kevin Conway as Chillingworth. It won the Emmy for outstanding video tape editing for a limited series or special.


Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.

Learn more about Film Master's "The Scarlet Letter" release here.


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