Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Gish Sisters Blogathon: The Wind (1928)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Gish Sisters Blogathon, underway from September 7-9 and being sponsored by Movies, Silently and The Motion Pictures.  For a full list of the participating blogs and the films/articles discussed, click here.  Spoiler alert: I give away the ending of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it—postpone reading it until you do.

In a short prologue that precedes some showings (notably the Kevin Brownlow-David Gill Thames Silents presentation, with scoring by Carl Davis) of The Wind (1928) on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™, actress Lillian Gish explains that it was she who submitted ideas on several of the motion pictures in which she appeared while under contract to MGM…because the studio’s “boy wonder,” Irving Thalberg, was “overworked.”  She suggested what eventually was filmed as La Boheme (1926) and The Scarlet Letter (1926)…and after reading The Wind, a 1925 novel originally published anonymously (but later revealed to be Dorothy Scarborough), she lobbied Thalberg to let it be her next picture, and he agreed.  (She did not know at the time that it would also be her last picture—at MGM, anyway—but I’ll get to that in a sec.)

The Wind tells the story of Letty Mason (Gish), a young Virginia woman en route to a ranch located in Texas (identified as Sweet Water in the film).  On the train, she makes the acquaintance of a cattle buyer named Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love), who, judging by how he never seems to be at a loss for lascivious looks, has designs on Letty…yet is gentlemanly enough to offer assistance, particularly when a sandstorm ruins the lunch she’s taken aboard.  Roddy explains to the innocent Letty that the blowing winds are a constant presence in that part of the country—and that women have been driven crazy by the relentless gusts.

Letty’s cousin does not meet her at the stop—that responsibility falls to a neighboring farmer, Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson), and his older sidekick Sourdough (William Ormond).  The two ranchers see that Letty gets to her destination safely, where she is warmly welcomed by her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle).  Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming), on the other hand, reacts to their guest as if she were a cholera epidemic—and though Letty has explained that the relationship between her and Bev is that of brother and sister (Letty’s mother raised Beverly as a child), Cora is very jealous…particularly when her three children grow quite fond of their cousin.

Both Lige and Sourdough want to marry Letty, and both plan to propose to her at an affair in town.  Their marriage proposals are interrupted by the arrival of a cyclone, which forces many of the partygoers into a storm cellar.  It is while in the cellar that Roddy, who’s come back to Sweet Water to check on his gal, reveals to Letty that he wants to take her away from the windy hamlet.  Once the cyclone has passed, Lige and Sourdough each ask Letty for her hand in marriage—even to the point of flipping a coin.  Letty is convinced the two men are putting her on.

Letty hadn’t planned on running away with Wirt…but that decision is made for her by Cora, who angrily tells her off in a jealous rage (accusing her of macking on her husband), forbidding her to stay at the ranch any longer.  To add insult to injury, Letty learns when she goes to Roddy that he’s really just in the market for a mistress—he’s already married.  Between a rock and a hard place, Letty agrees to marry Lige but she’s hardly enthusiastic about it.  When Lige becomes forceful in his amorous pursuit of his wife on their wedding night she dismisses his intentions…telling him he’s only made her hate him more.  Vowing to never touch Letty again, Lige is determined to raise the money to send her back to Virginia.

The blowing of the winds and the relentless dumping of sand and grit everywhere starts to take its toll on Letty—so much so that when Lige and his fellow cattlemen decide that something must be done to ward off starvation for their herds, Letty begs to be taken along to a meeting they’re to attend.  (Here’s a pro tip, fellas: don’t raise cattle in the freaking desert.)  She’s unable to keep up with the others, even after Lige has her ride double on his horse, and so Sourdough is ordered to take her back to the ranch.  Later, when Lige returns, he has an injured man with him—it’s Wirt Roddy, lecher-at-large.

Lige learns that a “norther” will drive wild stallions out of the hills, and rounding the horses up will allow him to raise the money to send Letty back to Virginia.  He enlists Roddy’s help in the round-up, but Wirt manages to sneak back to Letty and once again he asks her to run away with him.  The house takes a pounding from the norther, and when Letty faints, Wirt takes her to bed (presumably for nefarious purposes).  The next morning, Letty’s unwanted gentleman caller continues to force himself on her—she points his pistol at him and he is shot trying to grab the gun.  She then buries him outside…and become terrified when the wind starts to uncover where she’s hidden his body.

Lige returns home to Letty, who is overjoyed to see him…whereupon she confesses that she’s killed Wirt and left him for the prairie dogs.  Lige explains that the wind is mighty helpful in covering up evidence of just shootings…and when he announces he has the money to send her home, she elects to stay with him.  Her fear of the wind is now a thing of the past.

Upon its release in 1928, The Wind was a box-office disappointment for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer…so MGM decided to release “The First Lady of the Silent Screen” from her contract.  Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, of course—classic movie fans and critics recognize it as not only one of the finest silent films ever made, but a movie that contains one of Lillian Gish’s best performances.  The movie was selected to the Library of Congress’ United States National Film Registry in 1993.

Gish had worked with Swedish émigré Victor Sjöström (Seastrom) on the earlier Scarlet Letter, and asked him to direct this project adapted by Francis Marion.  Lillian also handpicked her leading man, Lars Hanson, whose previous performance in a Greta Garbo film she thought quite highly.  But one area in which Gish could not exercise her star pull was in the movie’s original ending—in the novel, Letty goes insane after killing Roddy and wanders off into a windstorm to die.  MGM insisted on the more upbeat “happy” ending, forgetting that Gish’s La Boheme wasn’t exactly what you’d call a date movie.  The original close seems to make more sense from a logical point of view, but in an essay on the film at Senses of Cinema, Adrian Danks makes a convincing case that the present way the movie calls it a wrap is a better call: “But although the surprisingly romantic ending that does grace the film feels a little too strident—and somewhat over-performed by Gish, in particular—it nevertheless seems perfectly integrated into the complex web of visual motifs and themes that Sjöström has developed throughout. Also, the “proper” ending that Gish has commonly touted—where her character walks out into the desert to die—seems closer to a puritanical Victorian morality (where a woman raped may choose to die, may in fact want to) than the more pragmatic sense of everyday survival, and gender roles, that drive the film.”

The movie was partly filmed in Death Valley, where temperatures regularly climbed in the triple digits and sunscreen is usually recommended.  Actually, most of the cast and crew wore goggles and blackface makeup to ward off the sun, and bandanas around their mouths to stave off the choking sand and grit.  The “winds” in the movie were kept in constant motion with the help of airplane engines.  In the Thames prologue, Gish remembers going over to a truck for makeup and putting her hand on the door handle; finding it hot to the touch, she pulled her hand back and left a little bit of flesh as a souvenir.

The Wind is my favorite of Lillian Gish’s films.  I don’t know if it’s my favorite of her performances—the hysteria she displays in the famous scene in Broken Blossoms where she’s locked in the closet and waiting for her brutish father’s (played by Donald Crisp) return is awfully hard to top—but it’s unquestionably my preference when I get a jones to see some of her work.  This may also be the movie that made me a fan of director Sjöström.  The sad story of silent cinema is, of course, that steps weren’t taken to preserve this art for future generations…but from what I’ve been able to see of Victor’s movies, including He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Scarlet Letter, The Wind clearly demonstrates the man’s unmistakable artistry.  The most striking images in The Wind that remain with me are when Letty imagines the “ghost horse” that Native Americans in the area are convinced are the source of the winds; it’s very similar to his 1921 masterpiece Körkarlen (aka The Phantom Carriage).  The brevity and economy of some of Sjöström’s direction in The Wind is astounding—my favorite touch involves how he demonstrates that Letty and Lige’s wedding has taken place not with showing the audience the traditional ceremony but a few spare camera shots involving a ring, bits of costume, an open book and other tokens usually involved with that trip down the aisle.

When Gish made the famous statement: “Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form…it was not just pantomime, but something wonderfully expressive”—The Wind is the very motion picture that closes that case.  It’s one of several films (including Sunrise and The Crowd) that I would show to people who think silent movies are herky-jerky affairs where people run around real fast and throw pies at one another.  In one of my favorite movie books, Danny Peary’s Alternative Oscars, Peary argues that Lillian should have taken home an Oscar statuette in the first year of the Academy Awards (she was even nominated; she did garner a nod in 1947 for A Duel in the Sun but had to settle for an Honorary Award in 1971) for what is a truly extraordinary performance.  (And don’t get me started on the fact that this movie is still unavailable on Region 1 DVD…just be thankful that it makes the rounds frequently on TCM.)


Fritzi Kramer said...

Thanks for adding your wonderful insight to the blogathon! The Wind is my favorite silent film and I was really looking forward to your review. Super job! I enjoyed your breakdown of the characters and performances and I loved your points about the ending. I have always preferred the happy one (imperfect though it is) to the original "soiled woman wanders off to die" alternative.
Thanks so much for coming aboard to honor the Gish sisters!

Movies Silently

Joe Thompson said...

I'm so happy you wrote about The Wind, Ivan. I've been looking forward to your thoughts. It is one of my favorites, too. There is a lot of subtlety in most of the performances. There was a lot of farming and ranching that extended into unpromising areas during the first two decades of the 20th Century. This is a good example. Thanks for sharing.

Jon said...

This is one of the greatest films of all time. I too am upset that MGM still hasn't released this on DVD amongst other films. It's a crime. Gish is amazing here.


I really like this movie, and Letty mason is one of my favorite Lillian Gish's characters, if not number one in the list. I'm glad with this ending, it's a good point that the original one was too Victorian.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Classicfilmboy said...

It's a terrific film, and I really can't add to what you've already said. Can we lobby to get this on DVD???

Stacia said...

Another terrific post!

On most days I agree with you, and The Wind is my favorite of Lil's (I call her Lil), but The Scarlet Letter was impossibly good, too.

The finale of The Wind never seemed that upbeat to me, in a realistic sense. Metaphorically it was... well. Realistically, it seemed unlikely any living creature would truly get used the land, romance or no.

Unknown said...

The last photo that you have of Hanson and Gish is really Ralph Forbes and Lillian Gish in THE ENEMY (1928).