Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Wind (MGM, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Wind, a 1928 silent starring Lillian Gish (it was her “Summer Under the Stars” night on TCM and they showed some of her movies for D. W. Griffith — including Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm — as well as her three late silents for MGM, La Bohème and The Scarlet Letter as well as this one) and Lars Hanson (a Swedish import and the only person who made films with Greta Garbo both in Sweden and the U.S.). I’d seen it before about 20 years ago on TNT back when that was Ted Turner’s big movie channel (it showed the films with commercial breaks but often dug up material as obscure as what’s been put on TCM: I remember recording the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon from TNT and that being my reference version for that film until I bought the special edition of the 1941 version, which had the 1931 Maltese Falcon and 1936 Satan Met a Lady as bonuses) and been quite impressed by it; it’s an overwhelming movie though also a quite depressing one. The version TCM showed was one prepared by Thames Television in the U.K., complete with an orchestral score by Carl Davis and a videotaped introduction by the aged Lillian Gish saying that for the three films she did for MGM at the close of the silent era, La Bohème and The Scarlet Letter (both 1926) as well as The Wind, all were projects she brought to the studio and persuaded MGM production chief Irving Thalberg to greenlight.

 The Wind began life as a novel by Dorothy Scarborough about a young woman named Letty who leaves her home in Virginia to move out West (the synopsis on says the setting is West Texas but I don’t recall the film itself being that specific; all we know about the location is it’s somewhere in the West, cattle-raising is the chief business and fierce winds blow through there almost constantly) and live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) on what she’s been told is his beautiful ranch. Needless to say, she’s disappointed when she sees the reality; she’s taken from the train station by locals Lige (Lars Hanson) and Sourdough (William Orlamond), who constantly have shooting contests to determine everything from who gets to sit up front in the carriage with Letty to which one gets to propose marriage to her. On the train going out there Letty met up with cattle baron Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love, virtually the only person in the cast besides Gish whose career continued into the sound era), and of course he falls in lust at first sight with her while she thinks he’s too creepy to bother with. Once she arrives at Beverly’s shack in the middle of windy nowhere she’s spooked by the wind, while Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) takes an instant dislike to her. Beverly assures Cora that Letty is just his cousin, and that his cough is getting better — a carefully planted clue which Scarborough and the screenwriter, the redoubtable Frances Marion (who was especially good at stories like this which cast their principal characters in extreme conditions and forced them to fight it out), bank for later use. There’s a big square dance that’s suddenly interrupted by a cyclone — as if it isn’t windy enough in those parts normally! The cyclone is quite convincing — I suspect MGM’s effects department made it out of a wind sock the way they did in The Wizard of Oz 11 years later — and most of the people leave the hall and hide out in the storm cellar under the building, but Beverly stays up and just then his “cough” (we know that meant he had tuberculosis and was liable to die any moment) flares up and he expires. 

Immediately Cora throws Letty out of their home, and Letty tells Wirt Roddy she’s now ready to accept his marriage proposal — only Wirt breaks the news to her that though he’d previously proposed to her, he can’t marry her because he’s already married, but he’s willing to take her in anyway. Letty makes it clear both to him and to us, with the stoniest expressions of which Lillian Gish is capable, that she’s not that kind of girl, and with Lige and Sourdough (the comic-relief character that undoubtedly would have been played by Walter Brennan if this had been made in the 1930’s — which I found myself wishing it had been: had the silent version done better perhaps MGM would have remade it, and I know who they should have remade it with: Barbara Stanwyck, who actually did play a similar story in the 1933 film So Big, as Letty and Clark Gable as Lige) having fought to a draw, she ultimately accepts Lige’s proposal — only to turn off instantly when he rather violently tries to have sex with her on the wedding night, leading him to promise that he’ll never touch her again. Matters rest this uneasily until the big “norther,” the bigger and nastier wind than any we’ve seen in the film so far, comes up and Letty ends up trapped in the cabin not with Lige, but with Wirt Roddy, who apparently takes advantage of her while she’s unconscious (Lillian Gish’s characters never gave up their virginity lightly!), and later on she’s hunkered down in the cabin at the height of the “norther” and someone tries to get in. Thinking it’s Lige, she opens the door — and it’s Wirt: she pulls a gun on him, he reaches for it, and just when we think on the basis of a thousand other movies that he’s going to get the gun away from her and she’ll be worse off than before, she pulls the trigger and he’s shot twice where, to borrow a line from another legendary diva-driven film, his heart ought to have been. In her opening commentary Gish was still bitching that the original ending — Letty wanders out into the desert and essentially kills herself by exposing herself to the full fury of the super-wind — had, at the behest of MGM’s exhibitors, been changed to an unconvincing reconciliation between her and Lige in which Lige says she acted justly in killing Wirt, the two of them end up in a clinch and Letty tells him that she now loves not only him but the wind as well.

Director Victor Seastrom (who had helmed The Scarlet Letter as well and who was Swedish; his original last name was “Sjöstrom” but MGM changed it to something that would be less intimidating to an American audience trying to read his credit) does the best he can with that ending, which Gish bravely plays and makes a good deal more believable than Katharine Hepburn was able to when her films had her abandon her feminism and be a good little wife to the scapegrace male protagonist at the end, but the film as a whole is brilliant: vividly directed, expertly written (at least by Marion: the “rustic” misspellings in John Colton’s titles, supposedly representing the “rural” accents with which the characters speak, get pretty oppressive at times), perfectly acted and, as Charles said, a film that seems to be dramatizing the subconscious rather than just depicting events. Gish recalled that The Wind was the greatest physical challenge of her career: the winds themselves were provided by huge airplane engines and the location (in and around Bakersfield, California) was so sandy that the cast and crew members had to wear scarves around their heads and protective goggles over their eyes at all times — and every time Gish had to doff her goggles to appear on camera, she feared for the safety of her eyes. They escaped the shoot unscathed but her hands didn’t: she made the mistake of grasping the metal door handle on one of the trailers and ended up badly burned from the 120° heat and its effect on the metal. The Wind was a financial flop and Thalberg blamed Seastrom, who had directed the smash hit He Who Gets Slapped in 1924 (the first film actually released under the MGM banner) but whose subsequent films had lost the studio money; Seastrom finished the movie he was working on (A Lady to Love, an early film version of Sidney Howard’s play They Knew What They Wanted with Vilma Banky and Edward G. Robinson) but then went home to Sweden and abandoned his directorial career in 1937, becoming an actor and appearing as the old professor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), his final credit before his death three years later.

A number of factors probably influenced this film’s commercial failure: for one thing, it was a silent and in 1928 the talkie revolution was riding roughshod over the film industry — The Wind got great reviews from critics and a number of them said it was proof that the silent cinema was actually superior to the sound cinema in terms of artistic quality, but it wasn’t the sort of artistic quality moviegoers were interested in in 1928. Then, too, even with that tacked-on happy ending The Wind is an incredibly depressing movie, and all the skill of Gish, writer Marion and director Seastrom at plunging us into an awareness of Letty’s plight and the depressingly few options she has being stuck in this crazy environment just makes it that much more of a downer. Charles thought The Wind was one movie that really suffered more than most from being shown on TV and that it would be even more impressive in a theatre (and I’d love to see it theatrically, especially with a live musical accompaniment; the reissue score by Carl Davis is acceptable enough and avoids some of the pitfalls of current attempts to re-score silent films, including the anachronistic and sometimes screechy instruments used, while a wind machine is going virtually throughout the movie and subliminally adds to the visual expressions of the wind’s effect on the characters and their environment), and also I’d be interested in reading Dorothy Scarborough’s novel and in particular I’m curious whether she wrote it in a straightforward descriptive style or in a prose style with a similar sense of symbolism and stylization to the visual mise-en-scène Seastrom brought to the film. (I still remember Charles loaning me the novel Diva and finding that, though the book and the film are quite close plot-wise, the book is a plainly written thriller with no prose equivalent to the richly symbolic and dense imagery of the movie.)

Still, The Wind is one of the true classics of the silent era, a movie well worth seeing if you can handle silent films at all, and among the things that make it great are the understated performances: by 1928 actors in prestige movies like this weren’t using the annoying gestures of earlier years — the ones people who’ve never seen a silent film start to finish tend to believe all silents were acted like: the eye-rolling and windmill-like arm motions of the villains, the coy body language and eyebrow-fluttering of the heroines, the camera-charging of the stalwart heroes. Gish’s acting in particular underscores the truth behind the famous line in the Charles Brackett/Billy Wilder/D. M. Marshman script for Sunset Boulevard — “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces!” — even though the severity of her performance was one aspect of this movie that probably put 1928 audiences off. Gish had fallen from popularity around the same time as her mentor, D. W. Griffith, and for largely the same reason: her attachment, at least on screen, to the strict code of Victorian morality no doubt seemed old-fashioned in a country whose movie audience was embracing Clara Bow and other actresses (including the young Joan Crawford) who were visibly unafraid of men or sex, and what Bow’s fans saw as female liberation only disgusted Gish both off-screen and on (in later years, as the mores of motion pictures loosened up, Gish gave a series of interviews telling how much she hated this development).