Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Wind (MGM, 1928)

 

Blow the wind northerly

 

Following on with our current theme of the hardships of the life of women on the frontier – see, for example, our review of Heartland (1979) or our last post, our look at Cecil B DeMille’s production White Gold of 1927 – today let’s discuss probably the best of them all, indeed one of the great American films, and certainly far superior to the rather turgid DeMille effort of the year before.

 

 

The Wind was directed by the Swede Victor Sjöström, billed as Victor Seastrom on screen (all those umlauts probably being a bit much for the average American 1920s movie-goer). Director, writer and actor, Sjöström was Sweden’s greatest pioneer of the silent film and came to Hollywood to work for Louis B Mayer in 1924. Along with The Scarlet Letter (1926), also starring Lillian Gish, The Wind is perhaps his best known American film. Revived in recent years by producer/ director Kevin Brownlow, with a Carl Davis score, The Wind gave the talented Gish one of the best parts of her career.

 

Victor

 

Derek Malcolm in The Guardian called The Wind “the first Western that tried for truth as well as dramatic poetry.” I don’t know about that but it certainly did portray the harsh reality of frontier life, especially for women, in a masterly way.

 

Gish was very fine in the picture and Sjöström clearly had a talent for bringing out the best in actors. In her earlier films with DW Griffith (they worked more than sixty times together, starting with In the Aisles of the Wild in 1912 and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch in 1913) she often overacted, as was the style of the day, and indeed Griffith’s method seemed often to be to encourage such histrionics. In the later world of talkies she was memorable as the mother in Duel in the Sun in 1946 and especially good in the Charles Laughton-directed The Night of the Hunter (1955), when she was in her sixties, and again as the mother in her last Western, The Unforgiven (1960). These showed what superb talent she had, but The Wind (when she was 35 but appeared younger) did too. Only in the very last reel could she have reined it in somewhat (the New York Times said, “Miss Gish acts in very much the same way she did in the haphazard days of films. She rolls her eyes, stares, twitches, and then notices the revolver placed nicely on a table”) but then she was supposed to be going insane, so it was forgivable. For most of the picture she transmits her emotions and reactions with the utmost subtlety. It’s a joy to watch her.

 

 

The titular wind is sure powerful. It was generated by the propellers of eight aircraft engines. It was fortunate that it was a silent movie. Crew members were obliged to wear long-sleeved clothing, goggles, bandannas, and greasepaint on their faces whenever the machines were being run. Film critic Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times of the day was not impressed. “Mr. Seastrom’s wind is like some of the vocal effects in sound pictures, for nobody can deny its power, but it comes in a strict continuity, with seldom the impression of a gust. And instead of getting along with the story, Mr. Seastrom makes his production very tedious by constantly calling attention to the result of the wind.” I suppose Hall had a point but it was called The Wind after all, and the constant blowing is what drives the heroine to the brink of insanity, which is the plot, based on Dorothy Scarborough’s most acclaimed work, the 1925 novel of the same title, adapted by renowned screenwriter Frances Marion. In fact it was Gish’s idea to make the film and she convinced Irving Thalberg to do so. She it was who asked for Sjöström.

 

Writers Scarborough and Marion

 

Hall also added, “Victor Seastrom hammers home his points until one longs for just a suggestion of subtlety” but this seems to me patently wrong. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that subtlety is one of the film’s great virtues.

 

An opening title sententiously tells us, “Man – puny but irresistible – encroaching forever of Nature’s vastness, gradually, very gradually wresting away her strange secrets, subduing her fierce elements – conquers the earth!” But in fact man doesn’t conquer this part of Texas. Nature wins this one. The land is unbelievably harsh, pure desert (it was filmed in the Mojave) and it is unable to support a farm or a ranch. Man is guilty of hubris by trying to tame this wilderness, and shouldn’t even be there. The endless and pitiless wind signals that. We see the rotting carcasses of cattle and nothing grows. The old dictum that ‘rain follows the plow’ was clearly a lie.

 

The film was made pre-Dust Bowl but it would certainly have resonated with 1930s audiences. We see dust getting everywhere, including to the heroine’s (covered up) dismay onto her slice of bread.

 

A Panhandle dust storm of 1936

 

The harshness is reflected in the people. Their coarseness is contrasted with the refinement of Letty (Gish), who has come out from Virginia and is clearly shocked by both the land and its inhabitants (again, brilliantly and subtly conveyed by the actress).

 

On the train out, a cattle buyer, Roddy, begins to flirt with her and is clearly a cad from the get go. Played by burly Montagu (or Montague) Love, a British stage actor who in Hollywood in the mid-20s became Valentino’s nemesis in The Son of the Sheik and John Barrymore’s in Don Juan, he would have been known to audiences as a villain, as indeed he proves to be.

 

We know what he’s after

 

Arrived at her destination, and expecting the perfect idyllic ranch of her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle), Letty finds herself instead met at night at the wind-blown railroad station by the rustic Lige (second-billed Lars Hanson) and his partner Sourdough (William Orlamond), the latter providing the picture’s comic relief. The New York Times reviewer thought they were “endeavoring to give a twin performance similar to the work of Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall in The Covered Wagon.”

 

Lige and Sourdough take her to the ranch

 

Of these actors, Earle was a former vaudevillian who made films for Edison in the early days and would go on appearing in Westerns right through to TV shows in the 1960s. Hanson was a fellow Swede of Sjöström and had appeared in The Scarlet Letter. This was his only Western, though. And Orlamond had been taking comic roles since 1912 and was an MGM regular. Lige and Sourdough have a bit of actor’s ‘business’ when they shoot at a mark to decide who gets a better seat (or later, who gets to propose to Letty), which Sourdough always loses.

 

They both propose

 

At the ranch, far from idyllic and indeed a bleak and of course windswept place, Letty finds cousin Bev with a permanent – and, we assume, fatal – cough, and his stout and rather plain wife Cora (Australian Dorothy Cumming) instantly jealous of this pretty young thing and distinctly hostile. It is an inauspicious start.

 

Cora is seen symbolically cutting the heart out of a steer

 

The falsely charming Roddy turns up again and wants to take Letty away from “this awful place”, and we can see she is tempted, especially when Cora loses it and rages against her, throwing her out, but it turns out that the scoundrel is already married. He still wants her, as a mistress, but she refuses, and, now desperate and without resources or even a roof over her head, she accepts Lige’s proposal and becomes his wife, in a marriage which is, on her side, loveless.

 

He loves her but…

 

It is now, often alone in the very basic farmhouse, that she begins to lose her sanity as the remorseless wind tortures her. There is an Indian legend that the wind is a magic white horse in the clouds and she sees it. So do we, thanks to some clever 1920s trick photography.

 

It comes to a climax as Lige leaves on a round-up of wild horses, aiming to raise enough money to send her back to Virginia (he’s a very decent fellow), and Roddy turns up yet again, still wanting her to go away with him. He spends the night (we assume with her, perhaps a rape) and in the morning she grabs a gun of Lige’s and points it at Roddy.

 

 

It goes off.

 

Murder? Accident? Manslaughter anyway, certainly. She buries the corpse in the sand but that cursed wind blows and exposes it. Letty is on the verge of madness. The Guardian review mentioned above said, “One of [the film’s] masterstrokes, which looks far less self-conscious than any description of it may seem, is the moment when Letty hallucinates in terror at the sight of the partially buried body of her attacker.”

 

The ending, perhaps imposed by the studio, I don’t know, or maybe in the book, is unwontedly happy. Dramatically, I think it would have been better if she had died or gone permanently crazy, so that the full tragedy was realized. But audiences of the day may well have preferred the return of Lige, Letty’s declaration of love for him, his (rather Western) argument that shooting a man dead was legitimate in the circumstances, and a happily-ever-after future. She even opens her arms to embrace the wind.

 

The Wikipedia entry on the film says:

 

In the original novel, the heroine is driven mad when the wind uncovers the corpse of the man she has killed. She then wanders off into a windstorm to die. According to Gish and popular legend, the original ending intended for the film was the unhappy ending, but it was changed in response to the decree, by the studio’s powerful Eastern office, that a more upbeat ending be shot. It is rumored that this tampering caused Seastrom to move back to Sweden. Mayer’s biographer rejects this on account that the “sad ending” is not known to exist in any form, written or filmed. Regardless of whether an unhappy ending was originally intended, in the resulting film the “happy” ending replaced the original ending against the wishes of both Lillian Gish and Victor Sjöström.

 

Though a silent film, The Wind was released with a synchronized musical score with sound effects, including the dog barking, using both the sound-on-disc and sound-on-film process.

 

It was not a resounding success. The studio held back the release a full year after the wrap, and by that time talkies were all the rage. Gish recalled, “Mr Thalberg said we had a very artistic film, which I knew was a veiled punch.” Reviews were certainly negative. Variety said that “it flops dismally” and reported that Gish’s performance “drew laughter instead of tears from a Sunday afternoon audience composed mainly of New Yorkers.” The review added, “It may be a true picturization of life on the prairie but it still remains lifeless and unentertaining.” The film made an $87,000 loss.

 

It was a considerable hit, however, both critical and commercial, in Europe, and later opinions have been fulsome with praise. The Museum of Modern Art screened it and said in its blurb, “”What makes The Wind such an eloquent coda to its dying medium is Seastrom’s and Gish’s distillation of their art forms to the simplest, most elemental form: there are no frills. Seastrom was always at his best as a visual poet of natural forces impinging on human drama; in his films, natural forces convey drama and control human destiny. Gish, superficially fragile and innocent, could plumb the depths of her steely soul and find the will to prevail. The genius of both Seastrom and Gish comes to a climactic confluence in The Wind. Gish is Everywoman, subject to the most basic male brutality and yet freshly open to the possibility of romance. As a result, the film offers a quintessential cinematic moment of the rarest and most transcendentally pure art.”

 

Well, I’m not sure I would go as far as “transcendentally pure art”, but I do think it’s a fine film, and a credit to the Western, showing that the genre can be powerful, moving and gritty. It’s still an excellent watch today. And thank goodness it has survived. MGM was one of the better majors at preserving important films.

 

 

2 Responses

  1. Lilian Gish is one of the few big stars of the silent era to have kept on her career deep into the talkies on the contrary of Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and of course Greta Garbo (maybe not for the same reasons). She is unforgettable in The Unforgiven which would not be exactly the same without her. Duel in the Sun as well.

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