Lillian Gish’s reputation may have been established in several historic D.W. Griffith pictures, but she usually ended up playing a very talented second fiddle to Griffith’s legend as a film pioneer. Nevertheless, Gish’s genius is most readily apparent in Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928), a psychologically-charged character study that hinges on her arsenal of small, telling gestures. This is one of the classic performances of silent cinema, and it came at a time when talkies were on the verge of burying the silents forever.
One could argue that the true protagonist of The Wind is the wind itself, a mournful sandstorm that almost drives Gish’s character insane. She plays Letty Mason, a lonely Virginia woman who travels by train to the Texas ranch of her cousin, Cora (Dorothy Cumming.) While on the train, Letty strikes up a flirtation with Roddy (Montagu Love), a Fort Worth man who implies that he might want to marry her. Later, at the ranch, Cora grows jealous of Letty when she develops a friendship with her husband (Edward Earle.) She accuses Letty of trying to steal him away from her, and kicks her out of the house.
When Letty discovers, much to her dismay, that her train-ride suitor, Roddy, already has a wife, she marries an awkward cowboy named Lige (Lars Hanson.) Lige understands that Letty doesn’t love him, but he still wants to take care of her until he can earn enough money to send her back to Virginia. It would be ruining things to say what happens next, but Letty’s story is an unforgettably harrowing tale of betrayal, murder, and, finally, redemption. The wind blows remorselessly throughout, serving as a reminder of her tortured psychological state. At one point, it literally (and, in filmmaking terms, quite brilliantly) uncovers her darkest secret.
The Wind is no joyride, to say the least, and the original cut was even more depressing. It hued closely to Dorothy Scarborough’s source novel, in which the wind wins, taking Letty with it. Though MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, had qualms about such a downer of a third act, it tested well, so he decided to let it stand. But the studio’s powerful Eastern office decreed that the finale needed to be more upbeat, and a new one was shot.
Seastrom, who was one of the key figures in Swedish film in the 1920s, was so disheartened by the tampering, he moved back to his native country to resume his career. He had traveled to the United States to direct such hits as He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with Lon Chaney, and The Divine Woman (1928), with Great Garbo, but he was eventually just as successful as an actor. His performance in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic, Wild Strawberries as the dying old man is generally considered his greatest role.
Gish also had less-than-fond memories of The Wind. The Mojave Desert shoot was a nightmare in which 120 degree temperatures melted the film emulsion (this problem was ingeniously solved by freezing the footage, which was then defrosted and developed back in Culver City.) But Gish was victimized by more than mere heat. “Working on The Wind was one of my worst experiences in filmmaking,” she once wrote. “Sand was blown at me by eight airplane propellers and sulphur pots were used to give the effect of a sandstorm. I was burned and in danger of having my eyes put out. My hair was burned by the hot sun and nearly ruined by the sulphur smoke and sand.” She got over it, though, and had the longest career in movie history. Her last performance was in Alan Alda’s 1986 comedy, Sweet Liberty, which came out an amazing 74 years after her debut performance!
Language:Silent, English intertitles