US (1928) Dir. Victor Seastrom (Sjöström)
Naive Virginian girl Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) has packed up her things and is moving to the western prairies to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle), his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) and their three kids. Her new home is prone to exceptionally dangerous wind storms and life at the ranch is less rosy as Cora becomes jealous of Letty’s close relationship with Bev and the kids, eventually throwing Letty out.
With nowhere to go Hetty has three marriage proposals to consider – one from already married Whit Roddy (Montagu Love), nice guy Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) and scruffy loser Sourdough (William Orlamond). Letty chooses Lige but her reluctance to play the good wife along with the endless days alone with the ominous winds for company takes its toll on Letty.
In what could be seen as an end of an era moment, The Wind was the last silent film from the incomparable Lillian Gish, her last for MGM and for Hollywood, one of the last true classics from the silent era. Adapted from the novel by Dorothy Scarborough at the request of Ms. Gish, it reunites the star with Swedish director Victor Sjöström (nee Seastrom in the US) who helmed the acclaimed 1926 drama The Scarlet Letter. If Sjöström’s name seems familiar to you cinephiles, that is because he went on to star in Ingmar Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries in 1957 – getting to work with two legends in his lifetime.
The Wind wasn’t so well received upon its initial release and as a result it failed to ignite the box office leading to Gish’s departure from MGM, which is remarkable in hindsight since it has now become a highly regarded classic and ranks among Gish’ best films and one her most praised performances.
The story is simple fare but it is Sjöström’s direction and Gish’s faultless acting that lifts it to the level of greatness it has achieved. Letty is your typical, wide eyed, chaste innocent city girl that Gish not only perfected but could play in her sleep and still be fabulous. She is expecting a fun and idyllic life on the ranch with cousin Beverly (I honestly never suspected Beverly could be a man’s name but I digress) until the train nears the destination with the elements already make their presence known. Luckily kind hearted (read: lecherous) passenger Whit Roddy steps in to placate poor frightened Letty. Upon arrival Lige and Sourdough are sent to drive Letty to the ranch with both men vying for the lovely newcomer’s affections.
After getting under the skin of Cora (another marvellous study in body language from actress Dorothy Cummings) by seemingly usurping her place as alpha female in the household, Letty is essentially thrown to the wolves as her three would be suitors line up with engagement rings. The lascivious Whit decides until Letty’s bags are packed to inform her of his current married status (this is pre-Facebook remember) so it is into the arms of Lige she goes.
While Lige thinks he has won the lottery, his blushing bride is only in it for the roof over her head, revealing her true feelings when hubby wants to consummate the union and gets sharply rebuked for his efforts. Since his key clearly won’t open Letty’s chastity belt, Lige decides to work hard to earn money to send her back home to Virginia but the imminent arrival of a super wind storm means business will be slow.
This is where Gish gets to show everyone why she is the greatest actress of all time. Letty’s demeanour and personality undergoes multiple changes over the course of this film, literally changing with the wind, as does her mental state. Flitting between subtlety and the expressive arm swinging style of the period, Gish guides the viewer through every stage of this poor woman’s mental unravelling with her customary ease and nuanced splendour.
From the simple act of letting down her hair to the eye bulging delirium of her hallucinatory visions when the big storm hits, Letty literally transforms before our very eyes but each stage of her madness is conveyed and understood with total clarity. The most memorable scene would be near the end but to contextualise this would be to spoil the plot – suffice to say it has become a very famous image in the Gallery of Gish Greatness.
In other hands this film could have been a disaster but Swedish Sjöström brings the European expressionist style with him, incorporating some eerie visual flourishes to heighten Letty’s nightmare scenes as well as that sense of poetry and truth that was missing from the glossy Hollywood approach.
Complimenting the acting – as much as this is a one woman show from Gish, her fellow cast raise their games to avoid being lost in her shadow – Sjöström creates very a natural feeling but ultimately dark and emotionally far reaching drama that combines the best of European and Hollywood cinema in a rare marriage made in heaven.
The only point of contention is the happy ending MGM insisted on after the original tragic ending was rejected by test audiences. While it appears somewhat conflictive to the dark tone of the rest of the film, it does contain a beautiful closing shot which I have little doubt a certain James Cameron was heavily influenced by for a now famous shot in Titanic.
Lillian Gish wasn’t a fan of talking pictures and as her last ever silent film, The Wind just may have been a subconscious way for her to remind us just how powerful a medium silent cinema really was, and how untouchable an actress Ms. Gish was. A sublime and moving experience.