This month we will be looking at performances of pioneering actresses. Starting us off will be Lillian Gish who is known as being one of the pioneering actresses in the silent era of film. Instead of having a retrospective of her many films. We have chosen one specific film that we feel helped cement her legacy as a tremendous actress. Today we look back at The Wind (1928).
First and foremost…
It is understandable that if you remember Lillian Gish you would think of the infamous film A Birth of a Nation. It is hard to move past this film despite it being her first feature film (she had an abundance of one and two-reel film experience). She also kept working with A Birth of a Nations director DW Griffith in the widely lauded if box office failure Intolerance. Mainly seen as an attempt as an apology for his previous film.
Gish would not be held back from featuring in A Birth of a Nation career-wise as she continued on to have an 80 plus year career on screen and stage. Some actors and directors found trouble transferring from silent film to the ‘talkies’, but with Gish’s talent, she was able to navigate herself to just as prosperous a career in the new world that cinema had created after a long stint on stage.
This brings us to Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 (and final Hollywood) film The Wind. This is quite possibly the strongest performance in Gish’s career and one that deserved more admiration at the time.
Gish wanted to adapt Dorothy Scarborough’s The Wind and almost as a producer sought after talent for the film, including Lars Hanson and director Victor Sjostrom. The film was adapted by renowned screenwriter Frances Marion, who we will come to later this month.
The Wind tells the tale of Letty Mason (Gish) who has travelled from Virginia to Sweetwater Texas to live with her cousin and his family. Upon her journey to her cousin Beverly, she is disturbed by the constantly strong winds around her. She is informed by a fellow passenger that such winds are known to drive women crazy. As she tries to become accustomed to her new life, multiple suitors (Sourdough and Lige played by William Orlamond and Lars Hanson) come her way to take her hand in marriage, but that constant bothersome wind continues to disturb her.
Sjostrom, Marion, Hanson and Gish all return to work together after the successful adaptation of The Scarlett Letter (1926) with Sjostrom utilising all of his skills to bring together the horrible atmosphere that is tormenting our lead. The angles that Sjostrom uses to convey Letty’s struggle with her new surroundings are daring. Having the majority of the screen framed with the door trying to close instead of on the actor was a great addition. As well as instead of needing to rely on the actor’s facial reactions to show their nervousness and pondering that he let us watch their continual pacing of each other’s rooms was very clever and brave.
Frances Marion screenplay assists to provide a sense of dread. Is Letty being tormented in her mind by the unforgiving wind and storms or is it the realisation that she has control of her own future and desires. Should she try and find love and marry and be happy, or should she let lust take over for a fleeting moment with the married Roddy (Montagu Love)? The Wind has multiple layers that could be looked into here. Is every one of Roddy’s visits to Letty a way of her trying to fight away the torture of the wind? Or was he really there.
The open ending is a pleasing addition and one that is often spoken about. Was Letty in fact raped and took her vengeance when she had the one good opportunity to get rid of him? Or after her fainting was she left alone. It appears to me that they wanted to insinuate a rape had occurred and that Roddy was trying to guilt Letty into running away with him in case she went to the sheriff. When she refuses, he then tries to take matters into his own hands.
The Wind could possibly only be made as a silent film or as a film within the past 20 or so years. In fact, it is one of the films I would like to see someone have a go at nowadays. The sound design would without a doubt believe Letty’s descent into madness and paranoia.
But in the 1920s? I think the sound would have ruined the picture as they simply would not have been able to have the wind howling around and have the actors speaking the dialogue. It would have been a disaster. Especially due to the fact that The Wind was filmed in the Mojave Desert and that a lot of that wind was in fact just the filmmakers recreating the realities of cattle farmers.
The film’s success lies wholly on Gish’s shoulders here and it is evident from the start why she chose the project. Known as the passive victim in many of her films, this was a chance for Gish to make a departure from her norm and portray a strong character who is not afraid with having to take control and handle situations where she is threatened.
Gish was well known for her expressions with her She was able to convey the smallest of emotions better than the majority of her contemporaries. This skill is used to its fullest in The Wind, where she has to convey how lost as a person she is, to showing her ever-diminishing mental state as she is thrown out of her Cousin’s house and made to accept a life she does not want.
It truly felt that this was intended to be Gish’s break out role from those who had pigeon-holed her as that fragile, waiting to be saved character. She does start the film that way and you can see the growth not only Letty has throughout the film, but that too of Gish.
One striking scene is after she has been practically forced to marry and when her new husband attempts to kiss her, you can visibly see how worn down and unsure she is of the whole situation as she is kissed and tries to kiss him herself. She wants to be happy, but her predicament has rendered that improbable.
The scene continues with Lige trying to make her feel welcome, but the tension and awkwardness are torturous for both. We even get a quite humorous version of throwing away a horrible tasting drink and pretending it was delicious from Gish. You can tell that at this point, even at the end of the silent era, Gish had truly become a master of her art.
A note should be added as to how great Lars Hanson is in the scene, as although Gish is the star and owning the screen, he is handling himself with very well and there is obvious chemistry between the two.
Gish’s portrayal of Letty’s arc is a joy to watch, we start with a nervous but excited young woman starting a new life and having to deal with her new surroundings, to someone who is heartbroken over being abandoned by her family and by an older man she had started to care about, to try to make an impromptu marriage work. Until we finally see how despite the wind making her mad, also made her stronger and less defenceless. No longer is she the porcelain girl on the train. She will defend herself if need be and will do what she can to survive. An inspired performance and one of the best ever in the silent era and that is coming in a year that Joan of Arc was released.
Why it didn’t The Wind become a box office success?
The Wind failed to pull in a larger box office for one main reason, it was made and released a year too late. MGM had become nervous over the film and postponed its release for a full year. At this point, talkies had finally come to the cinema screen and audiences were flocking in the direction of those films. Silent films, even excellent ones such as The Wind were simply out of fashion at this time.
What also hurt the film was the fact that MGM was not overly keen on the ending which would have found Letty being raped and eventually walking into the howling wilderness alone after the storm reveals the actions of the aftermath. Instead, we have a happier ending which was supposedly against Gish’s original intentions.
Also, politics. Gish was one of the highest paying actresses in Hollywood, who had complete creative control of her films, which enabled her to practically produce The Wind. It is felt that the delay in releasing the film would cause audiences not to want to watch a silent film and to help MGM or other studios in their negotiations with Gish when her contract was finishing up. Better to state that Gish isn’t of such a high value if her film does not make as much money. Also, younger actresses were coming into the scene and would cost the studios 1/20th of Gish’s contract.
In the end, The Wind is a masterpiece in writing directing and acting. The film is dragged by the performance of Lillian Gish and without her, it would not be considered the classic it is today. The best performance of 1928 by a bonafide star of the silent era. This is not a film to miss and without a doubt, not the only Lillian Gish film you should watch. The Night of the Hunter, Broken Blossoms, The Whales of August and Way Down East, but to name a few.