Sunday, August 19, 2012

Silent Sundays: The Wind (1928)

“This is a story of a woman who came into the domain of the winds”

            The more I watch silent films the more I see them as masterpieces of visual story telling. Comparing some of the silents I have viewed I feel ashamed for Hollywood today because, yes while they are visual, that is all they are and they are all CGI and sometimes with the worst stories ever. Silent films are pieces of art because they HAD to be visual while movies today do not really need to. Silent films obviously had no dialogue they were all action and background. Today I feel the CGI takes away from a story. Now I know CGI needs to be done with movies like Harry Potter and The Avengers they are wizard and superhero movies but sometimes you can tell it is so fake and that bugs me. One of the thrills I get from watching classic films is seeing how the special effects of era were pulled off. Like the twister in The Wizard of Oz or the flooding and destruction of Ranchipur in The Rains Came. To me the special effects in those films and several others of the period are just as amazing to me as the technology was not as it is today, the special effects teams had to be outrageously creative. In silent the special effects were even more brilliant.
            Getting off the talk of CGI and special effects, silent films are so enjoyable artistic and visually stunning. The Wind starring Lillian Gish from beginning to end is beautifully filmed by Victor Seastrom.
            Letty Mason (Gish) is traveling from Virginia to her (male) cousin Beverly in the dry and dusty west. On the train she meets a man named Wirt Roddy (Montague Love). Wirt immediately begins to hit on her and tries to scare her saying that the “injuns” call the area of desert “winds”. Letty says he does not scare but she looks out the window where the pounding wind blows sand on the windows. When Letty gets off the train late at night the wind is still blowing and whipping sand. Her cousin has sent two of his neighbors Lige Hightower (Lars Hansen) and Sourdough to take her to his house. Letty is not too sure of these strange men but they take good care of her.
            When Letty gets to Beverly’s house in the morning he is very happy to see her but his wife Cora is not. As soon as she comes on screen you can see the jealousy that rages in her eyes. Letty bends down to say hello to one of the kids, the kid smacks her. Beverly gets mad at the kid but Cora stands back and slightly smiles. Letty looks out the window to see the wind kicking up the sand on the window, her eyes go wide in a bit of terror and then quickly fades. She helps around the house and notices her hands are rough from all the work she has been doing. The kids like her and bring her their toys to show her. Cora sees this and jealous she bends down to see what the one child has but the child just shrugs away from her and goes to Letty.
            A party in town is being held. Letty receives a lot of attention because she is pretty and new. Wirt has come back to town to see Letty. He says he loves her and wants to take her away from the rough town. At the party Lige and Sourdough both plan on proposing to her. she does not take their proposals seriously. Cora sees what is going on and when the two men leave she has a fit saying Letty has to take one of them seriously. Cora lets her jealousy fly saying Letty will never get Beverly she want her out of the house. The next day Letty goes to Wirt but he says he cannot be with her because he is already married. Cora takes Letty back but only for one night she needs to go to either Lige or Sourdough.
            Letty winds up marrying Lige. He is very happy she chose him. Letty is not happy she did not want to be married. She tries to make the best of it at first but she is very standoffish to her new husband. Lige gets frustrated and walks out the room. He paces about the room as she does the same thing only she is nervous listening to the wind whipping the sand outside. Lige walks back into the room grabs his wife and ravenously kisses. She struggles and pulls away and tells him he has made her hate him. Lige is upset because he though she loved and wanted to be his wife. He says he will work for the money and send her back to Virginia.
            Some time later Lige has to go with other ranchers to check out some cattle. Letty asks if she can go with him because if she stays by herself with the wind and the sand she will go mad. He lets her come along but she does not handle the climate and wind very well and Sourdough takes her back. A man from the group of ranchers comes to the house saying they are bringing someone who has gotten hurt to the house. Letty freaks out thinking the injured man is Lige. The man turns out to be Wirt and Letty immediately becomes terrified. She asks her husband if Wirt has to stay with them and he says the man does for the time. Wirt says again that he could have taken her away he knew the wind would frighten her. Letty tries to act brave and say the wind is not frightening her but the fear is in her paranoid eyes as she looks out the window.
            The winds begin to really pick up into what the locals call a “norther”. Lige and the men have to go to a round up and he has Wirt come along. Letty does not want Lige to go but he says has to so he can send her back. All alone in the house the wind begins to get to Letty. The wind whips around the ranch and she goes into a trance. During her trance the wind and sand break the glass on the window and bring down a lantern which almost burns the house down. Luckily Letty comes out of her trance to put the fire out. She hears a knock on the door and thinks it is Lige. Instead of her husband at the door it is Wirt. Wirt wants to take her away and tells her to hurry before Lige comes back. Letty does not want to go to which Wirt replies that if Lige should catch them together he will kill them. She says she does not care. Wirt will not back down in his pursuit of her. She finds his gun, he thinks she will not shoot him but she does. Letty drags his body outside and buries him in the sand. She goes into a paranoid state again and thinks she sees the wind uncover Wirt’s body.
            Lige comes back and Letty runs into his arms. She tells her husband that she shot Wirt but he is not mad there was a reason for it. Letty also tells him that she loves him and wants to stay with him. She is no longer afraid of the wind.
            The ending of the film is a happy go lucky ending that the heads of MGM- not Mayer the New York office- wanted. Irving Thalberg had approved the ending that Lillian Gish and Victor Seastrom wanted where Letty walks off into the desert. The original ending would have made more sense but the studio heads wanted a happy ending not a morbid one. The Wind was well liked at the studio but audiences did not agree. Today though, The Wind is considered one of the best silent films made and one of Lillian Gish’s best films.
            Lillian Gish is perfection in her last silent film. She had signed with MGM as their first major star signing. Gish had read the novel and liked it so much she wrote out a four page draft and brought it to Thalberg himself. Thalberg liked it and approved it to be made into a film. For her leading man Gish also personally chose Lars Hansen after she had seen him in a film with Greta Garbo. Gish was beautiful and wonderful. Some of her reactions are a little over dramatic but for the most part her acting was great. Her eyes were so expressive and beautiful. You can see all the fear and paranoia her character goes through in her eyes.
            Victor Seastrom made a stunningly visual film just like he did with the Phantom Carriage seven years before. What he captured best was the paranoia Letty felt he beautifully cut between Lillian Gish and the san whipping around outside. Even I became a bit nervous whenever I saw the sand and wind! Seastrom was so upset that the ending had to be changed that he gave up on Hollywood and went back to Sweden where he directed one other film and then for the next thirty years just acted in films. What a shame that this genius filmmaker left because of a change in the ending of a film, damn the heads of MGM.
            The Wind is a fantastic film from start to finish. The story of human against nature has been done before but not like this where you can feel the character’s anguish and torture. Yet another reason why the film is so good is because Frances Marion wrote it and she was one of the best screenwriters at the time. The special effects were made with huge wind fans blowing actual sand. It was filmed out in the Mojave Desert with temperatures reaching one hundred and twenty degrees. Today actor no longer have to suffer having sand actually blown in their faces it is a all CGI nor do they have to wear heavy jackets, goggles and hats out in the desert when they have air conditioned tents and trailers. The Wind is impressive and awe inspiring and one of the best examples of what a silent masterpiece is. 
Lillian Gish wearing goggles and headgear to keep the sun and sand off her