I don’t seek out silent films as a rule but I do watch them if the plot sounds interesting to me. On Sunday nights, Turner Classic Movies presents “Silent Sundays” featuring one silent film with before and after anecdotes about the production. It is from this program a year or two ago that I watched 1928’s, The Wind, and I have since watched it twice more.
Why do I enjoy this film as much as I do? The acting, of course, is very good: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, William Orlamond, Dorothy Cumming, Edward Earle. The director: Sweden’s Victor Sjostrom(who in later years starred in Ingmar Bergman’s film, Wild Strawberries.) knew how to pace this story and to get the proper emotions from his actors. The technical effects, for 1928 standards are very good, too: there’s the wind, an almost supernatural character in this tale, the Native American legend about a ghost horse and its images, and the cyclone that interrupts a town dance. The plot: 1 female who meets 3 males who have romance on their minds as there aren’t a lot of women in their area of Texas, circa 1880.. These meetings will lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, outright lying, broken hearts, lust,murder, and finally, forgiveness and love ruling at the film’s end.
Lillian Gish, the star of this film, had a lot of control by the mid-twenties and had a lot of say as to what kinds of movies she would act in. She often said who would direct, co-star, write the screenplays, etc. I don’t think many women actresses in today’s Hollywood have that much control, ironically. Gish had bought the rights to the popular novel, The Wind, written by Dorothy Scarborough. She got the greenlight to make the film, from Irving Thalberg, MGM’s Head of Production. Gish hired Frances Marion-one of the best screenwriters at that time in Hollywood, to write the script. Gish hired Swedish director Victor Sjostrom to direct her, as he had done in their excellent collaboration for The Scarlet Letter, and she also got for her main leading man, the handsome Swedish actor, Lars Hanson, who had also co-starred with Gish in The Scarlet Letter(this 1926 film version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book is still considered to be the best film version in existance!)
I don’t know if Gish or Sjostrom lobbied to make the film in West Texas, but the Bakersfield, California and Mojave Desert locations fit the setting and mood of the film just fine. Sjostrom, in order to show the wind and it’s power, and it’s constant tenacity, lined up 8 plane engines with attached propellers to constantly blow and sulphur pots were kept burning to represent the effects of sandstorms. Cast and crew had to wear goggles to keep their eyes protected, and lots of scarves and/or handkerchiefs wrapped around their mouths to keep the sand out!
Gish is excellent as Letty, traveling alone by train in the film’s opening scenes. She is a Virginian, having been invited by her cousin, who’s family raised her, to come to West Texas to live with him and his wife and 3 children. On the train, Letty meets fellow traveler, Wirt Roddy(Montagu Love), a cattle buyer/seller from Fort Worth. He is a gentleman towards Letty, and keeps her company on the trip. He also ominously warns her about the wind in this part of the country, as it can drive people, especially women, out of their minds.
At the train depot, Letty’s cousin, Beverly(I know, weird name for a man!) has sent two friends to fetch Letty and drive her to the ranch. These friends are Lige(Lars Hanson) and Sourdough(William Orlamond), well-meaning but awkward cowboys. The two men see Letty and decide to see who can shoot out a distant kerosene lamp, the winner getting to sit next to Letty in the wagon. Letty is not amused by these two, and is disappointed that Mr. Roddy can’t take her to the ranch. Roddy promises her that he’ll be in town for a while due to business, and not to worry, he’ll probably see her again before he has to leave.
Cousin Beverly is delighted to greet Letty, his 3 children are at first quite shy around her. Beverly’s wife, Cora, however, hates Letty from the start. She dislikes Letty’s “prissy” ways, how her own children warm up to Letty and want to sit with her and hear stories and look at her pictures with a stereoscope(Victorian version of a Viewmaster.) Cora even gets it into her head that Letty wants to steal away Beverly!!( This I can’t wrap my head around…Letty and Beverly are cousins!!!!)
At a town dance, Lige and Sourdough both announce to one another that they are going to propose to Letty! They decide to toss a coin to see which one gets to propose, and Lige wins-thank goodness! Sourdough, old enough to be Letty’s grandfather, takes his loss in a good-natured way, and gives Lige permission to propose. Cora has overheard about this proposal, and gladly tells Beverly that Letty will be leaving their ranch. Also at the dance, Roddy, while dancing with Letty, has told her he has fallen in love with her and is thinking about marrying her! A cyclone suddenly appears, and interrupts all of these marriage proposal ideas for a bit. After the cyclone has passed, Lige proposes to Letty, and is turned down. Roddy leaves the dance and leaves a smile on Letty’s face. Cora is not pleased as she finds out Letty has turned Lige down.
Letty and Cora have a showdown, well sort of: Cora tells Letty what she really thinks of her and orders her off the ranch! (Beverly, who suffers from a bad cough-probably TB-is sick in bed and can’t stop his wife’s plan.) Letty pleads with Cora since she doesn’t have anywhere else to go and no money for a train ticket back to Virginia. Cora refuses to relent, so Letty asks her to drive her to town and she’ll ask Roddy if he wants to marry her. Cora gladly puts Letty’s belongings in the back of the buggy and off the two ladies travel to town.
Once in town, Letty finds Roddy at the hotel, and asks him about his marriage plan. Roddy admits to Letty that he is already married! Roddy turns out to be a slimy guy, one of those salesmen with a different “wife” in several parts of the state, and he wanted to add Letty to his collection. Letty is horrified and terribly hurt by this information and returns to Cora with the news. Cora insists Letty can’t return to the ranch, so Letty finds Lige and agrees to accept his proposal.
The marriage ceremony happens immediately and back at Lige’s place, he is over the moon with happiness because he believes Letty really loves him and wants to be his wife until death they do part. He is nervous, excited, and shyly asks if he can kiss Letty. Moments later, he accidentally enters the one bedroom where Letty has gone to wash her face and brush out her hair, and he is enthralled with her beauty. He shyly offers her a cup of coffee and they sit together on the bed drinking the brew. When Lige isn’t looking, Letty dumps his offering into a water pitcher. A bit of foreshadowing, as whatever Lige offers Letty with the best of intentions, it’s not good enough for her.
Letty leaves the bedroom for the main room of the house, and Lige follows her. He wants to get this honeymoon underway and makes a harsh grab for Letty, kissing her passionately. That act only causes Letty to break away and harshly tell Lige off, that she doesn’t love him, and that she married him as she’d been kicked off her cousin’s ranch. The look on Lige’s face is heart-breaking. His eyes convey the depth of his pain and then the coldness in them grows. He turns away from Letty and finds the coffee she had dumped in the pitcher, the coffee he had made for her. He turns back to her and icily announces that he will work for the money for the train fare so she can return to Virginia, and that she needn’t worry, he won’t touch her, ever again.
Time marches on, and Letty grows softer in her feelings for Lige. He still acts distant towards her, keeping his heart and mind protected, no doubt. Lige is notified by the area cattlemen that there is to be a meeting to discuss what to do to avoid imminent starvation that may soon affect the community. Letty begs to go too, and he agrees, but as she has trouble riding her horse in the wind, and then falls off of Lige’s horse after he allows her to sit behind him on his saddle, he asks for Sourdough to take her back home. Soon, Lige returns with an injured and unconscious Roddy-the cattlemen found him lying on the ground. Lige tells Letty that she needs to care for Roddy as he recovers. Letty doesn’t want to be near Roddy at all, but has no choice. After Roddy recovers, he agrees to go with Lige and the other cattlemen to help round up some wild horses that they can then sell and then use the money to buy food. Roddy sneaks back to the house to be alone with Letty, thinking he can seduce her and convince her to run away with him. It’s to his surprise and doom when Letty finds a gun.
Lillian Gish is in her element in this film. Her wide, large eyes reveal the depths of her character’s emotions. Especially affecting are the scenes where the relentless wind blows and messes with her mind; she keeps seeing the legendary ghost horse in her mind, from a Native American legend Lige told her about. There’s also the famous scene where she looks out the window of the house, looking to see if the wind will reveal the body she has had to bury.
Lars Hanson is so winning as Lige. He is awkward yet smiling, in the beginning of the film. It’s obvious he is quite charmed by Letty, and so happy when she agrees to marry him after her earlier rejection of his proposal. You really feel the hurt in his expressive eyes when he hears Letty’s rejection of him as her husband.
Montagu Love is also good as the film’s villain. He is kind and courtly when Letty first meets him, she not knowing his ulterior motives towards her. As he recovers in the sickbed at Lige and Letty’s home, he slyly leers at Letty with his eyes when all think he is still unconscious. In the novel, Roddy does sneak back to Lige and Letty’s home and rapes Letty. In the film, it’s not as clear that that has happened, but the punishment Letty dishes out is the same.
Lige returns to the home after the wild horses have been rounded up. Letty is ecstatic to see him and greets him with a kiss! Will this action on her part lead to a turn around in their marriage of convenience? What about the wind? Can Letty stand to live in that West Texas environment any longer? To find out the final answers to those questions, you’re going to have to hunt down this film, which won’t be easy to do. Sadly, a lot of silent movies have been neglected, or lost, and not transferred to dvd. For The Wind, I could only find two dvds at Amazon, but neither has a U.S. format, both being for Spain! It does air from time to time on TCM, so watch for it by checking their online monthly schedule.
This has been my contribution for the Silent Cinema Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Be sure to visit both sites to read about other fantastic Silent Films!