Lillian Gish’s final silent film was a great capstone on her silent film career. It was also one of the last great silent films of the era, and in fact released on November 23rd, 1928, already more than a full year after sound had been introduced. In many people's eyes, The Wind is considered the last hurrah of the silent film era. It certainly was the last hurrah for the silent era’s greatest actress. It was purported that Gish herself had the idea to make this film and had pitched it to Irving Thalberg after reading the novel. In her introduction to the home video release in the late 1980’s, she mentions having put together a 4 page story of the film. It’s also purported that she hand-picked the director…the fabulous Victor Sjostrom (Seastrom), he of The Phantom Carriage (1921) and The Scarlet Letter (1926) (also with Gish). They would collaborate to make one of silent film’s great masterpieces.
Based on a novel written by Dorothy Scarborough in 1925, The Wind stars Gish as Letty, a woman from Virginia who is traveling cross country via train to come live with her cousin Beverly and his family who live in west Texas. On the train, she meets a man named Wirt Roddy, who begins to seduce her on the train. She also sees that the country she is moving to is windy and sandy. VERY windy. And VERY sandy. Once off the train, two men named Sourdough and Lige (Lars Hanson) pick her up to take her to her cousin’s home. Once there, Beverly’s wife Cora (A fantastic Dorothy Cumming) soon begins to suspect that Letty is out to steal her husband. She has her thrown out of the house. Letty is proposed to by both Sourdough and Lige and accepts Lige’s proposal. She moves in with Lige, struggles with her feelings and intentions toward him…..and most importantly deals day-in and day-out with the never ending….never ceasing wind and sand battering the house.
One of the interesting facets of the film is its sexual nature both from the aspects of restraint and tension. Gish, normally known for playing meek, rather pensive types, has all sorts of suitors in this film. From Sourdough and Lige proposing to her to Wirt’s sexual predation, to the odd relationship with her cousin Beverly. I’m not really sure whether we’re supposed to believe that she and her cousin have a “a thing” going on, but Cora certainly seems to think that something is in the works. When Letty accepts Lige’s proposal, we know that Letty is desperate for a place to stay. It is quite surprising though, when she refuses to consummate the marriage. Overt mentions of “women going crazy” because of the constant wind, along with the Indian folklore that is mentioned regarding the horses, (replete with imagery of a white horse running, hair blowing and nostrils flared) and the uncontrollable wind evokes a kind of raw, sexual tension. A fantastically composed sequence is when after Letty and Lige are married and they are sitting at home in bed drinking coffee. Letty’s hair is down. Lige is thinking one thing. He realizes Letty is apprehensive. He gets up and leaves the room. She looks for a key to lock the door but can’t find one. Letty stays in the bedroom pacing. Lige paces back and forth in the living room. Shots of each of them pacing and pacing again are shown. Then we see a shot of the blowing wind and sand outside. The tension is broken when Lige kicks a coffee mug and he bursts back into bedroom to kiss her. Much of this sequence is actually shown from the perspective of their feet. Another scene in the film is so magnificent it deserves its own paragraph.
The most famous scene in the film, and one of the most iconic of the silent era is the setpiece where Letty is caught alone in her house during the night when the “Norther” storm hits. This sequence overlays shots of blowing sand and wind outside... the swaying lamp from the ceiling causing shadows and light to swing across the room... stampeding cattle running past the house... images of Gish crouched in fear, her eyes wild with fright.... holes being blown in the window and side of the house... wind and sand creeping in everywhere... a loose board banging on the door... Gish suddenly becoming crazed with insanity... the wind knocking over a lamp causing a fire to start in the house... Gish becoming dizzy and woozy... the entire house seeming to sway... a pounding at the door and a poor decision... door opened to a rush of wind and sand and Gish knocked to the floor... Wirt entering the house and no one to stop him... Gish running outside into the fray, unable to stand, unable to see... image of the bounding white horse... Gish thrust back in the house fainting, carried into the bedroom by Wirt and imagery of a bucking white horse conveying what is about to happen.
If any scene demanded screen shots, it would be that one. Criminally, the film is out of print, unavailable on DVD, with some scattered availability for a steep price on VHS through Amazon or ebay. I have not been able to track down any information for why the film has not been made available by MGM. The film needs a new print badly as the old one that I watched recently on TCM is muted, murky and lacks contrast. Still it packs a wallop. It has some remarkable cinematography by John Arnold and the imagery is fantastic. I think also of the scene where after Letty shoots Wirt and buries him in the sand. She goes back into her house and watching through the window, the wind begins to erode the burial area, exposing Wirt beneath the sand with Gish’s wide eyes telling us everything we need to know. Sjostrom did marvelous work here with what is essentially a vehicle for Gish, though he was able to add lots of flourishes, bringing a more European sensibility to this Hollywood film. He would never make another Hollywood film after this one though, because of the tagged on happy-ending that the studio made him add causing him to leave Hollywood for good. Gish’s final silent role, was also her last great starring role. She would go on to have a long career of supporting roles, but this was the last time she would command the screen in her prime.