The story of a genteel young woman's harrowing struggles with an alien environment and her own fears, THE WIND was shot in California's Mojave Desert under almost intolerable conditions. The final silent film of both Lillian Gish, who functioned as the picture's unofficial producer as well
as its leading lady, and the great Swedish director, Victor Sjostrom, it is perhaps the most powerful and accomplished silent drama ever to emerge from Hollywood.
Letty (Gish) is moving from her home in Virginia to her cousin's ranch in the Southwest. On the train, she strikes up an acquaintance with Roddy Wirt (Montagu Love), a smooth-talking traveling salesman. Waiting for her at the station are a scruffy pair of cowboy ranchers, Lige (Lars Hanson) and
his sidekick, Sourdough (William Orlamond), who drive her to her cousin's place. The fragile young Virginian is all but overwhelmed by the rough terrain and climate of her new surroundings and she is particularly frightened by the area's fierce and seemingly unrelenting winds. Letty is welcomed
with open arms by cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) and his children (Leon Janney, Carmencita Johnson, Billy Kent Schaefer), but Beverly's jealous wife, Cora (Dorothy Cumming), takes an instant dislike to the demure gentlewoman from the East.
At a dance, Letty bumps into Roddy, who tells her that he loves her and urges her to consider going away with him. Moments later, Lige and Sourdough both propose marriage, but she doesn't take them seriously--until Cora tells her that she is no longer wanted in their home. When Letty goes to Roddy
to accept what she thinks was his proposal, he confesses that he's already married and proposes an illicit relationship. Letty turns him down and returns home, where Cora repeats her ultimatum. Letty, in desperation, marries Lige, the younger and better looking of the two cowboys. On their wedding
night, the virginal Letty rebuffs her husband's advances, and Lige swears never to touch her again and pledges to raise enough money to send her away.
One day in the middle of a fierce windstorm, Roddy arrives at Lige's cabin and finds Letty alone. The storm has driven her half mad. After forcing her to spend the night with him, he insists on taking her away. Letty, who has grown to love her husband, refuses to go and, when Roddy becomes too
adamant, she shoots him dead and drags his body outside.
When Lige returns, Letty tells him what has happened--but Roddy's corpse is nowhere to be seen. Lige remarks that if a man is killed justifiably, the wind always covers him up. Letty tells Lige that she loves him, wants to remain with him, and is no longer afraid of anything, not even the wind.
The loving couple embrace.
Gish thought Dorothy Scarborough's novel, The Wind, would be ideal for motion pictures because, she said, it depicted "constant movement." Shooting it was less than ideal, however--"definitely my most uncomfortable experience in pictures," claimed the actress who had braved sub-zero temperatures,
blizzards, and ice floes in WAY DOWN EAST (1920). "Cold I can stand," Gish asserted. "Heat, no." While the desert temperature hovered around 120 degrees, Gish nearly lost her hair and eyesight to sun, wind, and sand, and on one occasion, left the skin of her palm on a car door handle.
When the picture was complete, everyone was very proud of it. Then came the bad news: MGM's eastern brass had decreed that the story's unhappy ending, in which Letty disappears into the storm to die, would have to go. Cast and crew reluctantly returned to the set to film a happy ending "which we
all felt was morally unjust," Gish reported.
Today, THE WIND's imposed ending seems morally unjust only by the silly standards of the Hollywood Production Code of 1930. Most contemporary viewers will have no trouble accepting Lige's appraisal of the situation: "Wind's mighty odd--if you kill a man in justice--it allers covers him up!" Many
might even maintain that THE WIND's feel-good finale, if rather abrupt, was the right choice--one of history's few examples of a studio-imposed ending being preferable to the original. If the tragic ending had prevailed, moviegoers would have been deprived of two of the most sublimely moving and
beautiful shots in all of cinema: the images, first in medium and then in long shot, of Letty and Lige's windswept embrace at the door of their cabin. In the first shot, Letty is leaning backwards against Lige, her ecstatically smiling face tilted upward toward his, her arms en haut, her hands
encircling his neck as his arms enfold her waist. Dissolve to the second shot, in which Lige and Letty--her arms now lowered and her long skirt wafting backwards--hold their embrace as they gaze out the doorway into the face of the wind.
But even this climactic epiphany wasn't enough to stop Variety from declaiming that "some stories are just naturally poison for screen purposes and Miss Scarborough's novel here shows itself a conspicuous example.... The story is too morbid, the background too dreary in picture form for popular
approval." Sad to say, the public agreed.
Taking a cue from Scarborough's wonderful title, Sjostrom made the wind a major character in his film and cast the role with eight airplane propellers. From the moment on the westbound train when Letty says, "My, this wind is awful, isn't it? I wish it would stop," rarely does a scene go by
without a reference to the wind and its effects: Letty tapping sand off a piece of bread, Sourdough unsuccessfully trying to light a cigarette, Lige brushing a coating of sand off the marriage bed, and so on. In addition to providing the film with a central visual motif, the wind functions as a
symbol of Letty's repressed sexuality (like sex, the wind gets into everything) and equally repressed pioneering spirit--powerful but dormant forces which she is finally able to unleash and embrace at film's end.
Among the many virtues of Sjostrom's symphony in sand are marvelous performances by Gish, an indomitable woman who in real life could have had Letty for lunch; Hanson, a classically trained Swedish actor who was brave enough to introduce Lige as something of a loutish comic buffoon; and Cumming,
who plays Cora with quiet but frightening intensity.
Traces of THE WIND's plot premise can be found in GIANT (1956), in which Leslie Benedict is bullied by her sister-in-law in much the same manner as Letty is by Cora, and in several later movies (PICTURE BRIDE, et al.) about unhappy brides who gradually come to love the husbands and surroundings
that have been imposed on them. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Review: The story of a genteel young woman's harrowing struggles with an alien environment and her own fears, THE WIND was shot in California's Mojave Desert under almost intolerable conditions. The final silent film of both Lillian Gish, who functioned as the pic… (more)