Friday, July 29, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Wind (1928)

The Wind (1928) ****
Directed by: Victor Sjöström.
Written by: Frances Marion based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough.
Starring: Lillian Gish (Letty), Lars Hanson (Lige), Montagu Love (Roddy), Dorothy Cumming (Cora), Edward Earle (Beverly), William Orlamond (Sourdough).

It always amazes me how some silent films seem extremely modern when they are watched today. After all, silent film was abandoned in the late 1920s, and despite a few people like Guy Maddin who makes some of their films into silent, they haven’t been heard from since. And yet, some of the silent films, made before censorship and ratings became an issue, have a shockingly modern attitude about many thing – more modern than anything we would see in American film until the 1960s. Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 film The Wind – one of the last major silent films produced in America – is a film like that.

The film stars Lillian Gish – one of the first movie stars in America – in what many consider to be her finest performance. She plays Letty, an innocent girl from Virginia who comes out to Texas to live with her beloved cousin Beverly (Edward Earle). When Beverly’s parents died, Letty’s took him in and raised them like their own. But this does nothing to persuade Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) from thinking that Letty is trying to steal her husband. The fact that their children take an immediate liking to Letty doesn’t help either. Cora decides to throw Letty out – even though she has no place to go. Yet, Letty does have three admirers. The first is Roddy (Montagu Love), a rich man she met on the train out from Virginia, who took an immediate shine to Letty – and Letty to him as well. The other two are locals – Lige (Lars Hanson), a big lug of a woman, and Sourdought (William Orlamond), an comic foil. Letty decides to marry Roddy – only to discover that Roddy already has a wife – he wants Letty to be his mistress. Distraught, Letty tries to return to her cousin’s, but Cora will have none of it. Distraught, she marries Lige instead, but the sight of him disgusts her. It doesn’t help that their area of Texas is in a seemingly constant state of high winds that howl around their small house, slowly driving her insane. Or that Roddy continues to show up in hopes of getting Letty into bed with him one way or another.

The Wind was directed by Victor Sjostrom, born in Sweden, and raised partly in America and Sweden, he started directing in his native country, before coming over to America in the early 1920s when Louis B. Mayer offered him a job. He directed Gish in The Scarlett Letter (1926) and when she read The Wind, she immediately wanted to make it with him. Sjostrom’s visual prowess is on full display in this movie – the constant wind storm must have presented a challenge to film, but it brings it off without a hitch. There is also a dynamic sequence involving Gish having an hallucination which is also masterful. Sjostrom would have trouble adapting to sound filmmaking, which is a shame because he is more sure handed behind the camera than most silent moviemakers. Most art house audiences will undoubtedly best remember him for his performance in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Wild Strawberries (1957), but he was a truly great director as well.

The only problem with the movie is the ending. The original ending has Letty, after being raped by Roddy and killing him, wandering off into the desert, having completely gone insane, and surely about to die. This ending would have brought The Wind more in line with films like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, which is also about the male lust, and how it destroys a repressed woman. Yet test audiences hated that ending, so instead they shot one where Lige returns to the house after Letty has killed Roddy, and the two makeup – Letty confessing that she has grown to love Lige, and the two live supposedly happily ever after. Watching the movie, not knowing that this was not how it was originally intended to end, I felt the effect was quite jarring. It flies in the face of everything that went before it. I am glad that Sjostrom and Gish originally intended to end it the proper way, although obviously I am disappointed that the original ending no longer exists for people to see know. It is the one flaw that mars the whole movie.

And yet, I still think The Wind is a great movie. Everything up until the last three minutes or so is so masterfully handled by Sjostrom and Gish that this still ranks among the greatest silent dramas I have ever seen. Perhaps if you see it, you should stop watching when Lige comes home, and imagine the ending that should have been.

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