Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s release in 1928 of The Wind marked the end of an era. It was the final silent major motion picture released by MGM, the final silent film by one of the era’s great directors, Victor Sjöström, and the final silent film for of one its greatest stars, Lillian Gish. It was also a box office failure, simultaneously panned and hailed by critics, called an “American western” as well as a “European” film, loved by those who worked on it and hated by those who produced it. Beset by contradictions and controversies, The Wind was a fitting film to be caught in the tumultuous transformation to sound. For its beloved star Lillian Gish, long associated with the Victorian morality tales of director D.W. Griffith, the daring film offered her one of the finest roles of her career yet it also ended her longtime association with MGM.
Often labeled a western because of its setting, The Wind also bears the marks of Hollywood’s extraordinary international diversity. In addition to a Swedish director, the principal cast hailed from six countries spread across three continents, including the American Gish, the Swedish Sjöström and Lars Hanson, Australian Dorothy Cumming, Canadian Edward Earle, Danish William Orlamond, and the British Montagu Love. The Wind is based on the eponymous novel by Dorothy Scarborough, a popular contemporary author known for writing about hardscrabble life on the plains. Adapted into a screenplay by MGM’s top screenwriter, Frances Marion, the story is set deep in the Texas dustbowl and deals with the psychological turmoil of a young woman from the East Coast beleaguered by the advances of several lustful men and an incessant wind.
Sjöström made extensive use of on-location shooting and chose to film The Wind in the Mojave desert near Bakersfield, California. Temperatures soared higher than 100°F, and airplane engines were brought in to stir up the desert sands to create the title character. In a Motion Picture magazine article, Katherine Albert wrote about her visit to the set: “Directly in front of the shack stood a little figure and in front of her were the cameras. There was the usual number of workers, all wearing high boots in case they encountered rattlesnakes, and most of them had white-looking stuff smeared over their faces to keep off sunburn. Goggles, making them look like men from Mars, were worn to protect their eyes from the sand.” The little figure referred to by Albert was Lillian Gish. Recalling the working conditions, Gish said the film was “without any doubt, the most unpleasant picture I’ve ever made.” For Gish, The Wind represented a stark departure from the Victorian films of D.W. Griffith that had made her famous.
In 1912, D.W. Griffith’s favorite leading lady, Mary Pickford, introduced him to Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy. He immediately cast both sisters in his current project, An Unseen Enemy. In the decade following her initial meeting with Griffith, Lillian would star in almost all his major films. Her lead role in the groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation (1915) continues to color her legacy to this day, as much for its racial subject matter as for its indelible link to the pioneering director, who always cast her as the imperiled young woman in need of a male rescuer. Many have speculated that her close association with Griffith was romantic, a connection Gish always denied while famously referring to him in the proper Victorian form as “Mr. Griffith.” Even as she achieved her great stardom in Griffith’s films, her most critically acclaimed performances came later, in particular under the direction of Victor Sjöström. Her roles in Griffith’s films had contributed to a growing notion that performing in the movies was as respectable a profession as stage acting, however they had not offered much chance for Gish to display her range as an actor. After working with Sjöström on the highly acclaimed The Scarlet Letter, Gish sought out another project with the Swedish director, personally pitching The Wind to MGM production chief Irving Thalberg.
Sjöström had arrived in Hollywood from Sweden in 1923 at the request of Louis B. Mayer. Already one of the most prominent directors in Europe, Sjöström had established his reputation in a series of films based on the rural novels of Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). His penchant for using the setting and landscape of his films to psychological effect made him a natural choice for the subject matter and setting of The Wind. For her part, Gish had an opportunity to throw herself into a more complex role than many of her earlier films. Irving Thalberg and other MGM executives considered the bleak ending of the novel and Sjöström’s surrealistic narrative as commercially dubious. In her recollections, Gish always insisted that they had filmed an ending faithful to the novel but were pressed by the studio to shoot a happier one. No evidence exists to support Gish’s claim. Despite full knowledge that MGM was skeptical of the film, Gish threw herself into the role and was brilliant as the tormented Letty. National Board of Review Magazine wrote, “anyone who knows how effectively Miss Gish with her fugitive hands and agitated mobility of bodily gesture, at times so strikingly effective and so peculiarly hers among screen actresses, can do this sort of character, will perceive that The Wind gives her an opportunity to act.”
Only spectacular box office returns would have redeemed The Wind for MGM. Although it was completed by the summer of 1927, the film’s release was delayed by the studio until November 1928, a full year after the release of The Jazz Singer, when audiences wanted sound films. Gish recalled: “Mr. Thalberg said we had a very artistic film, which I knew was a veiled punch,” and Sjöström remembered that, following a preview showing for Thalberg and other executives, the only comment he received was, “Good night, Victor.” A review in the New York Times sarcastically claimed that “yesterday afternoon’s rain was far more interesting.”
The film was a commercial flop. The critical and box office success it enjoyed in Europe meant little to MGM, which soon after terminated Lillian Gish’s contract, effectively ending her reign as a movie star. Sjöström returned to Sweden, where he directed only a handful of subsequent films and, late in life, achieved worldwide acclaim for his award-winning role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). After they had both made important contributions toward establishing films as a respectable dramatic endeavor, both Gish and Sjöström returned to the stage for much of their careers. It would take another 65 years for The Wind to earn the same respectability, when it was chosen for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 1993.
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer