This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson. If you haven’t seen The Wind, be warned that this article discusses the ending of the film.
Ethereal, delicate, poetic, otherworldly are just some of the somewhat elusive adjectives used to describe Lillian Gish since the early years of her stardom. Effusive admirer Vachel Lindsay said “Lillian Gish could be given wings and a wand if she only had directors and scenario writers who believed in fairies.” However, in reality Gish had her feet firmly on the ground. She had a career spanning eight decades, was a spokeswoman for cinema’s history with high artistic ambitions for herself and for the medium. King Vidor, who directed her in La Boheme (1926) commented: “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”
In his autobiography A Tree is a Tree Vidor said that Gish was incredibly assertive and had her own thoughts about the filmmaking process. Indeed, she knew a great deal about cinematography and in particular lighting. She had learned her trade during the more collaborative process of the silent era, where she had received extensive tutelage from DW Griffith in a production context where actors frequently worked without scripts and where they were encouraged to collaborate on characterisation and staging. She may only have had had a small acting role in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), however she designed and furnished sets, helped with lighting and cutting, wrote intertitles and advertising copy.
At the height of her fame as an actress, Griffith put Gish to work directing a film and overseeing the construction of his new studio. Remodeling Her Husband (1920) was scripted by Dorothy Carter, a pseudonym for Lillian and her sister Dorothy. Apparently she wished to make “an all women picture”. During The White Sister (1923) she helped director Henry King in many aspects of the films preproduction (see Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life).
In May 1925 Gish signed an unprecedented contract with MGM where she was guaranteed consultation on the selection of her stories, directors and cast. She had admired Victor Sjostrom since seeing The Phantom Carriage (1921): “It seemed to me that he had Mr Griffith’s sensitivity to atmosphere.” She chose him for The Scarlet Letter (1926) where she found his direction “an education” (Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me). She suggested him for her following film, The Wind. Near the end of his life he wrote to Gish: “I know I have quite a few very good friends but you have in a special way come so close to my heart. I have a special confidence in you, feel that you understand me thoroughly. Rather strange after all these years.” Gish herself said: “I never worked with anyone I liked better” (Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life). She also chose again for her co-star Lars Hanson, often referred to as the Nordic John Barrymore. He spoke no English and played his scenes with Lillian in his own language however she said they understood each other perfectly (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me).
After having enjoyed reading Dorothy Scarborough’s novel (“it excited my imagination”), Gish submitted a four page synopsis from which Frances Marion, one of the most powerful and highly paid scriptwriters in Hollywood, fashioned a script. Marion told Gish that The Wind was “the last film to which she gave her heart as well as head” (Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me).
The film was shot on location in the Mojave Desert in 120-degree heat. The heat’s intensity was so severe that Lillian left the skin of her palm on a scorching door handle (Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life). To stimulate the desert storms, airplane propellers blew sand at the actors (a real sandstorm blew before they finished shooting). This type of dedication to the job was not unusual for Gish though who had withstood the elements in previous films, including Way down East, where she turned down the offer of a double and had herself endured the cold and ice. However, The Wind was Gish’s “worst experience in film making” (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me).
According to Cari Beauchamp, Marion’s script, like the novel, ended with Letty (Gish) walking “away from the cabin and the dead body, into the blowing sands and to her own death’ (Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood). Irving Thalberg at MGM supported this ending but Louis B Mayer and all-powerful exhibitors apparently found this too depressing and asked for it to be reshot, much to Marion and Gish’s disappointment.
This reshooting of the ending was costly for the studio – the interior set had to be rebuilt, the studio had to wait for actors to be available. Months went by before the film was released and its eventual reception was mixed. The new sound technology was taking Hollywood by storm and silent films were becoming old hat. Similarly to other films of this transitional period, it had a poor soundtrack added. Moreover, Lillian’s look and sensibility were seen as ill-suited to the changing times and some reviewers found her acting mode outdated (see Marion Davies in The Patsy, released the same year, for a delicious parody of Gish).
John Barrymore said of Gish in DW Griffith’s Way Down East (1920): “Her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchaining thing I have ever seen in my life” (Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life). In The Wind, Gish’s performance is similarly mesmerising. Louise Brooks, the star of Pandora’s Box, first saw The Wind in 1956 and was bewildered that she, who was in Hollywood at MGM in 1927, hadn’t seen it before. In some insightful comments about Gish and the film she observes how Sjostrom “shared her art of escaping time and place. Seastrom [sic] and Gish were meant for each other” (Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood). She also observed how The Wind was “loaded with sex and violence”, a fact seldom acknowledged.
Gish’s relationship with MGM quickly turned sour. When her contract was revised, Gish told Mayer she wouldn’t sign anything until she had consulted her lawyer, to which he retorted “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you” (The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me). Brooks accused MGM of trying to ruin Gish’s career. Gish, she said, was “marked first for destruction” for it was her “who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers” (Lulu in Hollywood). Indeed perhaps we should reconsider the familiar perception of Gish as simply one of Griffith’s acquiescent heroines and instead view her as the unlikely bedfellow of Brooks – a fellow rebel and Hollywood outcast.
By Kelly Robinson, silent film programmer for Birds Eye View film festival
Read more by Kelly Robinson
- Why Change Your Wife?: Cecil B DeMille and the New Woman
- The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices
- Sumurun: Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri’s Arabian night
- Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’
Working with imaginative jazz textures and minimalist themes, pianist and composer Lola Perrin has been widely published and recorded, and performed on BBC Radio 3. She regularly works collaboratively with film and visual art projects. Her score for The Wind won the Silent London award in 2011