The Wind is among my favorite silent films so I am very excited about this article. It is an examination of three myths that have attached themselves to the 1928 Lillian Gish vehicle:
MGM slapped on a happy ending
The original tragic ending still exists in Europe
The Wind is too windy (and shot in 120-degree weather)
I begin this article with a certain amount of trepidation, in spite of my excitement. You see, two of these myths can be directly traced back to Lillian Gish herself. I want to go on record as saying that I have enormous respect for her as an actress. However, these myths have gone unchallenged for long enough. I will endeavor to be respectful but the facts deserve to be discussed.
MGM slapped on a happy ending
Bless Lillian Gish’s heart. She did so much to increase the awareness and appreciation of silent films. She is one of my favorite actresses of all time. Her best performances are nothing short of remarkable. However, even the finest and most intelligent minds sometimes get things wrong. Her video introduction to The Wind is a good example of this.
I am not a fan of calling out nanogenarians on every exaggeration or misremembered detail. It just seems a little rude. I mean, I doubt any of us would come out very well if every word we spoke got fact-checked. (Ha! You said you ate Kix for breakfast on Tuesday but I discovered that you actually ate Rice Krispies!) However, Miss Gish’s version of the events surrounding the ending of The Wind has has been dutifully repeated by authors, historians, TCM hosts and fans.
Taped in 1983, this video introduction is to be found on the movie’s VHS release, aired on television and even screened at film festivals. The only problem is that her tale is not borne out by internal MGM documents, shooting scripts or by the structure of the film itself.
Who is responsible for the happy ending?
The accepted narrative, per Miss Gish:
Lillian Gish and company filmed a version of The Wind that was very close to the tragic original source novel by Dorothy Scarborough. However, the executives, preview audiences and film exhibitors got cold feet at the downer ending. As a result, MGM frogmarched the cast and crew back to the set to create a happy ending. Gish and co. were horrified, one and all, by the bastardization of their work of art but a contract was a contract. The tragic ending was lost, probably destroyed, and all we have left is the compromise ending.
What the evidence says:
The evidence against the accepted narrative comes in two forms. First, we have the internal documents from MGM. The tragic ending was not included in any of the shooting scripts, while the happy ending was there from the beginning. There were some retakes a month after production wrapped (a reasonably common occurrence) but they were to change minor aspects of the already-filmed happy ending, specifically to remove a comedy sidekick from the romantic reunion of the main characters.
I should mention, though, that MGM did have major reservations about The Wind. They shelved it for an entire year and then dumped it in late 1928, when talkies were an unstoppable force.
You can read more details about the shooting scripts and reshoot in Charles Affron’s Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. Mr. Affron is quite antagonistic toward his subject but his sources do check out and, in any case, it matches what the extremely reliable Scott Eyman wrote in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. (Eyman’s books are respectful but not fawning and his research is pristine. I heartily recommend them to anyone who wants a level-headed look at silent and golden age Hollywood.) Both books reach the same conclusions: The happy ending was negotiated before a single foot of film was shot.
Now on to the second point. We can learn a great deal by comparing the original Scarborough novel with the Frances Marion screen adaptation.
You see, both Gish and Marion claimed that the film followed its source novel almost exactly. That’s true for the first half but the second half was changed considerably.
Here is the very basic plot for the first part of the tale: Virginia belle Letty (Lillian Gish) arrives in the western desert to live with her cousin. Cousin’s wife is jealous and hates her. Letty has a crush on Roddy (Montagu Love) but discovers he has a wife already. A cowpoke named Lige (Lars Hanson) proposes to Letty but is turned down cruelly. Meanwhile, Letty is slowly driven insane by the raging wind. All of this closely follows the novel, with the exception of Letty discovering that Roddy is married.
(If you want further details on the film’s plot, you can read my full-length movie review.)
In the book, Letty agrees to marry Lige while in a blind panic caused by the windstorm that is raging outside. In the movie, Letty fights with her cousin’s wife, who wants her out of the house. She marries Lige because there is nowhere else for her to go.
From this point forward, most of the novel takes place in Letty’s head until Roddy reenters the narrative. There is much gazing out at the landscape, remembering her old home and wishing to escape the wind. It works very well for a book but the movie adaptation needed more visible events to keep the narrative going. Lots of changes were needed.
From the wedding on, the book and film begin to diverge.
Well, this is awkward.
In the novel, Letty does not let on to Lige that she does not love him. She continues to live with him as his wife (in every sense of the word) and is slowly driven mad by the wind. Things erupt when Letty asks Lige to send her away for the summer to escape the wind. He has no money to do so and is hurt that she is not willing to stand by him. They fight and in a rage, Letty tells Lige that she never loved him. His illusion shattered, Lige rides out into a storm, gets drunk and collapses.
Roddy takes the opportunity to catch Letty alone. He taunts her with mental images of the wind attacking her and wears her down until she gives herself to him. In the morning, he tries to get her to elope with him. Instead, she shoots him dead.
Okay, rewind and let’s discuss the film. In the movie, Lige is giddy about his marriage and eager for the wedding night. Letty rebuffs him and kicks him out of the bedroom. So, from the very start, Lige knows that his marriage is based on a lie. He begins to take on extra work so that he can make money to send Letty home to Virginia. While he is away on a job, Roddy shows up. He forces himself on Letty and she shoots him.
Letty is about to let Roddy have it.
So, can you see the different relationship arc between Lige and Letty? In the book, Lige’s discovery that Letty does not love him is the climax of their relationship. In the film, that knowledge there from the beginning, which leads to a very uncomfortable living arrangement. The emotional climax for Lige comes when he leaves for the job that will give him enough money to send Letty home. He kisses her (something he has not attempted since the wedding night) and rushes out into the storm.
While the book focuses entirely on Letty (she is a very self-absorbed character), the film opens up a bit and allows Lige to have his own character arc. A lovable goofball at the start of the film, Lige gets the emotional stuffing knocked out of him by Letty’s wedding night rejection. He spends the rest of the tale trying to balance his love for his wife with his dignity and his self-denial in sending her away.
The wedding night scene was not in the original novel. As many others have pointed out before me, the scene and much of Letty and Lige’s relationship was likely based on the 1926 film The Canadian, starring Thomas Meighan and Mona Palma. The Canadian was released in November of 1926, around the same time that The Wind was in pre-production.
I realize that speculation like this can be dangerous, especially with no paperwork to back up claims of inspiration, but I feel that that parallels between The Wind and The Canadian are too strong to be a coincidence. The Wind actually lifts some title cards from Thomas Meighan’s character in The Canadian and gives them to Lige.
The Canadian to the left, The Wind to the right.
The Canadian has the same setup as The Wind: Pretty newcomer, disliked by relative’s wife, ends up marrying a rough fella, looks down on him, no love on the wedding night. The Canadian got some pretty good reviews upon its original release but was not flashy enough to command a lot of attention. (It was released opposite films like Old Ironsides and The Winning of Barbara Worth.) Thought lost for decades, it was rediscovered 1969 and has received considerable acclaim for its subtle performances.
Mona Palma and Thomas Meighan in The Canadian
In my opinion, from the wedding night forward, The Wind becomes an amalgamation of The Canadian and the original Scarborough novel. In The Canadian, Thomas Meighan works hard on his farm trying to get enough money to send his wife home to England. This is paralleled by Lige taking on extra work and even risking life and limb to earn enough for his wife to leave him. In contrast, the novel, Lige is neither as self-aware nor as self-sacrificing. He cannot comprehend why Letty would want to leave, hasn’t the money to send her away and has no way to earn more in any case.
Not much of this going on.
That’s not to say that the films are identical. Unlike The Wind, The Canadian has no real villain but its characters do take dark turns. Although he seems to accept his marriage as a business-only arrangement, Thomas Meighan’s character later rapes his wife during a violent argument. He spends the rest of the picture trying to atone. In contrast, Lars Hanson keeps away from Lillian Gish after her first rejection.
The Canadian was based on a 1913 play by W. Somerset Maugham entitled The Land of Promise. The play unpleasantly treats the marital rape as a necessary corrective measure on the part of the husband that the wife accepts as her lot. The film adaptation jettisons much of its source material, thankfully. (It actually seems to borrow plot and visual elements from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1925 film The Road to Yesterday.) I will discuss the film further when I post a full review.
After Letty kills Roddy, both the book and the film have her hide his body in the sand and grow steadily more hysterical as the wind buries and unburies the corpse. In the book, Letty waits for Lige to come home but he does not arrive. She runs out into the desert to die. In the film, Lige returns and is reunited with Letty for that happy ending.
Gish’s brilliant performance
As you can see, this is not simply a case of the scenario writer slapping a different ending on an established story. The inner workings of the tale have been rearranged to accommodate the new ending. In the book, Lige is still processing his wife’s confession that she never loved him. This comes after months of what he thought was a happy union. Lige is a more childlike figure in the book and equals Letty in his self-aborption. Therefore, it is quite believable that he would stay away as Letty goes mad.
In the film, Lige has had months to come to terms with his wife’s disdain. He fell for her because she was pretty and refined but did not really know her. Since physical affection has been denied, he has to show his love in other ways. Lars Hanson was a fine actor of extreme range and power. His skill allows him to convey Lige’s transition from goofy romantic suitor to injured party to self-sacrificing hero. In my opinion, having Letty wander off to die sells short the character arcs of both halves of the couple.
Of course, Lillian Gish was thirty-three and Lars Hanson was forty when The Wind was filmed, which made them well over a decade older than the characters in the book. (Letty was only eighteen.) The more mature behavior of the movie characters reflects this difference in age and experience.
Scenes from The Canadian
The Canadian ends with a sorrowful Thomas Meighan sending his wife away with his permission for a divorce and enough money for her passage home. Instead, she opts to stay with him and build a life. The Wind ends with Letty confessing her murder to Lige, who does not entirely believe her. By this time, the sand has swallowed Roddy’s body (if it was ever there, the film hints that Letty may have hallucinated). Lige then makes his offer to send Letty home but she says she wants to stay and that she is not afraid of the wind anymore.
The Wind‘s scenario writer, Frances Marion, did not abandon a tragic ending. Rather, she had two sources (possibly more) that she drew from and she chose to use the happier ending rather than the tragic one. The idea that the happy ending was manufactured out of whole cloth is inaccurate. Was the decision to end happily the result of studio pressure? Quite likely. But the idea that the cast and crew were blindsided in post-production by studio execs twirling their proverbial mustaches is fiction. There is a huge difference between agreeing to a compromise ending in pre-production and having one forced on you after a studio bait-and-switch in post-production.
Do I think The Wind‘s ending is a little too peppy? Yes, a more understated one would probably have been better. However, as I am fond of saying, a happy ending is not always inferior and a tragic ending is not always superior. Frances Marion did a masterful job of adapting the source novel and incorporating elements from a similar film. The story flows and is emotionally honest. While Letty’s sudden recovery from her fear of the wind stretches credulity a bit, in general, I have no complaints.
As Senses of Cinema brings out, having Letty die at the end actually changes The Wind into one of those “her maidenhood is despoiled and therefore she must perish” morality tales. My problem with the tragic ending (if it had been attached to the film adaptation as-is) is that it turns the movie into one of those “let’s watch a woman suffer as much as possible” stories.
I should note that stories about The Wind‘s fabled “real” ending are not limited to Lillian Gish. Frances Marion’s autobiography, Off With Their Heads, and her biography, Without Lying Down, go along with this version of the events. The latter book can be useful but cites some very suspect sources and so I use it with caution.
The Canadian was a precursor to The Wind
(via Silent Still Archive)
(For the record, I have no issue with screenwriters swiping elements from other films so long as they improve upon the material. Since The Canadian is better than The Road to Yesterday and The Wind is better than The Canadian, I would say that we viewers are winning on the deal. One of the most famous cases of this story ping-pong is The Glass Key to Yojimbo to A Fistful of Dollars.)
Of course, viewers will make their own decisions regarding the ending of the film. Some may still dislike the happy ending. However, I hope I have provided enough information to allow them to look at the movie with new eyes. Miss Gish is extremely compelling and persuasive when she speaks of the ending of The Wind but I respectfully disagree with her.
(For years, Dorothy Scarborough’s novel was only available as a pricy university press edition. It has recently been released as a reasonably-priced e-book.)
The original tragic ending of The Wind still exists in Europe
This is highly unlikely as the tragic ending was never shot in the first place. It is possible that the European version was recut and had different title cards to make the ending more downbeat (this was not unheard of) but that’s not the same thing.
The Wind is too windy (and was filmed at 120-degrees)
Lillian Gish and Margaret Chute on location.
I grew up not far from where The Wind was filmed.
I am afraid that Miss Gish (as seen in the embedded video at the beginning of the article) is not correct about the temperature being “rarely below 120.” In fact, her own autobiography states that the weather was cool when the filming started and then there was a burst of heat, which would be more typical. There will be a few days that spike near 120 but these are individual days, not a wave and they usually occur in July or August, if at all. You will certainly not find them in May or June, which was when The Wind was filmed. (A typical temperature for that time of year would be 95-105 degrees.) The hot temperatures may have felt like 120-degrees to someone used to Los Angeles weather but that is not the same thing.
I bring this up because the temperature has become yet another aspect of the film that has taken on a life of its own. If you don’t believe me, just look at the breathless descriptions on IMDB.
Get my fainting couch!
I guess “filmed in temperatures of 105 degrees!” just doesn’t have the same ring. Even if there were one or two freak almost-120 days during the production, saying that the entire movie was shot in 120-degree conditions is like saying Way Down East was shot entirely during a blizzard.
I do, however, believe Miss Gish when she talks about a hot metal handle taking off her skin. The sun is blazing and my earliest childhood memory is actually of burning my hand on a hot metal railing.
While the original novel makes it clear that it is set in Texas, the film is more ambiguous as to its location. Gish says that the film was made in “Bakersfield, in the Mojave Desert” but Bakersfield is not in the Mojave desert. It is in the San Joaquin valley and you probably eat grapes and baby carrots grown in the region, if that gives you some idea of the climate. Bakersfield does have desert areas but it is also cooler than the Mojave Desert (the highest recorded temperature in June was 114 degrees and the average high for the month is 90 degrees). Here are some pictures of Bakersfield in the twenties. It looks quite nice.
Judging from the terrain and the fact that Miss Gish mentioned Bakersfield (which is a little over an hour from the western edge of the desert with modern freeways), I would say that The Wind was made around what is now Jawbone Canyon, Edwards Air Force Base, California City and the town of Mojave. This is just a guess, obviously.
A very difficult shoot
I know Death Valley is often mentioned as a filming location or at least as being in the vicinity. (And it does get over 120-degrees.) Yes, it is in the Mojave Desert but it is nowhere near Bakersfield (the desert is approximately the size of Greece) and I find it highly unlikely that a colorful narrator like Gish would fail to mention something called Death Valley. My money is still on the western side of the desert as the filming location.
The Wind was a challenging and uncomfortable shoot and everyone involved deserves credit. However, let’s not gild the lily.
Now for the wind itself. As I brought out in my review of the film, viewers must remember that the film is subjective, not objective. In other words, we are seeing the world through Letty’s eyes as she dances on the edge of madness.
Complaints about the windiness of The Wind started at its premier. The notoriously thick Mordaunt Hall criticized the film’s weather and ignored its brilliant leads. Even now, I sometimes hear remarks about the wind being too exaggerated in the movie. No, not really.
The weather in The Wind is much-maligned.
You see, the film crew used airplane propellers to simulate wind because there was no way of knowing exactly when a dust storm would kick up. However, had they been able to predict the wind…
Wind storms in the desert are unreal. They scream and howl. They tear metal highway signs in half. Not bend, tear. They uproot trees. They flip Mack trucks. They blot out the sun. I can assure you that they are terrifying. Weeks of that on end? I would be crazy too. (Check out this chart of average wind speed. See that spike?)
I don’t tell the good people of Ontario what it is like to have a blizzard. I don’t force my opinions about hurricanes on Floridians. If you live in Kansas, you know a lot more about tornados than I ever will. As a born and bred Mojave desert rat, I claim my expertise by right of experience.
Oh, and while we are on the subject, how’s about a DVD release? The Wind has been shown numerous times on TCM and came out on VHS but has never had an official DVD or streaming release. It’s a shame since it is a wonderful movie.
And please include the Carl Davis score! Pretty please?