These notes accompany the screening of The Wind, May 26, 27, and 28 in Theater 3.
As we draw toward the end of the silent period, I recognize that Victor Sjöström (1879–1960)—”Victor Seastrom” during his MGM years—has been somewhat neglected in this series. We did show his early Ingeborg Holm (1913), and several clips appeared in the documentary Swedish Cinema Classics, but that is insufficient for a full appreciation of his importance. His work between 1917 and his departure for Hollywood in 1923 (including Terje Vigen, The Outlaw and His Wife, The Phantom Chariot, and his numerous adaptations of Selma Lagerlof novels) place him in the first rank of silent-film directors, and he pioneered the pitfalls of directing himself as an actor before Chaplin, Stroheim, or Keaton. Several of his nine Hollywood films no longer survive, although the two Lillian Gish vehicles, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, still remain and appear to be the best of the lot. He returned to Europe in 1928, directing only two talkies but continuing to act in Swedish films until his bravura performance for Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries (1957) at the age of seventy-eight.
While in Hollywood for those brief few years, he presided over a small MGM-based expatriate “Swedish” colony that included Mauritz Stiller (Sjöström’s Finnish-born erstwhile compatriot at Stockholm’s Svenska-Bio Studio), Greta Garbo (Stiller’s discovery whom Sjöström directed in the lost The Divine Woman), Lars Hanson (another Stiller discovery whom Sjöström directed in The Scarlet Letter, The Divine Woman, and The Wind), and a girl from Springfield, Ohio, named Lillian Gish (who also starred in The Scarlet Letter and The Wind). Gish allegedly chose Sjöström to direct The Scarlet Letter, since his Scandinavian background seemed to parallel that of the austere New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne. Garbo was drawn to the older Gish because of Lillian’s tender commiseration over the death of Greta’s sister back in Sweden. (Lillian was always close professionally and personally to her sister, Dorothy). I find it pleasing to think of these two—the greatest of silent actresses—being friends, and ultimately neighbors, for several decades in the vicinity of Sutton Place.
In my book The Western Film, I wrote:
“The silent film form itself was about to become extinct, and perhaps its greatest “Western” came just before the end. The quotes are necessary because…The Wind is more a psychological study that just happened to be set in the West. Yet it contains elements central to so many Westerns,…human isolation in a vast landscape, the alienation of the woman in Western society, and the brutal indifference of nature…. The Wind is perhaps the purest expression of a rare form, a woman’s fantasy of life in the West, in a genre dominated almost exclusively by male fantasies.”
There have been many great sound films since Al Jolson killed the silents. Yet, as Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard, they had faces then. Lillian’s pouting mouth, her perfect little nose, and the eyes that could see into eternity were modeling clay that could be wrought into a myriad of voiceless women who had lived and loved and endured since the beginning of time. After scarcely three decades, this priceless art was no longer wanted. Lillian had by now achieved a preciseness of expression and gesture. Her disgust at Lars Hanson’s forced kiss, her consuming fear of the wind, her horror when Montagu Love appears to rise from the dead, her tender acceptance of Hanson’s love following her ordeal—all of these are achieved with apparently effortless grace. It is as though Lillian is crying out in her most ladylike manner, “Look at this! How can you forsake something this sublime?”
I would be remiss at not profusely thanking our accompanist, Ben Model, who has, largely as a labor of love, contributed so much to this exhibition. This film marks Ben’s final official Auteurist History appearance. But do not despair: most of the series is being repeated, in a larger theater and later in the day, between June 9 and June 30, and Ben will be in his customary seat. You should also be on the lookout for Jenny He’s Lillian Gish retrospective (including a screening of The Wind) coming in November as part of the Museum’s Women’s Project.