Alternate Oscars – By Danny Peary – 1993

Alternate Oscars – 1993

One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present

  • A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was conceived in early 1927 by MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, the most powerful figure in Hollywood. He intended it to be both an elitist, self-honoring club, with members chosen by Mayer himself, and a union-busting labor organization that would ostensibly unite actors, directors, and writers with producers before those three groups formed their own guilds. (This ploy worked only temporarily.) There were thirty-six founding members, including Mayer, his two lawyers, actor Conrad Nagel, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and director Frank Lloyd. The decision to hold an annual awards ceremony to honor films and individuals was not made until a banquet was held on May 11, 1927, during which more than three hundred of the Hollywood aristocrats paid a hundred dollars to become pioneer members of the Academy. It took another year before a voting system was in place. All members—actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers—would cast nominating votes in their particular branches. A five-person board of judges, representing each branch, yet controlled by Mayer, would tabulate the votes to determine the nominees and then choose the winners themselves.

The Wind – Poster Lillian and Lars

MGM’s The Wind – No hype received

Ironically, the best picture of the year, and a film whose greatness has not diminished, was also made at MGM. However, The Wind didn’t receive any of the hype given Broadway Melody, and America’s last silent masterpiece (Chaplin’s films had soundtracks) was completely ignored when pictures were nominated. Looking for a starring vehicle to fulfill her MGM contract, Lillian Gish wrote a four-page treatment of Dorothy Scarborough’s book The Wind, and got the go-ahead from (Irving) Thalberg to produce the film herself. She hired scriptwriter Frances Marion (who later admitted it was the last screenplay she put her heart into), Swedish director Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom in his native country), and Lars Hanson, Sweden’s most popular stage actor, to be her male lead. The four had just worked together on the impressive The Scarlet Letter.

Lillian-Gish-The-Wind-Montagu-Love-Train-arrival-scene

The Wind, which was shot in 120-degree temperatures in California’s Mojave Desert, is the  story of an unmarried, gently bred young woman from Virginia who comes to live on a ranch with her male cousin and his family in the harsh, windswept Texas dustbowl. When her cousin’s jealous wife forces her out, and the “gentleman” (Montagu Love) who has courted her turns out to be married, the penniless woman agrees to marry – a kindly neighbor, Hanson. But she is unable to give him or the hostile land a chance. She feels completely isolated and the constant, howling winds drive her toward madness. While her husband is away rounding up wild horses, hoping to make enough money to send her back to Virginia, Love rapes her. She kills him and buries him in the sand. As originally filmed, the crazed woman then walks off into the wilderness to die. But when exhibitors refused for several months to show such a depressing picture, MGM had no choice but to reshoot the ending: This time Gish declares her love for Hanson, and tells him she will stay with him because she is no longer afraid of the winds.

Lillian Gish and Edward Earle

The Wind is an ahead-of-its-time feminist drama about a woman without money or opportunities who tries to survive in a man’s world. The only chance Gish has for an “easy life” is to become the mistress of Love, but she refuses to demean herself. Most interesting is how Marion deals with the relationships Gish has with the film’s other female, her cousin’s wife, and with Hanson. We dislike the cousin’s wife because of her cold treatment of Gish and for imagining her a rival for his affections. However, though she is a bitter woman she is no villain. She dearly loves her husband and without him, in this harsh world, she has no life, no options, so she holds on to him desperately. But as much as she wants Gish out of her life, she won’t abandon her to the lecher Love. Hanson is another interesting character. He falls in love with Gish but doesn’t want to dominate her (he won’t force himself on her). Instead, he wants equality, whereby he and Gish would work together and love each other. He realizes, and Gish comes to understand at the end, only together can they tame the winds.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) and Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower)

The Wind is beautifully acted by Gish and the talented, handsome Hanson. His most touching scene occurs when his new wife is disgusted by his attempt to embrace her and he assures her she need not fear his trying again. The picture is also exquisitely photographed (by John Arnold), with much emphasis on motion. Outside, the wind constantly blows (eight airplane propellers were used) as trains, wagons, and men on horseback force their way across the terrain. Seastrom creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia with repeated shots of the sand swirling toward windows and penetrating everything within Hanson’s cabin, including Gish’s clothes and long hair. When the door opens, sand rushes inside, making it impossible for Gish to keep the cabin tidy (Hanson doesn’t expect her to), and making her feel further trapped. The increasing disorder in the house represents Gish’s deteriorating mind.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The eerie scene in which her mind wanders with distorted, mad, hallucinatory images caused by the mobile camera that follows her through the dark, shadowy cabin, and a fantasized image of a white horse charging through the skies outside, reminds one of Seastrom’s Swedish horror classic, The Phantom Carriage. The reshot finale may seem a little hokey (she recovers awfully quickly from her mad spell once Hanson enters the cabin), but Seastrom’s last shot is a gem: The couple stands in the open doorway of their home, arms wrapped around each other, looking out into the wilderness without fear. Not only have the winds been conquered by love, but the wild (nature) and the domestic (the house), and this woman and this man, are as one.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, publicity photo for The Wind (Letty Mason and Lige Hightower)
Director Victor Sjostrom (left), cameraman John Arnold and Lillian – behind the scenes – “The Wind”
Alternate Oscars : one critic’s defiant choices for best picture – cover

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