There had appeared an anonymous novel (later acknowledged by Dorothy Scarborough) , a tale of sickening horror, entitled “Wind.” It was the story of a young, refined Southern girl, who goes to Texas in an earlier day; is made desperate by the wind and blowing sand and hard human circumstance; marries a rough cowboy; is violated by a man she had met on the train; murders him and goes mad—a category of black disaster. It was regarded as fine material for a picture, well suited to motion photography, because of the wild, tireless wind—perfect symbol of motion, and of the fierce action of the story. A director, Clarence Brown, was highly enthusiastic over the possibilities of “Wind” on the screen, but a favorable decision might have been less quickly reached had all the conditions been foreseen.
For making the picture was an experience nearly as desolating as the story. When the studio scenes were finished, a trek of wagons, trucks and motor busses, loaded with paraphernalia, an entire company of actors, a big crew of technical assistants, mechanics, etc., the whole accompanied by eighty mounted cowboys, invaded the blistering Mojave Desert, in the cause of art.
Mr. Brown, after all, was not to direct. He had been sent off to Alaska, on the “Trail of ’98,” and could not, it seemed, finish it. Victor Seastrom was given the direction of “Wind,” and again Lars Hansen was Lillian’s leading man. Satisfactory as far as it went. They had waited a long time on Brown—until they could wait no longer. Spring had come. The Mojave in midsummer was unthinkable. So that big procession one morning got in motion.
It was May, and it was hot. Arriving at Mojave, the men took up quarters in a train that had been shunted onto a disused siding—Lillian, Miss Moir and a few others in a flimsy little hotel, opposite the tracks, where engines switched and banged most of the night long. It was a Harvey hotel, which was the best that could be said for it; the food at least would be good. Cool enough at first, the weather presently became unbearably hot. Whereupon a new difficulty presented itself: Film coating melted from the celluloid. No developing could be done with the thermometer at 1 20 in the shade. They tried freezing the films, but this made them brittle, like thin glass. Finally, they packed them, frozen, and rushed them by special cars to the Metro laboratories, one hundred and forty miles away, to be carefully thawed out.
And the human misery of it! Miss Moir writes:
Quivering veils of heat lay over the desert, there was no shade anywhere, and a burning wind blew all day long, raising blisters on your face, taking every bit of skin off your lips. I shall never forget the appearance of the crew during that picture. To protect their faces from the sun they all wore a heavy blackish make-up while their cracked and swollen lips were covered with some sort of white stuff. Add to this goggles, and handkerchiefs tied round their necks, and you can imagine that most desperate looking gang to be seen anywhere on that desert.
When the studio executives saw the first rushes they were so horrified at Lars Hanson’s unromantic appearance that they ordered the whole sequence to be done again and Lars Hanson to appear shaven and clean, as they argued that no girl could possibly entertain romantic thoughts for such a hairy ruffian.
The cowboys added interest and excitement to the adventure. Long, lean blasphemous individuals, reckless of everything, gambling the minute they were not needed for a scene.
To which Lillian adds:
“It was the very worst experience I ever went through. Temperature 120 in the shade. In the sun . . . ? One man burned his hand quite badly opening the door of a motor.
We had eight wind machines, and in the studio, to match up with the blowing sand outside (supposed to be blowing in the doors and windows) , we used sulphur pots, the smoke giving the effect of sand blowing in. The sand itself was bad enough, but the pots were worse. I was burned all the time, and was in danger of having my eyes put out.
The hardships of making ‘Way Down East’ were nothing to it. My hair was burned and nearly ruined by the sulphur smoke. I could not get it clean for months. Such an experience is not justified by any picture.”
Nature seems to have wearied of their evil-smelling feeble devices, and one day gave an example of what she could do herself. Miss Moir, graphically:
A few days before we finished the scenes up there it turned cold. Towards the end of the afternoon work was stopped by a terrific sandstorm. A howling wind, which soon assumed the proportions of a hurricane, tore down from the mountains sending the sand whirling in dense masses before it. The sky was black and everything was obscured by a veil through which we could dimly perceive the figures of the cowboys bent forward on their saddles, horse and rider braced against the oncoming fury, making for camp. There was an extraordinary beauty about the scene, as Lillian and I stood for a moment and watched it before getting into the car, and I could appreciate the feeling in her voice when she said “Oh, how I wish Mr. Griffith was here. How he would have loved to photograph that.”
All night long the storm raged while our shaky little hotel quivered to its foundations. As we lay in bed trying vainly to sleep, we could see the flimsy walls of the hotel bending before the onslaught, and in the morning the room was full of sand which had leaked in through every crevice of the ill-built structure.
This was exactly what they had come up there to produce, but apparently they made no use of it. One remembers Griffith waiting for the blizzard in New England, and echoes Lillian’s heartfelt utterance. The day had come when Nature’s effects were no longer in favor — were even resented, as an imitation; and one who has seen the picture must confess that those eight wind machines were not easily to be outdone.
The most depressing of Lillian’s films, “Wind,” is one of the best—beautiful in its sheer ferocity. Nemirovitch Dantchenko, distinguished manager, playwright and producer, of the Moscow Art Theatre, being then in Hollywood, after a preview of it, wrote as follows:
I want once more to tell you of my admiration of your genius. In that picture, the power and expressiveness of your portrayal begat real tragedy. A combination of the greatest sincerity, brilliance and unvarying charm, places you in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world. . . . One feels your great experience and the ripeness of your genius. … It is quite possible that I shall write [of it] again to Russia, where you are the object of great interest and admiration by the people.
(Life and Lillian Gish by Albert Bigelow Paine, NY – 1932)