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Monday, March 2, 2009

Gone with the Wind

Last of the great silent films

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By the time sound was heard in the movies, silent film had outgrown its awkward childhood to become a mature medium, an expressive art form in its own right. One of the last silent films deserves to be ranked with the great movies of its kind. The Wind (1928) was also the Hollywood finale for Swedish director Victor Seastrom (or Sjstrm, as he was known in his homeland). Irked by having to add a happy ending to The Wind, which he adapted from Dorothy Scarborough's relentless novel, Seastrom returned to Sweden, where he remained active in the industry. He later starred in the Ingmar Bergman classic Wild Strawberries (1957).

The Windwas a Western that exposed the grim hardship faced by many of the pioneers. The enemy isn't the Indians, unseen if occasionally referred to, but nature itself. Seastrom eagerly integrated landscape into his films and the setting of The Wind, a valley of dry bones in a desert land, is a constant and inescapable presence. An unceasing gale blows, penetrating the clapboard shelters of the settlers, covering everything in dust. Sweeping the floor is a labor of Sisyphus.

One of the silent era's greatest actresses, Lillian Gish, stars as Letty, a cultivated Virginian who goes west to live on a desolate ranch with cousin Cora. But Cora is bitter and jealous, obsessed with the dust that seeps into everything and by the notion that Letty is after her husband. On the train ride to Cora's, Letty meets a swaggering cattle dealer, Roddy, who in a reversal of the Eden myth offers her the apple, all the while gnawing suggestively on a banana. Hoping to take refuge with him, Letty discovers that he's already married. Roddy, a man of raging and predatory sexual instincts, proves more dangerous than the howling wind.

Comfortably spanning a wide emotional range, Gish is flirtatious and chaste, innocent and resilient, a woman men want to assist but able in the end to take care of herself. She is pushed to the edge of madness by the incessant wind, which at full force keeps the interior of her cabin in nightmarish, almost sentient animation.

By the time of The Wind, silent movie acting had moved well beyond the melodramatic gestures of the earliest motion pictures and was aided in pursuit of a stylized naturalism by improvements in cinematography and editing. Seastrom's cameras were mobile, capable of moving up close and capturing subtle expressions of the eyes and face. Although occasional title cards convey dialogue, most of The Wind is told visually in the language of pure cinema.

7 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. Free and open to the public