Saturday, October 08, 2011

Cinema concert: The Wind (score by Carl Davis conducted by Carl Davis, FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra)

Closing Event. Pohjoismyrsky / Stormen / Il vento (MGM, US 1928). D: Victor Seastrom; SC: Frances Marion, based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough (1925); intertitles: John Colton; DP: John Arnold; ED: Conrad A. Nervig; AD: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Withers; cost: Andre-Ani; add. D: Harold Bucquet, Red Golden; cast: Lillian Gish (Letty), Lars Hanson (Lige), Montagu Love (Roddy), Dorothy Cumming (Cora), Edward Earle (Beverly), William Orlamond (Sourdough), Don Coleman (cowboy), Laon Ramon [Leon Janney], Carmencita Johnson, Billy Kent Schaefer (Cora’s children); filmed: 1927; 35 mm, 6407 ft (including introductory cards), 78' (22 fps; with certain sections 18 fps); from: Photoplay Productions, London. English intertitles. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in Italian, 8 Oct 2011.

Score by Carl Davis; performed by FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra; conducted by Carl Davis. Score commissioned by Thames Television for Channel 4; performed by arrangement with Faber Music Ltd., London, on behalf of Carl Davis. The Live Cinema presentation of The Wind by arrangement with Photoplay Productions. Originally produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow.

Kevin Brownlow (GCM Catalogue): "Dorothy Scarborough’s novel of life in Texas was so unflattering that she thought it prudent to publish anonymously. It was inspired by her mother, a delicate girl from the South who goes to live with her cousin in an arid area of the Panhandle, and is driven into a loveless marriage. A terrifying “Norther” drives her into the desert, insane. Lillian Gish realized it would make an exceptional film and recommended it to MGM. Irving Thalberg, who was overworked, trusted her to produce it. Gish chose first Clarence Brown, who had just directed Garbo, but he saw no way of making it work. “People just don’t like wind,” he said. She then selected Victor Seastrom, the director of her previous film, The Scarlet Letter, in which she also played opposite Lars Hanson. “Both Hanson and Seastrom were perfect for that film,” wrote Gish. “The Italian school of acting was one of elaboration, the Swedish was one of repression.” Seastrom had been an influential pioneer of Swedish cinema who had made the classic The Phantom Carriage. He ended his career as the leading character in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. It says something for Louis B. Mayer that Seastrom was his favourite director. The Hollywood technicians found Seastrom such a kind, thoughtful, and lovable man that they nicknamed him Jesus. (“Where’s Jesus?” “He’s in the men’s room.”)"

"The script was written by Frances Marion, one of the most gifted and prolific writers in Hollywood, responsible for an astonishing series of classics, from Humoresque to Stella Dallas to Camille with Garbo. Though the interiors were shot at the MGM studios in Culver City, Seastrom took the company to the Mojave Desert for exteriors. Katherine Albert, reporting for Motion Picture Magazine, followed them out there, and quickly regretted it. She had to drive miles to the town of Mojave, where the company made their headquarters: “To reach the location, one had to drive over awful dirt roads into the sweltering heat – the thermometer was seldom lower than 115 degrees all the time the company was on location – into the blinding sun, the bleak, barren waste that is the Mojave Desert. That anyone could be active in that scorching heat is almost inconceivable. Yet there were cameras, generators, and other studio equipment planted in the broad expanse of wasteland… There were the usual number of workers, all wearing high boots in case they encountered rattlesnakes, and most of them had whitish-looking stuff smeared over their faces to keep off sunburn. Goggles, making them look like men from Mars, were worn to protect their eyes from sand."

“But there was Lillian Gish in little, low-heeled slippers, hatless and without any protection for her eyes. As I drove up I heard a frightful noise and in a second the scene was clouded by enormous drifts of sand. The noise came from the giant machines used to create wind. The eight propellers seemed to lift the desert and blow it before the cameras."

“‘It is without doubt the most unpleasant picture I have ever made,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘I mean by that the most uncomfortable to do. I don’t mind heat so much, but working before the wind machines all the time is nerve-wracking. You see, it blows the sand and we’ve put sawdust down, too. And there are smoke pots to make it look even more dirty. I’ve been fortunate. The flying cinders haven’t gotten into my eyes, although a few have burned my hands.’

"Gish thought it the best film she had done at MGM. Thalberg agreed, but the months went by and she heard rumours that it was being cut. “Irving explained that eight of the largest exhibitors in the country had insisted on a change in the ending. Instead of the heroine disappearing in a storm, she and the hero were to be reconciled in a happy ending. The heart went out of all of us, but we did what they wanted. Frances Marion told us later it was the last film to which she gave her heart as well as her head.” The irony was that the film now violated the Hays Code; a girl, having killed a man, lives happily ever after. The Wind received mixed reviews. The New York Times said that Seastrom hammered his point until one longed for just one suggestion of subtlety. Picture Play called it “a fine and dignified production”. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, wrote to Lillian Gish: “A combination of the greatest sincerity, brilliance, and unvarying charm places you in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world.”" – KEVIN BROWNLOW

The music

Carl Davis: "My reaction to the first screening of The Wind in silence was one of physical discomfort – the combination of dry wind and sand invading everything and that the music I would write would have to reflect the extreme harshness of the environment of western Texas. My second reaction was the way the landscape impinged on the lives of the characters whose drama would be shaped by it. Wind storms and tornadoes were frequent occurrences and informed the climaxes of the story."

"I started by thinking of what I could eliminate from the orchestra: so no pretty winds or sonorous brass. Instead, strings grouped in sixes, and a large percussion ensemble of five players, each equipped with the instruments that would produce a convincing sandstorm, as well as the unusual clatter of the Hungarian cimbalom. I called on the contemporary English composers Colin and David Matthews to help with the orchestration. They had the necessary vocabulary to produce the a-musical sound effects so that the semi-improvised passages would be sufficiently well-organized as to allow me to fit the score to the film."

"In the stiller passages, a barn dance and a lull in the storm, I used the songs “Goodnight, Irene” and “Oh Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” (the words appear on the screen). But Swedish director Victor Seastrom’s film and Lillian Gish’s performance were the true inspiration, and called for a mixture of tortured chromaticism and Stephen Foster-like simplicity. The climax of the film is so intense that I for one am relieved that the MGM producers insisted on tacking on a happy ending, rather than the tragic one of the novel and the first cut of the film, in which Gish’s character is carried off in madness by the storm after she has killed the man who raped her. After its London premiere in 1983, the film with my score was performed in Pordenone in 1986, followed by performances in Frankfurt, Luxembourg, and Brussels, and in 1987 in New York, as part of a season of four silent films at Radio City Music Hall." CARL DAVIS

AA: Drama. Revisited Victor Sjöström's masterpiece which has stood the test of time. The wind is the central visual motif of the picture. Psychological, mythical and metaphysical meanings of the wind emerge. (According to the Indian myth the Northern wind is launched by a wild horse on the sky.) From the train ride through the desert to the ball interrupted by a tornado to the final violent confrontation it is Letty's rite of passage to master the forces of nature. I had heard the music by Carl Davis before, and I prefer his to the original score which exists on the sonorized version (which is not bad either). In a live performance by a full orchestra it gets more physical. The score is also versatile with delightful inventions and varieties of mood. Most importantly, there is a sense of grandeur worthy of the movie.

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