True Heart Susie (1919)

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  • directed by D.W. Griffith
  • starring Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour, Loyola O’Connor
  • Young country girl Susie secretly loves a neighbor boy and sacrifices her own happiness to promote his ambitions.

I’m always intrigued when big directors go small and D.W. Griffith, having invented dozens of crucial film techniques in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance just a few years prior, settled into a string of films in these years that traded in large-scale historical movements for individual human emotion. He did have a few more epics left in him before he stopped directing in 1931, but True Heart Susie was one of those quieter Griffith films, more ice cream social than battlefield, which looked good but worked most of all because of great and very human performances. Well, let’s be more clear; his films benefited greatly from Lillian Gish.

The story is of a lifelong romantic bond between Susie and William, some of it known and some just projections on her part, but the film most of all seems hung up on one issue—the inability of “plain women” to claim any strength or control in their romantic pursuits.

William has an effortless way about him that attracts the outside world in droves. All the ladies in town are drawn to his looks and college officials and rich philanthropists are attracted to his future potential. Meanwhile Susie who clearly contains all or more of the same charm and attractiveness as William garners none of that brand of attention, so she copes by contributing to his tuition, inspiring him to propel upward in life, and all the while remains back home with her aunt and livestock. Two wildly different paths they are on connected only by the delicate and frayed thread of childhood love.

William eventually returns home with a smooth mustache, savviness, and a new political gig, and now takes up with a woman of “the paint and powder brigade,” the very antithesis to the plain Susie. Judging from the film’s theme of the battle between plain women and party girls who rely on cosmetics and conniving to win over a man, Griffith had a sympathy for the down-home style of woman who gets passed over, but it all ends in the same way most of these types of films end, with only the destruction of his new marriage providing the inspiration for seeing what was there all along.

The film succeeded for me because Griffith gave Lillian Gish the time and breathing room to properly express emotion. I’m noticing a surprisingly little amount of space in many silent films of this era. Most seem quick to cram in story or zip along various settings, but are rarely willing to slow down to visually express actual feelings. When you have the skill and eyes of Gish, though, it’s a no-brainer approach and here she shouldered an incredible amount of pain and betrayal throughout, which made for a memorable film.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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