TRUE HEART SUSIE (D.W. Griffith, 1919, USA, 87m, BW)
Cast: Walter Higby, Claire Seymour, Kate Bruce, Raymond Cannon, Wilbur Higby, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Loyala O'Connor, Clarine Seymour
Director: D.W. Griffith
Running Time: 87 min.
In a country town, Susie (Lillian Gish), innocent and big-hearted, quietly gives money to William Jenkins (Robert Harron), a man she secretly yearns for, so he can attend college. After he graduates, he returns and becomes the town's minister. However, he never realizes how Susie feels about him and ignores her in favor of Bettina Hopkins (Claire Seymour), a wild and unfaithful girl who steals his heart. Susie must then find a way to show William that she has loved him all along.
This being a silent movie, and a Griffith one to boot, the course of true love is never going to run true, and William’s head is turned by Bettina (Clarine Seymour), a seamstress with a liking for a good time who needs a financially sound husband for a doormat so that she can continue with her partying ways. Before you know it, poor Susie is getting measured up to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of the man she loves, and only she seems able to see his future bride’s true nature.
This would be a dull movie regardless of who directed it, but the fact that the man responsible is considered by many to be the father of modern cinema simply compounds the crime. Pacing is all over the place. Griffith punctuates long dreary passages in which hardly anything happens with long reaction shots of Gish, then rounds it all off with a rushed ending that see the inconvenient wife killed off in less than a minute’s running time. Ironically, this swift despatch sadly foreshadowed the fate of Clarine Seymour, the actress who plays William’s wife, who would die following an operation the year after True Heart Susie was released.
Lillian Gish plays the shy, plain and simple girl who loves him. In her scenes with Harron, they had a chemistry which fills the screen. She starts out as plain girl, but about half way through the film she starts to look pretty. It is a gradual transformation and she pulls it off remarkably well, gradually accenting her better features and holding her body more gracefully. She also seems to grow as a person in the film. She starts out as an awkward child living in a fantasy world where she imagines that she is loved more than she actually is. As the film progresses, she learns to face reality, to learn how to look pretty and act gracefully without changing who she is. None of this is accomplished in any great dramatic way. It is accomplished the way these things are often done in real life, quietly, by small incidents which are important to the person but not that important to anyone else. But when these incidents occur, you see a slight physical change on the surface, but somehow she also shows you a dramatic change deep inside her whole being. How she accomplishes this is a mystery to me and one of the miracles of acting.
This is a really sweet and entertaining film - I like it a bunch. Lillian Gish is quite a bit too pretty to really seem realistic as "plain", but they manage to braid and slick down her hair in the earlier scenes, and with her shuffling along and the like, it almost works - and she's great in the part, of course. The character of Bettina is not really in the vein of "evil vamp" or anything like that - she's really just an immature young girl who likes to party and flirt and just isn't ready to settle down with a house and husband yet. Clarine Seymour, who plays Bettina, is really excellent in this film - she completely brings her character to life and even manages to make what appears to be a man-stealing home-wrecker into a sympathetic character. It is hard to forget while watching this film, the early deaths of two of the stars here, Harron and Seymour, in only a year's time. The art direction and camera-work nicely captures the rural setting and youthful faces of the stars.
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