True Heart Susie (1919)
Director: D. W. Griffith
Cast: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Wilbur Higby
Synopsis: Susie, a plain young country girl, secretly loves a neighbor boy, William. She believes in him and sacrifices much of her own happiness to promote his own ambitions.
WARNING! – This review contains SPOILERS!
D. W. Griffith’s career was already in decline when he made this turgid romance, although he and Hollywood probably didn’t yet realise it. The expense of Intolerance had broken him financially, and he was forced to work under contract to Paramount to pay off his debts. He’d never again have the kind of creative freedom he’d enjoyed when making The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, and the quality of his work suffered as a result. There were still a few artistic highs ahead of him, but they were just occasional blips on an inexorably downward slope.
Of course, there’s only so much even a director like Griffith can do with insipid melodramas like this. Lillian Gish, one of his trustworthy muses, plays the title character, a plain and simple country girl who’s so devoted to awkward lanky neighbour William (Robert Harron) that she’s prepared to sell her cow to fund his college tuition. Now that’s what I call love. I’ve certainly never had a girl sell her cow for me, and I’m as lovable as they come. Anyway, William’s feelings towards Susie seem a little confused. He cares enough to carve their initials into the trunk of a tree, but is too uncertain and shy to plant a kiss on her lips even when she’s face up and puckering.
William returns from college with a fine moustache and a little more backbone, having soundly thrashed a fellow college student who taunted him with the nickname of ‘Butter’. He has plans to be a minister, which doesn’t exactly make him the most exciting man in the neighbourhood. Nevertheless, he’s a good looking chap and a bit of a babe magnet, as we see when he’s given the eye by a couple of flappers in an ice cream parlour. He explains to Susie that men might flirt with women like that, but they marry plain and simple women. The unspoken coda is ‘like you’ which is a back-handed compliment if ever there was one, but Susie seems quite pleased to be included in this marriageable category.
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.
Gish is miscast as the plain and simple Susie. She was never a raving beauty, but she could hardly be described as plain either, and she possessed a winsome charm that effortlessly captivated audiences at the time. She puts that air of vulnerability to good use in the movie, quickly winning the audience’s sympathy. The trouble is, William is such an insipid wimp that you can’t help feeling she’d be better off if she just wrote off the cow and went looking elsewhere…
(Reviewed 11th February 2013)