Sunday, 21 June 2015

DW changes pace… True Heart Susie (1919)

After so much grandeur and heavy weaponry it’s good to see DW Griffith turn off the blockbuster superhighway and head off down a dust road. After Judith, George Washington and Lloyd George it’s good to meet Susie, a “plain” girl but with a heart of golden titanium. It’s Lillian Gish of course and her consummate skill, along with Billy Bitzer’s golden eye make this one of Griffith’s best looking and contemplative films: a pastoral symphony of tinted textures all run at the pace of a cow herd after a full day’s grazing…

Carol Dempster’s in it and, once again, she is not Lillian but then few people are and Miss Gish (she would have no time for Ms I suspect…) has few peers in terms of naturalistic control –  many years later she confessed that she never wanted to be caught “acting” – nor the range and commitment. King Vidor thought he might lose her to self-imposed deprivation in La Boheme but here she comes across like Stan Laurel albeit with really big, pretty eyes.

School days
Lillian’s Susie follows her man like a love-struck puppy in their school days with Gish perfecting a walk that so precisely explains her character that you hardly need to see her face. At one point the two traipse around the lanes after school and walking deep into the shot, Susie shakes her foot to remove a stray twig, once, then twice... nothing will stop her from following her sweetheart and these discomforts are so very minor when compared to the years ahead.

Lillian Gish
In less thoughtful hands, Susie might come across as a pain but she’s hard-core: not just steadfast but operating on a strict set of rules and self-restrained to the point of obstinacy but, and it’s a crucial “but”, she isn’t after winning or losing and will deal with both those imposters just the same.

This is a very Victorian stoicism but that’s the director’s homeland and from the sound of it writer Marian Fremont too.  But it’s not just being true it’s also avoiding the pitfalls of flippancy, tight dresses and make-up. At one point Susie’s aunt berates her for "trying to improve on the Lord’s work” as she tries to apply some corn flower to enable her to compete with the “paint and powder brigade”… an army of young women who seem intent on just enjoying themselves and confusing men.

Definitely the “paint and powder brigade”!
Susie doesn’t do that and from their earliest days at school, she is faithful to her sweetheart William (Robert Herron), gently propping him up in class as he struggles in spelling and walking slightly behind him, a dutiful believer with that measured walk. Interestingly, Lilian had recommended a “walk” for her sister in Hearts of the World and the two were clearly students of physical acting from tip to toes.

The pair carve their names on a tree but always just about fail to kiss: timidity being next to goodliness whilst “prettier” girls show an interest in William but he remains true to Susie.

How many prettier girls would sell their cow for a boy?
William wants to go to college and yet his father (Wilbur Higby) tells him they can’t afford it. A chance meeting with a self-promoting stranger (George Fawcett), encourages the young man as the odd man says he sees something in him and would like to help someday. An odd moment until Susie decides to sell her prize cow and then anonymously donate the money to enable William to go to school. Now that is loyalty.

William asks Susie if he should marry... the wrong end of the stick awaits.
Unaware of the source of his good fortune, William assumes it’s the stranger coming through on his promise and ventures off to learn his fortune. At first William retains his links to home and Susie but his time away changes him – he has to fend for himself and cope with more advantaged students – and he returns more self-confident and determined to be a success as a local minister.
Susie is delighted but she hasn’t realised that he’s moved imperceptibly onwards and that she is now repositioned as a friend someone associated with where he has come from not where he is going.

Bettina bats her eyelids and blows Bill away...
Susie’s hopes are sustained a while longer but soon competition more closely aligned with William’s new objectives arrives from Chicago: the painted and powdered Bettina Hopkins (Clarine Seymour). Bettina is a good-time girl and a proto-flapper (the film is set in 1909) with pals with names like Sporty Malone (Raymond Cannon) and a willowy best mate played by Carol D. She’s not a bad person just someone carried away with her own life and on the look out to settle down just that little bit too early…

The truth hits hard...
Susie did not see Bettina coming and before she knows it is helping her put on her bridal gown as she and William get married. Susie takes this all in good grace and Gish transitions with real force through denial, anger and acceptance – at the engagement she hides her tears behind a fan in pieces but holding herself together for her pal: self-less Susie.

Surviving the engagement party
Is that it then? Of course not…  the path to true hearts is never as smooth as it should be but Griffith and cast tell it with knowing wit and some style: it’s good to see a Griffith romantic comedy. He can’t help himself preach a little and you are left feeling a little confused by the idea that only one in ten women get the chance to marry and yet men have a more open field?

The couple canoodle while Susie works - lovely composition
My daughter Beth (17 and just finishing her A Levels) watched the film with me and at the end asked when Hindle Wakes was written: comparing the women’s view of their own choices. The British play was produced in 1910 (thanks Lucie D!) and does make for an interesting comparison… one hoping for goodness to be recognised and the other looking forward to an age of independence in which women’s destiny is fashioned by their own hands not by who they marry.

That’s not to say I don’t like Susie: this is a lovely-looking film superbly focused by director and with a performance of real greatness from its lead. The irony is of course that Lillian might have been respectful but she was also one of those very women who forged ahead – just like Fanny Hawthorn in fact!

True Heart Susie is available on DVD from Image and comes with a nifty score from the Mont Alto Orchestra. It’s available direct or from Amazon.

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