There is a collective dream of the era we like to describe as Victorian. It is composed of brownish lace, top hats, dusty wrought iron and soft-edged photos of remote, elegant people. It’s that feeling we have when we come across something surprisingly delicate and worn in an antique shop. It’s the way the term “Victorian” itself suggests good posture, engravings, and heavy drapery.
Within that collective dream, occasionally there would come a gem like True Heart Susie (1919). This is a film not only made from dreams, and not only nostalgic memories of the “olden days”, but polished snippets of a time that was still alive and well. The year it was made World War I had just ended, the Model T was still the butt of countless jokes, and only 2% of American farms had electricity.
At this time, technically the very end of the Edwardian era, D.W. Griffith had finished Intolerance and several WWI themed films and had shifted his focus toward quieter stories. Aside from his famed Broken Blossoms, he made a variety of what Lillian Gish later described as “rural poems,” such as A Romance of Happy Valley and The Greatest Question (both 1919).
Thanks to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation being the most significant film in history, helping to advance screen techniques, influencing countless filmmakers, and still being remembered today for precisely none of those things, Griffith’s “rural poems” tend to get overlooked. But while True Heart Susie is the quietest and gentlest of these character-driven dramas it is, in my mind, just as much a masterpiece as Griffith’s other major works.
Lillian Gish stars as Susie, described as “plain” and “simple.” If Susie is plain, maybe it’s because her little hats are a trifle old-fashioned, and the style of her becoming dresses perhaps very old-fashioned. If she is simple, maybe it’s because she is slow to suspect dishonesty in others, and loves with unquestioning openness. Lest you suspect our Susie of being overly idealized, let me add that Gish graces her character with a naivete that never cloys, and sweetly awkward mannerisms to match. Her Susie wins you over not just through virtue but by the virtue of being herself.
The wonderful Robert Harron plays William, whom Susie secretly adores. He is an upstanding young man, unsure of himself but ambitious, longing for the college education that his farmer father dismisses. He is so bashful that he can’t bring himself to give Susie a kiss. That’s alright, for she will keep waiting for it patiently. He’s the only boy in the world for her, and that kiss will come soon enough, she is sure.
Susie wants William to have his education, so in secret she sells her beloved pet cow and mails him the money anonymously. William, overjoyed, believes the money to be from a wealthy benefactor. Susie doesn’t correct him, for she is every bit as excited for him. Eventually William, now a manly minister, returns home from college. She listens adoringly as he explains his thoughts on “painted and powdered” girls. “Men flirt with that kind, but they marry the plain and simple ones,” he asserts over a bowl of ice cream at the soda parlor. Susie is all aglow, for she, “dimly conscious she is both plain and simple, takes this entirely too seriously.”
But alas for our trusting Susie, for now the painted and powdered rival enters the story. Flirty, fun-loving, and about as self-centered as you’d expect, Bettina (Clarine Seymour) seduces William for practical purposes and William of course falls for her. Susie dimly realizes that she has lost William forever…
Well-paced and shot with exceptional beauty, True Heart Susie is not only a rural poem, but a love-letter to rural places and people. The quaintness of its settings and characters never feels forced or overtly stylized. It is an exquisite piece of Americana.
The title cards, gently teasing our characters, add much to the “love-letter” experience. Modern audiences might be taken aback with a title saying “Of course they don’t know what poor simple idiots they are–and we, who have never been so foolish, can hardly hope to understand–” But the affection behind it is sincere. The audience is invited not just to smile at the seriousness of these young, “simple” characters, but to be reminded of a time when they were perhaps just as serious. True Heart Susie is nothing if not affectionate.
This film would not work without top-notch performances, and that’s just what the three main actors deliver. Harron goes from gawky, grinning youth (and this a few years after playing a manly gangster in Intolerance) to self-assured minister with aplomb. Everything, including the his subtlest body language, convinces us that his character has truly gone from boy to man. When his “painted and powdered” girl shows how unfit a match she is for him, he is gentlemanly toward her but you sense his hurt. Harron’s natural talent would not be out of place in a film today; it’s almost perplexing that he isn’t better known.
Seymour is pitch-perfect as the said “powdered” girl. While this character is perhaps as close to a villain as we get in this story, she not completely unsympathetic and is vividly brought to life. Bettina’s a girl that a lot of us probably know–someone very social who loves dancing and music, is easily bored and perhaps was a little spoiled while growing up. What William needs is a devoted wife and skillful housekeeper (this being an age when housekeeping was an art) but Bettina has little interest in the latter and is too self-centered for the former. That being said, she’s not all selfishness–despite a friend’s advances she stays loyal to William, and when she’s caught in an uncompromising situation her anxiety over disappointing him is real.
More than one viewer has thought that the portrayal of Susie just might be Gish’s finest performance. There was perhaps no other actress who could create a portrait of sweet, feminine purity so sincerely as Gish. Her Susie appeals to our deepest sympathies, and while you smile at her quaint mannerisms at first, they quickly win you over. Throughout the course of the film you admire her patience and self-sacrifice. For me, there is a breath of fresh air in the scenes where she shows forgiveness toward her rival. This type of mercy is rarely seen in today’s films, which seem more concerned with punishing and humiliating rivals. Bettina is allowed a bit more dignity.
Gish is often described as a dramatic actress while her sister Dorothy is noted for her comedy skills, yet it seems to me that Gish certainly had a fine comedic timing of her own. The scene where Susie, indignant over Bettina’s treatment of William, makes her small hand into a fist, might be what Walter Kerr was thinking of when he mentioned Harry Langdon‘s “curious kinship with Miss Gish” in his book The Silent Clowns.
It’s almost hard to describe how much I love True Heart Susie. If I were to introduce some viewers unfamiliar with silents to this film, I would try my best to be casual. I would cheerfully caution them against judging it as “too Victorian” (explaining the Edwardian era might be too much), and advise them to put aside their 21st century cynicism and accept the film on its own terms. As it began I admit I would be sneaking glances at them, anxious for them to love it as much as I do.
But then, I would relax. I wouldn’t need to worry, for the charm of Griffith’s True Heart Susie can draw people in on its own.