True Heart Susie is a delicately comic romance from D.W. Griffith’s pastoral “short story” period, when he sought to recover from the losses of his monumental Intolerance (1916) with a series of films for Adolf Zukor’s Artcraft. This is another of his films with Lillian Gish, and therefore another important addition to the too-slowly growing output of his films on DVD.
But first we’ll talk about the bonus feature, Hoodoo Ann (1916). It’s a “second feature” in several ways, neither as good, nor in as good shape as True Heart Susie, and especially appropriate as a second feature. It’s another slice of romantic rural cornpone with the same leading man, Robert Harron, cast as the same gawky adolescent boy-man he’d play three years later in True Heart Susie.
Griffith produced and wrote the movie, (as Granville Warwick), for the short-lived but pivotal Triangle Film Corporation that he formed with Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. Technically, Griffith didn’t direct it; that credit goes to Lloyd Ingraham. Yet Griffith might as well have directed Hoodoo Ann because it employs the styles he perfected and virtually imposed, and we can’t imagine Ingraham wishing to depart from it if he could.
In what is basically a Mary Pickford role, Mae Marsh plays Ann, an absurdly friendless and exploited orphan at an establishment for women in their 20s pretending to be teens. (Check out any teen comedy of today to see how far we haven’t come.) Her “hoodoo” or bad luck is explained by the black housekeeper Cindy, (Madame Sul-Te-Wan, an important figure in silent features). This half of the 64-minute tale ends with a spectacular fire that begins in a seemingly far-fetched manner, (someone steps on matches), and while the children for some reason are sleeping in the middle of the day. Did they all have to change into nightclothes for an afternoon nap?
Ann is promptly and perhaps informally adopted by an old couple, the wife of whom is played by Loyola O’Connor, who would play the heroine’s aunt in True Heart Susie. Then her romance with Jimmie, (played by Harron), is allowed to develop, but not without a complicated, near-tragic misunderstanding.
It may not sound like it, but this film is largely a spoof on the melodrama it subscribes to. Its hand is tipped when Ann and Jimmie go to the picture show and see a western in an extended film-within-the-film sequence where half the comedy are the exaggerated clichés on the screen and the other half is the reaction shots of the rapt uncritical viewers.
Unless I misread the scene, the on-screen heroine seems to be played by our same actress, Mae Marsh, showing off her comic skills even more broadly. So our little Ann is watching a version of herself, and her attempts to mimic herself will lead to a bizarre, parody of near-tragedy.
Unlike True Heart Susie:, which is tinted and digitally mastered (with no apparent digital restoration) from a 35mm duplicate negative from the British Film Institute, Hoodoo Ann is untinted and mastered from a slightly faded master positive. This means faces sometime “bloom” whitely, losing some of the details that are essential to reading a silent performance (you can notice the increase in sharpness during the moments when scenes fade out).
Silent acting is an art form unto itself, as is silent cinema, and neither is in any way incomplete or unsubtle. Silent films deal in actions and emotions, and the interplay of emotions within and between scenes can be as subtle as you please. Those who doubt it should be directed to the Jane Austen-like subtlety of Lois Weber’s Too Wise Wives (1921), or Josef von Sternberg’s exquisite Docks of New York (1928, still not on DVD).
Or they can be directed to Lillian Gish’s performance in True Heart Susie, especially during the moment after she discovers all her romantic hopes are floundering. A festival of reactions chases each other across her face, and not always the ones you’d expect. If you’re not struck breathless, you may want to rise from your chair and cry, “That’s acting!”
In both of these films, Griffith (or Griffith/ Ingraham) plants the camera before a series of shots that interlock their spaces like boxcars, one standard view per location, so that as characters walk from one room to another or pass from outside to inside, you know the blueprint of the house or the map of the town. One very effective detail is how Griffith employs depth via the “fourth wall” (the camera space) by having characters abruptly enter and exit the frame under the camera’s shoulder rather than stage right or left.
Sometimes a detail, (such as a full-length person), is isolated by cropping off the image around them in darkness. A character’s thoughts and dialogue are often illustrated with flashbacks or fantasies, the better to dispense with title cards. And of course, climactic crosscutting is employed.
Some scenes are analyzed in more detail, but close-ups are usually reserved for a moment of emphasis. Gish usually claims this privilege. At the risk of repeating a favorite anecdote, we’re reminded why, when Gish was praised for her wonderful close-ups in The Whales of August (1987), co-star Bette Davis supposedly said, “They ought to be. The bitch invented them.”
And like Hoodoo Ann much of this film, especially the first reel, is based on a form of comedy that gently spoofs its own conventions while faithfully employing them. An early card declares of the adolescent couple: “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.” This is an acknowledgement of the hokum we’re above, an invitation to join in anyway for old time’s sake, and a sly, subversive challenge to our pretensions.
And the thing is, it works. The final twists, by which Gish’s secret empowerment of her callow boyfriend’s success backfires and fate must intervene through various characters, can have the viewer stamping in the stall, just as wall-eyed as the naive movie-goers in Hoodoo Ann. The sharp thrusts of Gish’s reactions, all the more piercing for their finely honed delicacy, are largely responsible for this.
By the ‘20s, Griffith would be widely regarded as a purveyor of dated Victorian melodramatics still wearing old hats and dramatic clodhoppers while everyone had supposedly moved on to the grand sophistication of Cecil B. DeMille. Of course, the audience didn’t know what poor simple idiots they were. Do we now?
David Shepard, that Carnegie or Nobel of silent film presentation is responsible for producing this disc. In a thoughtful extra, composer Rodney Sauer not only identifies every piece of contemporary music compiled into the score for “Susie” but allows you to access them.