PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

True Heart Susie

Michael Barrett

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.


True Heart Susie

Director: D.W. Griffith
Cast: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour
Length: 86
Studio: D.W. Griffith Productions
Distributor: Image Entertainment
MPAA rating: N/A
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-28

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.