By no intention of my own, but through the malfeasance of Netflix delays and mishaps and the distraction of a new DVR, the Auteurs series was put on hold for almost a month. Now I'm back - with the first Griffith feature in the series that I had not seen before. In 1919, close on the heels of Broken Blossoms, Griffith released another melodrama starring Lillian Gish. However, this one is much simpler - and in fact comes as a bit of a surprise after Griffith's epic earlier work.
Though Broken Blossoms scaled back Griffith's ambitions, True Heart Susie goes even further (or less further, depending on how you look at it). Just an unassuming little tale of a well-intentioned, long-suffering small town girl and the good but sometimes foolish man she loves, provides for, and is generally ignored by, it could seem extremely slight even for its less-than-90 minutes runtime. But as with Broken Blossoms (which, with its intricate sets and tragic framework seems lavish by comparison), the smaller scale brings out the lover of detail and fine-tuner of human emotion in Griffith. These qualities are of course present in his epics but tend to get overlooked and sometimes overwhelmed by the spectacle.
Lillian Gish turns in another sincere and captivating performance. She is completely good-hearted yet not sticky-sweet, and manages to convey Susie's naivete and sacrificial sense of stoicism effectively. One scene finds her on the other side of a hedge row from her sweetheart and his new gal pal - seeing them kiss she shudders and looks away in horror only to peek back. Griffith lets her do this a few too many times for my taste, but the gesture works and Susie's pain, disbelief, and near-masochistic stoking of that pain, are conveyed wordlessly.
The "wordlessly" is important because though True Heart Susie is of course silent, its title cards are not just placeholders. I've noticed this with much of Griffith's work - more than many silent auteurs, he fully utilizes titles as an element of the storytelling. I'm aware that often the director had little control over what these cards read but in this case the similarity of tone in the titles from film to film imply a certain sensibility at work, and the way they are used - to goose the story along, ladle on the sentiment, and play into the rhythm of the film - also imply Griffith's involvement. The first card we see, featuring the film's name, subtitles it "the story of a plain girl."
And so True Heart Susie can seem at first glance a plain little film but it's limned with quiet beauty - which occasionally bursts forth in full flush, as when Susie leans out her window, watering her plants, and the young man approaches, casting his shadow on the wall near the window. The foliage glows and glints and Gish's face registers surprise, relief, and ambivalence as her long-awaited happy ending seems to be waiting in the wings (finally).
While we don't see here the ambitious cross-cutting of Griffith's epics, the editing still thrives on a subtler form of juxtaposition - for example, between Susie and the modern, proto-flapper wife her friend chooses over her. And, even more effectively, between innocent past and disappointed present, as Griffith nostalgically recalls the early scenes of the film near the end. The movie itself is a nostalgic paean to a pre-World War I rural America, and its ritualistic worship of its own beginning registers as a kind of double nostalgia, deepening the pathos of the piece. Though small in scale, Griffith's work shows him to be, as always, an expansive artist.
Previous: Broken Blossoms
Next: Way Down East
The D.W. Griffith series begins here.