Friday, June 26, 2009


True Heart Susie


A film review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

There is a story – perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not – about the 1987 film The Whales of August , starring the graceful, willowy Lillian Gish. She was then 94 years of age, appearing in her final movie after a remarkable 75-year film career. Lillian co-starred with the 81-year-old Bette Davis, playing her sister.

Someone remarked on the wonderful close-ups of Lillian in that film, and the tart-tongued Bette Davis supposedly replied: “They should be. The bitch invented them.”

Movie close-ups have, of course, been around since the 1890s. But they were honed to a fine art by D.W. Griffith, who utilized these and other innovations in his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). His muse was the delicate, angelic-faced Lillian Gish.

In Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919), Miss Gish plays the title role as a young rustic who’s enamored of a neighbor boy, gangly William (Robert Harron), but doesn’t know how to convey the affection she feels for him. She has some money, and secretly finances William’s college education so that he can make something of himself. But once he’s found success, she lets him slip off the hook, and he marries a gold-digging flirt (Clarine Seymour), leaving Susie’s love unrequited.

Halfway through the film, there is a moment when Susie realizes that her hopes are dashed, her sacrifice has been for naught, and the love of her life can never be hers.

This may be the shot that got Bette Davis so worked up. Griffith gives Miss Gish a giant close-up and lets it run for 37 seconds – an eternity in the silent era. During that time, we see Susie’s face register a panoply of emotions: stunned surprise; resentment; sorrow; puzzlement; wry amusement over what a fool she’s been; then her large eyes open wide as she contemplates the emptiness of her own future; supreme heartbreak; and finally, bitter resignation. All this, with only the finely honed delicacy of her beautiful face. We watch in awe, and we know what it’s called: acting.

In all the years I’ve been watching films, I’ve never seen another virtuoso performance that comes close to matching that one Lillian Gish close-up. Katherine Hepburn had her moments, and so, too, did Emma Thompson. Perhaps there were others.

But Lillian Gish, I think, did it best.

True Heart Susie is standard Griffith, meaning it is superbly organized, photographed and directed. At the beginning, Miss Gish and Harron appear as teenagers, and quite convincing they are. They enjoy walking down the country lanes together, and he even carves their initials on a “friendship tree.” But he never gets up enough nerve to kiss her, though she seemingly gives him every opportunity to do so.

Near the end of the film, William’s cheating wife dies from the pneumonia she contracted during a rainstorm while out with her boyfriend. The grieving widower does the right thing, arranging for a proper funeral. Then, and only then, does he learn that his education had been arranged by his teenage gal-pal, Susie, and that she has always been madly in love with him.

William’s own love for Susie, long denied, rushes to the surface, they embrace, and finally – after 87 minutes of mounting audience tension engineered by Griffith – William takes his life-long friend into his arms for the first time, and they enjoy their first kiss.

Most directors would end it there, but Griffith shows us no mercy. He fades on the kiss, then opens a new scene: William and Susie, walking together down the country lane, youngsters again. On this wishful note, the film ends.

True Heart Susie has been restored by David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates and is available in DVD format from Image Entertainment.