True Heart Susie (1919)

18 10 2008

Another very good melodramatic tragedy courtesy of DW Griffith and Lillian Gish. As much as I liked this (and I did like quite a bit), I still feel like I should be liking it more. It’s an embarrassing thing to say, but I simply can’t make it through pre-1930s, or 1920s for that matter, films without feeling, well, bored, to make things simple. I really want to like Griffith’s pioneering aesthetic and to an extent, I do, but not quite enough to want to watch it for more than an hour. On a similar note, I also love Lillian Gish’s tragic facial expressions, but I guess neither thing is enough to carry the film for its whole running time. It’s not a film that I even remotely regret watching, but I also can’t see myself wanting to watch it again in the future.

There are, however, some moments, most of which involve Gish, that really have an achingly poetic tone to them. There’s a lot of these moments, but they are dragged down by the many plot progressing scenes in which the developments can be seen from a mile away. Sure, the predictable nature of the story was probably inherited due to its age, but it doesn’t make walking through its muddy puddles any easier.

I’ll admit that I sound a little too defensive here, but it doesn’t actually come from a fear of making the purists angry. I genuinely see something special going here, and it is something that I genuinely want to enjoy more than I do. I guess a problem could be that the film’s initial charm wears off just as soon as the most dull sections of the story takes place. When Susie’s lover, William, returns from college, there is a whole half-hour or so devoted to how uninterested he is in here. Sequence after sequence, titlecard after titlecard, we are told just how “plain and simple” Susie is when compared to the other women in William’s life.

This is all a bit painful to watch, especially since Gish herself is far prettier than any other actress in the film, almost at an overwhelming level. It was probably Griffith’s intention to see a sacrificing, quiet woman be cast aside from her would-be lover only because of society’s standards. However, “society’s standards” is a frequently present title card that states that Susie is plain and unable to be William’s true love. This is nailed into the audience’s head, bordering on being subliminal. I understand why there’s a lack of nuance in early motion pictures, but I can’t overlook it when it makes me feel as though I’m wasting my time. Again, this is a good movie, but there’s so many painfully long stretches and they threaten to dilute some of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen in any movie.

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3 responses

18 10 2008
DG

You’ll like silents more the more you see them and get used to the language. How are you on the comedies? I realize it’s not exactly your thing but it would be an easy way to break yourself (back?) in to silent film. Comedies and short experimentals.

18 10 2008
Jake Savage

Well, I do have two more Ozu films to watch from the Silent Ozu Family Comedies boxset so yeah, definitely more planned. Short experimentals are a lot more easier for me to watch, that and early documentaries.

28 10 2008
Mango

The Ozu silents are a film language distantly removed from the early silents of Griffith. From cinema’s beginnings to the mid-30s or so, even a few years separation can drastically out-date a film (unlike today, where it can be difficult to separate modern blockbusters from their 25 year old predecessors). What other Griffith films have you seen? What else have you seen from early silent cinema?

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