Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: 'True Heart Susie' Shows Griffith's Softer Side

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday November 30, 2007

D.W. Griffith is known these days primarily for his large-scale epics Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). And while these films contributed greatly to the history and art of motion pictures, they do not fully convey the range and power of Griffith's talent, nor are they his most enjoyable films. 

Some of his most satisfying work was done a much smaller scale. Some of the short films he made for the Biograph company prior to Birth of a Nation are among his best work, like tales in miniature told with deft skill and economy. And some of his less grandiose features are more heartfelt, more sincere, and far less bombastic than the epic crowd-pleasers on which his reputation rests today. 

True Heart Susie (1919) is one of a series of films Griffith referred to as his "short story" pictures. It is a small, gentle film, one of the director's pastoral romances in which he celebrates with warmth and nostalgia the sort of rural village life in which he was raised. The film has just been released on DVD by Image Entertainment in an excellent transfer produced by David Shepard. 

Lillian Gish plays a country lass, a plain girl in love with the boy (Robert Harron) across the way. When his father denies him the chance to go to college, Susie quietly sells her cow and a few other belongings to anonymously pay the boy's tuition. But when he returns from college to become the village teacher, he is seduced by and marries another girl in the village, a wild one of questionable sincerity.  

The plot becomes a bit contrived from there, as Griffith does everything he can to ensure that, through no fault of the boy or Susie, the vampish wife is taken ill and dies as two secrets come to light: the wife had concealed transgressions against the husband, and Susie was in fact the boy's true benefactor. Thus Griffith's 19th century morals are conveniently kept intact as he reunites his two saintly characters while focusing all blame on the vamp. 

But this is in part what makes the film so engaging. It's a simple tale, with simple plot points and simple emotions. And Lillian Gish handles the role beautifully. For viewers not familiar with Gish, the performance may seem a bit odd, for Gish is in a sense playing with her own screen image, gently chiding the simple girlish role she has been given on the one hand, yet delivering wonderfully understated emotions scenes on the other.  

While epic dramas full of action and showmanship may have satisfied Griffith's ego, it is the smaller films like True Heart Susie that reveal the true soul of the director—his warmth, his sentimentality, his reverence or a 19th century vision of female purity, and his passion for the everyday drama of everyday life.  

The disc comes with a bonus feature, Hoodoo Ann (1916), a Griffith-supervised light comedy which he wrote under a pseudonym.  


True Heart Susie 

Directed by D.W. Griffith.  

Starring Lillian Gish, Robert Harron. 

Image Entertainment, $24.99.