THE “I” OF THE CAMERA – True Heart Susie by William Rothman (1988)

  • Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics
  • William Rothman
  • © Cambridge University Press 1988

True Heart Griffith

After D. W. Griffith broke with the American Biograph Company over his wish to release Judith of Bethulia as a feature-length film, his output was divided between large-scale epics and more unassuming productions that show him in a different and in many ways more appealing light (although Griffith’s greatest films, such as The Birth of a Nation, succeed as intimate dramas as well as epics). Of these deceptively modest films. True Heart Susie (1919) and the more famous Broken Blossoms, made in the same year, are the most charming, the most assured, and the most lovable. True Heart Susie is also one of Griffith’s most prophetic meditations on the medium of film.

True Heart Susie

Susie (Lillian Gish) grows up in the small town of Pine Grove. (The film calls this Indiana, but who could doubt that Griffith is thinking of his native Kentucky?) She has been raised by her “Aunty” (Loyola O’Connor, whom Griffith loved to cast as a matronly woman bearing on her shoulders all the suffering of the ages), always expecting to marry William (Robert Harron) when the time comes. But when will he understand that she is the love of his life and claim her with a kiss?

True Heart Susie opens with the title “Is real life interesting? … Every incident is taken from real life,” followed by a dedication to the women who suffer “pitiful hours of waiting for the love that never comes.” The film’s claim for the reality of its incidents is tempered by its acknowledgment that its story departs from the romantic scenario as it unfolds in the lives of the true-hearted women (rhetorically, Griffith embraces them within his audience) whose pitiful waiting is not finally rewarded as is that of Susie. Indeed, Susie is doubly rewarded: William at last comes to know her, and all along she is known by Griffith and by us. In the face of the camera, Lillian Gish stands in for all the unknown Susies in the world to whom True Heart Susie offers not only pity but also a genuine, respectful appreciation.

That is, the film begins by declaring its reality to be authentically real and yet transfigured — transfigured, we might say, by the medium of film. This acknowledgment, sustained throughout the film, enables True Heart Susie to avoid the overblown and naive rhetoric of, say. Intolerance and to strike a fully satisfying narrative tone reminiscent of Jane Austen (hardly a name one usually associates with Griffith). One of Jane Austen’s central achievements is the creation of a voice for herself as narrator, at once objective and delicately ironic, that fully registers the intimacy of her relationship with her characters. In True Heart Susie, perhaps uniquely in Griffith’s work, indeed in the entire silent cinema, the titles consistently achieve such a voice.

True Heart Susie

In most of his films, Griffith composes at least some titles in a stilted, flowery diction that declares these pronouncements to be from “on high.” Such titles are denials that the film’s author is human, disavowals of the human feelings and attachments that Griffith’s camera so eloquently expresses as well as reveals. In True Heart Susie, there is no conflict between camera and narrative voice: Griffith’s titles declare that he is, in ail essential ways, no different from the people who live within the world of his film.

One manifestation of Griffith’s intimate bond with the world of True Heart Susie is the transparency of his identification with the obtuse figure of William. When William’s first story, with which he hopes to make his mark as a writer, is accepted for publication, the letter of acceptance from the big-city publisher is not a little condescending in its praise of the story’s “quaint characterizations.” Through this letter, Griffith speaks volumes about the gap between William’s sensibility (as revealed by the camera) and that of the publisher, a gap of which William has as yet little inkling. There is a gap here as well between William and Griffith, who is ruefully wise to the irony that True Heart Susie will gain much of its acceptance by virtue of the condescension of those who will prize its characterizations as merely quaint rather than true. But the gap between William and Griffith is also a reflection of their bond. William’s naivete and foolishness once were Griffith’s own. True Heart Susie implies: William is a figure out of Griffith’s past, Griffith as he once was. It is as if Griffith is asking himself. What has become of me?

It is not just William whom Griffith knows this intimately. One of the unprecedented achievements of Griffith’s work as a whole is the creation of a remarkably intimate relationship between his camera and the extraordinary women who are its dearest subjects. In True Heart Susie, Griffith “identifies” as deeply with Lillian Gish/Susie, as with Robert Harron/William, and in this respect the film is characteristic of his work, not exceptional.

Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)

Griffith’s bond with Susie is apparent in his handling of the film’s opening sequence, the Friday afternoon spelling class. After correctly spelling the word “cry,” William has the misfortune of drawing “anonymous” (this choice of word is a nice ironic touch). Susie turns her eyes toward him, knowing he is misspelling the word, looks toward the teacher, and then steps forward to take her turn. Upset, William raises his hand as if to lodge a protest. Aware of his feelings, Susie again looks toward him, deliberating whether or not to misspell the word on purpose. (All this, the camera effortlessly reveals to us.) As the teacher looks on beaming, Susie spells the word correctly. The deflated William lowers his hand, and he and Susie switch places, her eyes fixed on his as she steps around him.

Throughout this passage, Susie’s inner conflict is perspicuous to a camera intimately attuned to her intelligence, her pride, her willfulness, her yearning for respectability, and her love of William. And Griffith gives voice to her feelings — and to his own sympathetic affection for her – with a priceless title: “Susie, like the girl in the verse: I’m sorry that I spelt the word, I hate to go above you. Because/ the brown eyes lower fell, ‘Because, you see, I love you.”‘

Griffith’s ability to “get inside” Susie is also manifest at the beginning of this sequence when he introduces her with the title “the plain girl.” It is not that Griffith is asserting that Susie is plain – Griffith can see what the camera reveals to us, that this is no plain-Jane, this is Lillian Gish, one of the world’s great beauties. He is giving voice to Susie’s image of herself, invoking Susie’s inner voice. Again and again in True Heart Susie, Griffith’s titles voice characters’ ways of thinking about themselves and the events in which they are enmeshed. There is always a gap between the voices in such titles and Griffith’s own voice; yet these titles also seem animated from within, as if they were remembered voices, voices out of the past or out of a dream. Again, it is as if Griffith is remembering who he once was and wondering what has become of him.

True Heart Susie

Griffith’s intimate bond with Susie is no less eloquently acknowledged in those sequences in which he allows the camera’s revelations to stand without authorial comment. I am thinking, for example, of the Chaplinesque passage in which Susie walks down a country lane and sees William and Bettina together (they don’t see her) and the even more heartrending sequence in which Susie, believing that William is ready to propose to her, walks into William’s house only to find Bettina in his arms.

In the former passage, there is a cut from a three-shot to Susie, and the camera holds on her. At once drawn to the spectacle and recoiling from it, she closes her eyes, stares again, looks away, looks back, turns her gaze away, turns back.

True Heart Susie

We imagine ourselves in Susie’s place, and our heart goes out to her. We need no title to understand what she is feeling. In lieu of a title giving voice to Susie’s feelings – or his own – Griffith cuts to Susie at home that evening, alone with her diary, then to the words she is writing: Perhaps after all will wait until spring” (to marry William). Susie s words say all. Or, rather, they say nothing, and allow us (given what the camera has revealed to us about her) to read everything between the lines.

When, in the latter sequence, Susie opens the parlor door and sees William embracing Bettina, Griffith again frames the three in a long- shot. Griffith cuts to Susie silently struggling with herself to pull her eyes away, then to a shot that functions like a shot from her point of view (to the last stages of his career, Griffith resisted the true point-of-view shot), then back to the anguished Susie in a closer framing.

In a reprise of the long three-shot setup, Susie lowers her gaze and leaves. Griffith cuts to her in the hallway, then frames her in an intimate medium close-up against the wall. Within this frame, which is held for what seems an eternity, Susie smiles, laughs nervously, distractedly runs her finger over her lips, anxiously casts her gaze toward the door, despairingly looks down, and, finally, before fleeing from the house, stares in panic right into the camera.

True Heart Susie

Throughout this agonizing passage and its equally grueling sequel (Aunty makes Susie return to William’s house, where she suffers through his announcement that he has “taken her advice” and is now engaged to Bettina), Griffith refrains from using any titles that do not simply relay what a character says. Again, we know Susie’s feelings by taking in the camera’s revelations and by imagining ourselves in her place. Again our heart goes out to her. Griffith breaks his silence only after the final image of this complex sequence fades out, and then only with the terse title “The merry wedding bells.” This is followed by shots of Susie sadly beholding Bettina in her wedding gown, helping the bride with her train, and finally collapsing when the newlyweds depart in their carriage.

The bitter irony in the word “merry” is Griffith’s sole verbal acknowledgment that he feels for Susie as we do. Otherwise, he allows her suffering to pass in silence, as if his feelings go without saying. This reticence is powerful testimony to the limits of language, the eloquence of silence — the eloquence of Griffith’s silence and of Susie’s, which is also the eloquence of Lillian Gish on film.

But what “goes without saying” here? Surely, it is Griffith’s wonderful love for Susie and equally wonderful capacity to imagine himself in her place. Griffith’s love for Susie also has a dark side, however (as always with Griffith, as always with film).

When she comes upon William and Bettina embracing, Susie’s suffering takes the form of a paralyzing self-consciousness, a terror of being viewed (Is not this terror also rage?) as she now stands revealed. It is not simply the possibility of being viewed by William that paralyzes her, but of being viewed by anyone, because she is afraid to face herself at this moment, to face her terror and rage. Hence the profundity of Griffith’s strategy for conveying the nature and unfathomable depth of Susie’s suffering: He simply positions her against a wall and films her becoming more and more self-conscious. We are viewing Susie’s self-consciousness, acted out by Lillian Gish with Griffith’s direction or perhaps his withholding of direction. But at another level, this is no act; we are viewing Lillian Gish’s real self-consciousness in the face of the camera. When this self-consciousness culminates in casting a desperate look to the camera, actress and character are joined in this gaze. And director and actress are joined in the understanding that in the medium of film, self-consciousness is consciousness of the camera – consciousness of the self as the camera reveals it, consciousness of the self the camera represents. The camera not only reveals self-consciousness but also is its source: The camera represents the gaze of others that paralyzes Susie, and it also represents her inner gaze, in the face of which her naked, vulnerable self stands exposed.

True Heart Susie

Susie’s anguished self-consciousness is the camera’s visible mark — Griffith’s mark, our mark — on her: This is the darkness in what “goes without saying” about the passage. With the words “The merry wedding bells,” Griffith declares his love for Susie, which is his love for Lillian Gish, but he is speaking to us, not to her, and is also acknowledging his continuing responsibility for her suffering — the responsibility of his silence. In turn, this guilt is Griffith’s deepest bond with William.

A title reads “Is it too late, Susie? I know now I have loved you all my life.” Then William steps closer to the window at precisely the moment she reenters the frame-within-the-frame. Her movement left to right in the background precisely matches his in the foreground, as if they were mirror images.

For a long moment, they stand face to face, staring at each other. They come so close, but do not touch each other, as if a pane of glass separated them, no less palpable a barrier for being invisible. Everything about Griffith’s filming of this moment enhances the uncanny impression that William is a viewer beholding Susie projected on a movie screen.

Susie’s doubting eyes are peeled to his as William leans yet closer. Still with a trace of disbelief, she purses her lips in anticipation of the kiss she has imagined all these years. Her eyes shut, and at last the barrier is bridged, the kiss happens, the dream comes true!

Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (Harron as a shadow on the wall)

When William appears before Susie as a ghostly apparition and then enters the frame in the flesh, it is as if a dead man comes to life before her eyes, a shadow assumes substance. It is also as if William steps into, or out of, the world of a film, crossing the barrier represented by the screen. When he declares his love and Susie forgives him, Griffith is saying, William is created, and Susie, too, dies and is reborn. And Griffith discovers a deep inner connection between the mysteries of creation, forgiveness, and love and the mystery at the heart of film. By envisioning creation, forgiveness, and love in terms of crossing the barrier separating film from reality. True Heart Susie anticipates the ending of City Lights and provides deep inspiration for classical Hollywood genres of the thirties and forties, such as the remarriage comedy and the melodrama of the unknown woman.

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