Tuesday, May 15, 2012

True Heart Susie

Menlösa Susie. US 1919. P: D.W. Griffith. Griffith's Short Story Series. Original distribution: Paramount-Artcraft Pictures. D: D.W. Griffith. SC: Marian [Marion?] Fremont. DP: G.W. Bitzer. ED: James Smith. C: Lillian Gish (Susie May Trueheart), Robert Harron (William Jenkins), Walter Higby [Wilbur Higby?] (William's father), Loyola O’Connor (Susie's aunt), George Fawcett (the stranger, "the four-flusher" [= poker cheater]), Clarine Seymour (Bettina), Kate Bruce (Bettina's aunt), Carol Dempster (Bettina's chum), Raymond Cannon (Sporty Malone). 6213 ft / 1894 m /18 fps/ 92 min. The Griffith Project 583. A DFI print viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (I Love You, I Film You), 15 May 2012.

Revisited a marvellous D.W. Griffith movie which at first glance seems simple but is actually complex in a subtle and unobtrusive way. Top writers have commented on True Heart Susie, and in anticipation of seeing the movie I reread Tom Gunning's article in The Griffith Project Vol 10 (2006, edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, perhaps the greatest monograph on any film director). Gunning reflects on the art of the close-up, how Lillian Gish as Susie creates "a soliloquy of facial expressions" in moments of profound disappointment. Gunning comments on the encounter of the two women, Susie and Bettina (Clarine Seymour) as being one "between a woman whose emotional repression has not yet hardened her heart and one whose thoughtless pursuit of immediate gratification still does not deserve the scorn of a joyless community". "Susie undergoes a recognition that Bettina possesses something Susie lacks - sexuality, an energy ('pep'), a connection with her physical and emotional needs that rural life has repressed in Susie". Gunning comments on the intertitle "A little unfaithful" preceding Bettina's death: "The ironic compassion of this phrase typifies the combination of distance and compassion that marks the narration of this film and which may constitute its most remarkable feature". "Throughout True Heart Susie, performance, editing, and narration create a point of view through which we profoundly share the experiences of the characters." "Nearness and intimacy mean overcoming a distance that one is fully aware of". I agree with Gunning that "Griffith's use of intertitles sets up an extremely sophisticated and complex narrative viewpoint". The last intertitle: "And we may believe they walk again as they did long years ago".

Like in Way Down East, Griffith has here the gift of portraying an old-fashioned story as a subtle metanarrative, in a perspective of tender irony. We may think the protagonists are foolish, but we are made to identify with them, and tua res agitur: the tale tells of ourselves, timeless stories of chances nearly missed, being given a decisive impact by an impostor, becoming aware of our true capabilities, not realizing who our true benefactor is, of love that is blind, that we may fail to appreciate a happiness that has grown too familiar, that love between childhood sweethearts may fade.

Aspects of the movie I had forgotten include: - William has to work his way through college and he becomes the target of school bullying by his rich schoolmates, but he stands up to his rights and fights for his honour. - "William's great, simple heart cannot see that all cannot be like himself": William is blind to the character of Bettina because he cannot realize that someone can be so superficial. - There is a comic theme about appearances. William grows a moustache "imitating his benefactor" (who we know is an impostor). Susie fights a "battle against the powder and the paint brigade" (against a much more superficial woman than herself). "Do you think you can improve on Lord's work?" asks her aunt.

The black and white print is as good as it gets. In the filmographic information of The Griffith Project Vol 10 there is a statement by Kevin Brownlow that all existing archival elements of True Heart Susie stem from the London archive's nitrate positive. The Copenhagen print (DFI) certainly does: it is a duplicate from London's National Film Library with a condescending introductory title probably added in the 1930s. Otherwise the intertitles are original. There is a good visual quality sufficiently often. There is a frameline situation with the intertitles. The source of the London print has been a print/prints with tinting/toning at least in some of the footage. The speed looks natural at 18 fps.

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