True Heart Susie: Makeup Is Evil

So our next film is something a little different -- the silent romance from 1919 called True Heart Susie.  Directed by DW Griffith and starring the lovely Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, True Heart Susie is the ultimate story of unrequited love, albeit one with a happy ending.  "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?" places it at a respectable 916, and it is one of only seven pre-1920s films to make the list.

Full Disclosure: I was so pleased to see this movie on the list, because it's a real gem of the silent era.  I've seen this film a few times before and really like it.  You have to understand something: I'm not a film snob.  I will unreservedly say that there are some silent films out there that I just can't sit through.  Either they're too slow and plodding, or confusing, or I'm just not engaged enough in the story line.  There's lots of reasons why modern audiences find it difficult to watch silent films, and I don't think anyone should be looked down upon for not enjoying them.  That being said, this is a very nice little film, and you're an uncultured swine if you don't like it.  JK, JK...

First of all, let's take a look at the first story card given to us:

Oh Christ, this is going to be a morality piece, isn't it?

So to begin the film, we meet the heroes of our story -- the shy, unassuming, yet undeniably adorable Susie, and her stalwart, somewhat awkward best friend William.  Susie's got a bit of a crush on William, but like all stupid teenage boys, he doesn't seem to notice that he's totally giving her mixed messages.  They almost kiss on the way home from school, and he carves their initials into a tree.  How much more proof does a girl need?  Then they awkwardly almost kiss again, but he chickens out at the last second.  Wuss.

Susie and William walk to the village, but on the way there, he stops to hit on another woman!

What a tool!  Literally ten minutes ago you were carving Susie's name into a tree.  You're giving me whiplash, son!

Despite this treachery, Susie persuades her aunt to sell their cow and some other (possibly essential) items so that William can go to college.  Susie is determined that he go to college, because she wants to marry a smart man.  Good plan, Susie.  Good plan.  Too make matters worse (or more noble, I guess), she doesn't tell William that she's helping him with college -- instead she sends a letter to him from a "philanthropist" with the tuition money.

So William heads off to college, saying goodbye to Susie and her aunt.  Susie spends the next few years pining after him, while William gets into fights with rich kids for calling him Butter, but also finds time to grow one hell of a moustache.  That he has to fiddle with every five seconds, like Snidely Whiplash or something.

Upon returning home, William takes Susie out for a "sody" (ice cream?), where he meets Bettina.  Aside from having a really rather dreadful name, she's a flapper prototype from Chicago (I think they just called them floozies back then) who likes makeup and silk stockings.  And therefore probably also likes liquor, smoking, jazz, fast cars, and men.  Just a guess.

So William tells Susie that men like to flirt with girls like that, but they marry the plain and simple ones.  Compliment, I...guess?  Of course Susie takes this to mean that they're practically engaged, and kinda sorts to plan out their wedding in her diary.  Oh Susie...denial is not just a river in Egypt, is it?  But then William's back with his blasted mixed messages, because at the ice cream social (held to celebrate that he is going to be town minister) he offers to walk Bettina home...leaving Susie and her aunt in the lurch.  Once he drops her off at the house, we discover that she just wants to get married to anybody, because she doesn't want to work anymore.  Nice.

William then decides to ask Susie for marriage advice, (I'm gonna smack you upside the head, William!) who tells him that parishioners will have more respect for a married minister.  Good move, Susie.  Because now he's off and proposed to Bettina.  She acts all flustered and asks for 15 minutes to think it over.  In those 15 minutes, she actually manages to cheat on William with "Sporty", a random dude in a boater who happens to pass by the house.  Wow.

So William and Slut Face (sorry) get married.  And Griffith does something that's probably pretty advanced.  He shows their married life twice - first as William expected it to be, with a loving and attentive wife who prepares dinner for him, and second as it really is. Bettina's hair in curlers while she reads a magazine and prepares him a terrible meal.  He gently asks if they could have something besides cold meat (apparently they've had cold meat for a month straight), and she says, "Eat it and like it!"  Griffith intercuts their fight with shots of Susie preparing a chicken, and in the next scene, Bettina and William are over at Susie's house for dinner.  You can almost see William thinking, "I've made a terrible mistake."  I'm not sure if it's insulting that the catalyst for William beginning to see Susie in a different light is the fact that she can cook, but whatever.  Progress is progress.

William's away from the house, so Sporty and his gaggle of females (Is Sporty a pimp?  Must look into this.) show up to party with Bettina.  While William's walking through town, he passes the tree where he carved their initials years earlier.  He's all Mr Sad Face, and he decides to go home earlier than expected.  This poses a problem for Bettina, who's busy whoring it up with Sporty, and they get caught.  Uh-oh.  Unfortunately, Bettina's a master of the whole aggressive innocence thing. ("How can you say that, of course he didn't kiss me!  You don't trust me at all! *cry cry cry*")  So William starts to believe that he must have been mistaken.

Oh course, it's not long until she's at it again.  She tells William she's got a headache (really?) and has to sleep in the spare room.  Then she sneaks out with Sporty and the Gang.  Unfortunately, she loses her house key while she's at the party, and gets trapped outside in the middle of the night during a rain storm.  So Bettina goes over to Susie's house and demands that she lie for her.  Susie, being the ridiculously kind-hearted girl that she is, agrees.

Nature, it seems, has a backbone even if Susie doesn't, and Bettina falls ill.  She dies, apparently from a combination of pneumonia and extreme sluttiness, but not before convincing William that she was out getting a book that he needed when she got stuck in the rain.  Believing that she died doing something for him, William vows to never love another woman.  And Susie's not about to ruin the memory of his wife.

Luckily, Susie's aunt has no such qualms.  She tells William that Susie's the one who paid for him to go to college.  And soon after, one of Bettina's friends comes to apologize to William, because she feels bad that his wife died all because she went to one of their parties.  So now William doesn't have to stick to his stupid vow.  Yay!

He goes over to Susie's house, tells her he's in love with her, and they live happily ever after.  It's about freaking time!

Random Musings:

  • Can we talk about how many times in this movie poor little Susie is referred to as "the plain girl"?  Seriously?  William gets to be just William, but every time the cards mention Susie, they have to clarify that they mean "the plain girl"?  Also, look at Lillian Gish:

She's practically a doll in human form, that's how cute she is!  One of the first instances of Hollywood casting beautiful women and trying to pass them off as ugly ducklings?  I think so.

  • How sweet but kind of sad is it that she confides in her "sister" Daisy?  You know you're lonely when your confidante is a cow...and she's referred to as your sister.  But then you're so fickle that you'd sell your sister so a guy who doesn't give you the time of day can go to college??

  • I really like the different acting styles that Clarine Seymour (Bettina) and Lillian Gish have.  Seymour is very much a "silent film actress", and her acting style is incredibly presentational. Gish is a performer who's far ahead of her time -- you can see her emotions in her eyes.  The expressions on her face, far from being over exaggerated for the camera, are subtle and realistic.  In a way, this really works for the story, as Bettina is superficial and shallow, whereas Susie is honest and just doesn't put on an act the way that Bettina does.

  • There are some really effective flashbacks in this movie.  When William sees his and Susie's initials on the tree, he remembers carving them and almost kissing her that day.  It's really well done, especially for the time.  Also, they did a really good job aging the characters from teenagers to adults -- it's especially clear in this scene, as we see adult William followed by teen William, and there's actually a marked difference.

  • I love this shot of Susie reading her diary, as kittens climb all over her.  It couldn't be cuter if it tried.

  • So Sporty shows up to pick up Bettina, and we can see the words, "Sporty Malone" on the passenger side of the car.  What kind of toolbox puts his name on the side of his car?!

  • Let's talk about the message Griffith is trying to get across here.  Make-up is bad.  Girls who wear make-up are bad.  Because make-up leads to tight clothes, which leads to gin, which leads to DANCING!!

So that's True Heart Susie.  It's not the first entry in the "I'm in love with my best friend but he never notices me" trope, but it's probably one of its first film representations.  There's a reason why this trope is so's intensely relatable.  Lillian Gish is one of the very few silent film actresses who comes off as very modern in her style.  She's very subtle, especially in comparison to many of the actors she shares the screen with.  As much as I give William crap in this review, Robert Harron does a really good job of giving the character at least some depth.  There's something endearingly awkward about his can believe him as the awkward kid who grew up to be a reasonably smart, reasonably attractive man.  Women are interested in him, but he kind of doesn't know why, and he doesn't know how to handle the situation.  Played like this, you can forgive him for not handling his relationship with Susie in the best way.  Sadly, Harron died less than a year after this film was released.

The bottom line is that these two characters are just such good people that you really want them to end up together.

Griffith shows a surprising amount of sophistication with the camera, which somehow makes the film seem a lot less old than it is.  He hit gold with a simple story, used a straightforward directing style, and gave the film a lot of heart.  It's a fluff piece, but such a nice one.  Ultimately, there are going to be people who don't like this movie or won't want to watch it because it's a silent film.  But for me this was one of the most engaging full length silent films I've ever seen, and I would recommend giving it a try if you're in the mood for something different.

That's all for now.  Check back later for Jaws!

Want to know more about the Top 1000 List?  Check it out and see if your favorites are here! They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

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Luke said...

I love Lillian Gish!

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