June 4, 1919 [True-Heart Susie]

Claptrap among the Hoosiers, the boy and girl, “poor simple idiots”--who somehow strike a chord, at least because Lillian Gish stares quizzically into her future, tilting her head, gazing almost blankly (blandly?) at her wished-for Beau, William (Robert Harron perfectly playing him as a fresh-faced fool), who has been taken in by a painted girl, leaving Susie in the farmyard dust--bereft of livestock, sold so that he can go to his “country college.” Everyone learns hard lessons--some, fatally--and Susie gets her man.

Along the way, though, various echoes sound. In her affectionate moment with her cow, about to be sold, Susie reminds me of the little girl, Sylvia (ah, the symbolism of it, the “sylvan girl”) in Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The White Heron,” whose only playmate was the wandering cow, “Mistress Mooly.” And the money she raises for William is given in secret, so that he believes it comes from a stranger passing through. And so Great Expectations also peeks in, just long enough so that William, who becomes “a punk country minister” (as the painted girl calls him), can learn, almost too late, the true source of his good fortunes.

And another pleasure: the scene where Gish cries, knowing William will marry another, but keeping up appearances. She smiles when observed, weeps when unnoticed, shifting rapidly from one to the other, in a scene that is almost clownish, but grows poignant.

And another: the glowing simplicity of the country landscape, the sun-dappled roads, the sense of quiet. I wanted those scenes to linger, to meander along their dust and green myself.

Oh, all right—and another: the wealth of dairy-imagery. Much is made over milk, butter and ice cream--and I perhaps catch a wink from Griffith as he slathers on all that creamy wholesomeness.

And perhaps one more: the satisfying depths William descends, his foul-mouthed wife “a little unfaithful”--but worse: a bad cook. This made me grin, if only because my own culinary skills leave little to be desired; but who am I to sneer? I leave that to Susie, who certainly does know her way around the stove--there’s an amusing scene as William, in the midst of his neglected marriage, sees the roasted-chicken glory of Susie’s table.

But where does it all go? I’m afraid my own wife saw it too well: She complained of Susie’s desire to educate her future mate (“I MUST marry a smart man!” she exclaims, after William loses to her in the one-room-schoolhouse spelling bee), the simpering sacrifices, the straining nostalgia and sentimentality (the final caption reads, “And we may believe they walk again as they did long years ago”). When we went to the “Armory Show” a few years ago [1913], we were both deeply affected by the explosions being set off on the canvasses. But it also seemed somehow familiar, cinematic as well as “expressionistic.” Was it because of the dreamlike quality of film images? The serpentine dance and electrocuted elephant, the camera’s gaze sliding slowly along the skyline, the subway journey through light and shadow, the animated magic-tricks?--and perhaps even further back, all the way to Muybridge's studies of locomotion, his own nude descending her staircase? It is indeed all "film," an invisible layer on on every image, every frame, the urge to make internal emotions visual through light and shadow, camera movement and the sequencing of scenes. It’s likely we can grow dissatisfied with something like True-Heart Susie because we have seen glimpses of cinema's true face--but what is that? A high and pure profile, a clownish gape, or something else? Once again, I remain both uncertain and expectant. Nevertheless: We were convinced Susie could’ve done much better.


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