Thursday, October 6, 2016

Thoroughly MODern Alley: Tol’able David (1921)

Greenstream, a small hamlet located in the mountains of Virginia, is home to the Kinemon family.  There’s Pa (Hunter, played by Edmund Gurney) and Ma (Marion Abbott), of course, and oldest brother Allen (Warner Richmond), who’s married to the expectant Rose (Patterson Dial).  But until that baby makes his appearance in the world, the youngest of the Kinemons is David (Richard Barthelmess)—who’s his mother’s favorite, and as such she dotes on him so.  David has his size, but you’d never know it from the reactions of the Kinemon clan.  Brother Allen dismisses the idea of David taking over his job so he can be with Rose when the baby arrives—he’s in charge of delivering “the government mail”—because he feels David is too young.  Even Mrs. Kinemon seems to want to keep David drinking from the Fountain of Youth, telling him he’s not yet a man but “you’re tol’able, David…just tol’able.”

David can’t even get any support from his best girl, neighbor Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette)—but in her defense, she’s got problems of her own.  She and her grandfather are unfortunately having to play host to a trio of Hatburn cousins—Iscah (Walter P. Lewis), Luke (Ernest Torrance), and Saul (Ralph Yearsley), or “Little Buzzard” as he’s nicknamed—who are on the run from the law and are using Casa del Hatburn as a hideout.  It’s this “Unholy Three” that sets the tragic plot in motion; Luke kills David’s beloved dog Rocket and when warned by Allan that he’ll be back to settle the score, Luke crowns him a well-thrown rock, leaving Brother Kinemon a helpless cripple.  Pa Kinemon, out for revenge, suffers a cardiac episode before he’s able to leave the family’s cabin to ventilate the Hatburns.

So David is the only remaining Kinemon who’ll be able to mete out a little mountain justice.  His mother pleads for him not to do such a foolhardy thing—he’s the only able-bodied male in the family now, what with Allan’s condition—and in doing so, turns her son’s life into a Kenny Rogers song.  For the good people of Greenstream are convinced that David is a coward, and David will spend the remainder of the movie proving he’s anything but.

My only previous familiarity with Tol’able David (1921) are the few clips seen in the 1959 horror classic The Tingler (it’s the movie in progress when Vincent Price warns both the theater audience onscreen and off that the “Tingler” is on the loose!).  I’ve heard many people speak fondly of David over the years—a few folks have even mentioned it’s their favorite silent film—and thanks to the good people at Flicker Alley I availed myself of a copy from their MOD library.  (David was previously released to DVD by Image Entertainment in March of 1999.)

(L-R: actor Richard Barthelmess, author Joseph Hergesheimer, director Henry King.)
Based on the short story of the same name by Joseph Hergesheimer, first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and later published in The Happy Life in 1919, Tol’able David was the breakthrough film for director Henry King—who was certainly no neophyte in the motion picture business, having directed serials, shorts, and features since 1915.  (In a featurette at the end of the Flicker Alley DVD, King is interviewed in 1977 and he talks about his career also as an actor on stage and in “the flickers.”)  The director would go on to silent classics like The White Sister (1923) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), and in the sound era he was second only to John Ford as 20th Century-Fox’s prestige director.  More than a few critics have called David King’s finest cinematic achievement…and I might throw in with them if I wasn’t so fond of The Gunfighter (1950).

A native of Christiansburg, VA, King brought his experience growing up in a rural town to Tol’able David, which is one several reasons why this silent classic is so utterly charming.  (David was selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2007.)  Henry had a way with the meticulously accurate presentation of small-town Americana, which is later echoed in his movies State Fair (1933—the first and best version, with Will Rogers), Jesse James (1939), and Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952).  Here’s the amazing thing about David: nothing really happens in the movie until about an hour in (when the Hatburn trio make the serious mistake of underestimating our hero) but the small, seemingly minute details seen beforehand are fascinatingly real.  Shooting on location in Blue Grass, VA (eighty miles from his birthplace) made all the difference; years later, when a remake was filmed for Columbia in 1930, King was asked to duplicate his magic and one of the reasons he turned down the assignment (apart from thinking “why-do-it-again-when-I-did-it-right-the-first-time?”) was that the movie was going to be shot in California…and Henry just didn’t think it would work.

Credit for Tol’able David should also be parceled out to D.W. Griffith; he didn’t direct the film, but David Wark bought the rights to the story and developed a treatment before selling it to his protégé, Richard Barthelmess.  Barthelmess, known for his performances in the Griffith films Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), was once described by his co-star Lillian Gish as possessing “the most beautiful face of any man who ever went before the camera.”  I’m not sure I agree with Lil on this one…but I will say Richard’s performance is a flawless one (I know he was 27-years-old in 1921…yet he convinced me he was a youngster).

In the Flicker Alley featurette, director King mentions that Tol’able David was the debut film for Ernest Torrance—who plays one of the movie’s most despicable villains in Luke Hatburn.  (Henry is kind of wrong on the first part, but, hey—he was in his 80s when he did that interview…let’s cut him a little slack.)  Henry also relates that Torrance’s theater background was in musicals and opera, so the fact that Ernest made so many movies that allowed him to put his villainy on full display (The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Peter Pan) while exhibiting a flair for comedy (Mantrap, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) is a testament to his versatility.

A movie that is unabashedly unashamed of its Biblical influences (the story itself is essentially a re-telling of David and Goliath, with many of David’s characters appropriately named after Biblical personages), Tol’able David was remade in 1930…but you can’t ignore that Harold Lloyd drew a lot of inspiration from the film when he made The Kid Brother in 1927.  It’s slipped into the public domain; Alpha Video offers a bargain basement-priced version (at, and it’s also available from Grapevine (their description makes mention of “West Virginia tenant farmers”—West Virginia and west Virginia are two entirely different concepts, people).  (The Grapevine release also features a 1927 comedy, Chicken Feathers, starring “foxy grandpa” Jack Duffy.)  But even if it’s a little pricier, I’d go with the Flicker Alley DVD; its Film Preservation Associates pedigree (produced by David Shepard, with music score arranged and conducted by Robert Israel) prompted Silent Era to choose it as their recommended edition “for its visual quality and excellent musical accompaniment.”

Oh, and the next time some Libertarian/Ayn Rand disciple asks you “Who is John Galt?”—tell them he’s the wealthy landowner and general store proprietor in this film (as portrayed by Laurence Eddinger).


Robin Ogle said...

Great post, Ivan! I really want to see this movie now :)

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Robin announced:

Great post, Ivan! I really want to see this movie now :)

It's just a completely charming film, and proof positive that silent cinema can be most enjoyable!