TOL'ABLE DAVID (Henry King, 1921, USA, 80m, BW)
Cast: Walter P. Lewis, Ralph Yearsley, Forrest Robinson, Laurence Eddinger, Edmund Gurney, Marion Abbott, Henry Hallam, Gladys Hulette, Richard Barthelmess, Warner Richmond, Ernest Torrence
Director: Henry King
Running Time: 80 min.
Young David Kinemon (Richard Barthelmess) lives in a small West Virginia farming village and wants to be taken seriously by those around him -- particularly by the pretty girl (Gladys Hulette) who lives on a nearby farm. When a family of hooligans led by Iscah Hatburn (Walter P. Lewis) moves into town, David watches as they wreak havoc. Hatburn and his sons kill David's dog and injure his brother. After David's father dies, he takes it upon himself to confront Hatburn and his two sons.
Tol’able David lives up to its reputation as a bucolic romp in Americana. It also contains Richard Barthelmess’s finest screen performance. Twenty-six at the time of filming, Barthelmess successfully portrays the teenage David Kinemon, the baby of a close-knit family. Tol’able David is an innocent film. It is a rustic film. However, these qualities are not bad. The tale is told through the eyes of the very innocent and rustic David. Richard Barthelmess really comes alive in this role. He was so determined to play David that he left D.W. Griffith’s company in order to get the part. Barthelmess was absolutely right. I cannot imagine another actor playing this role so well. With his boy-next-door looks, small frame and intelligent use of pantomime, Barthelmess is able to portray a character almost a decade younger than himself. He is utterly convincing as a teenager.
Richard Barthelmess is superb as David, the younger son in a sharecropping family in Virginia around 1900. The town of Greenstream is idyllic in its beautiful country setting and harmony reigns. David is interested in Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette) who lives on the neighboring farm. And they perform the mating ritual of innocents without even knowing it. Into this peaceful valley comes a trio of thugs on the lam. They decide to "visit" their cousins and lay low a while til the heat is off. As soon as they move in on the Hatburns they take over the lives of everyone they come into contact with. The lead thug (Ernest Torrence) is pure evil. His idea of fun is to squash a cat with a big rock.
David's brother is the local mailman and one day as he is passing the Hatburn place the dog (great little dog) goes after a cat in the front yard. Torrence grabs a board and clunks the dog dead. When the brother confronts him, Torrence throws a boulder at his head, leaving the brother a hopeless vegetable. The family reacts in anger but as David and his father argue over revenge, the old man keels over from a heart attack. David races out to kill all the Hatburns but the mother runs after him in a great scene where she (Marion Abbott) is dragged through a mud puddle while holding his legs.
Tol'able David is pure melodrama, and the 1930 talkie version was a flop. But in 1921 with this cast and Henry King directing, it's a simple tale about simple people and is superbly done. The film is filled with great little scenes and bits of business: The drunk dancing alone outside the town hall where a dance is taking place. Barthelmess dancing alone in the moonlight because he is too shy to ask Esther. David and his dog fishing.... Just terrific little bits of innocence and whimsy from a long-gone time.
Richard Barthelmess is the heart of this film and his performance ranks as one of the best I've ever seen in a silent film. At 26 he has no trouble convincing that he is 16-ish. He was a very natural actor who always knows where to find the humor in simple situations. Gladys Hulette is also good as is Marion Abbott as the mother. Ernest Torrence is a memorable villain. Tol'able David was another smash hit in Barthelmess' early silent carer, joining Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and The Patent Leather Kid. He was also hugely popular in early talkies, winning two Oscar nominations.
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