Tol’able David was released on the last day of 1921, on the eve of the year marking modernism’s breakthrough, the year of Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Despite being a product of that most modern art, cinema, Tol’able David seems like an unspoiled fragment of pre-industrialized America, magically projected forward through time. Free of the flowery, creaking Victorianism that garlands Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), it is still a film of such wholesomeness and ingenuous embrace of traditional values that it evokes not just an earlier century but a lost world. At the same time, the film’s freshness and warmth make it instantly accessible and curiously ageless. In 1924, Mary Pickford cited it as one of her favorite movies, saying, “When I first saw this picture I felt I was not looking at a photoplay but was really witnessing the tragedy of a family I had known all my life.”
Director Henry King said that he “relived the days of my boyhood” in making Tol’able David, for which exteriors were shot on location near King’s hometown of Christiansburg, Virginia. He insisted on details that would capture the authentic atmosphere of mountain life: the split-rail fences, the weathered boards of mills and barns, the muddy roads running through fords, the way the family kneels down to pray together before going to bed (at eight o’clock!) and the women do not sit down to eat with the men but stand by the table brushing flies away with whisks made of newspaper strips. The film is a pastoral, set against beautifully smoky Appalachian vistas, but its plot—adapted from a short story by Joseph Hergesheimer that recasts the tale of David and Goliath—follows a boy’s singularly harsh and tragic passage into manhood.
At twenty-seven, Richard Barthelmess is convincingly youthful as David Kinemon, a barefoot boy running through the fields, skinny-dipping in a sparkling river (his troublesome dog Rocket runs off with his pants), playing the harmonica and dancing a jig to impress the girl next door, Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette). He is eager to be considered a man and dreams of driving the mail hack like his big brother Allan (Warner Richmond) but has a brutal initiation into adulthood when, in a single day, three outlaws kill his dog and cripple his brother, and his father dies of a heart attack from the shock. In probably his greatest role, Barthelmess combines rustic charm and unaffected sweetness—he is almost Keatonesque in a scene where he pines wistfully outside a community dance and begins waltzing by himself—with intense grief and bitterness, and ferocious grit in a legendarily savage brawl.
Lillian Gish famously wrote in her memoir that Barthelmess had “the most beautiful face of any man who ever went before a camera,” and a 1922 Photoplay article declared him “the idol of every American girl.” He benefited greatly from his appeal to women, starting with his mother’s friend, the Russian diva Alla Nazimova, who saw the photogenic potential of his large, dark eyes and clear-cut profile and encouraged him to go into movies. The Gish sisters eagerly took him up, and he paired with Dorothy in a number of comedies before achieving stardom when he was cast with Lillian in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). On-screen he had an ideal blend of poetic sensitivity and all-American boyishness; offscreen, he was highly ambitious. In 1921, he joined with Henry King and financier Charles Duell to form Inspiration Pictures. He was not the first star to attempt to produce his own movies, but he became, for a time, one of the few to succeed. Tol’able David, Inspiration’s first effort, was an enormous critical and commercial success, rapturously hailed around the world, admired abroad by filmmakers like Pudovkin and voted the best film of the year by readers of Photoplay. Griffith, who had originally acquired the property and passed it on to his protégé, embraced Barthelmess after the premiere and called it one of the best films he’d ever seen.
It established former actor Henry King as a top director, a position he held for almost five decades, making his first film in 1916 and his last in 1962. He continued to be associated with Americana (as in his delicately shaded, corn-free version of State Fair, 1933), with period films and old-fashioned genres like swashbucklers, westerns, and biblical epics. His best films, like The Gunfighter (1950), stay true to the simplicity, dramatic intensity, and unsentimental empathy that shaped his first great film. In Tol’able David, rural poverty is presented with detailed realism, yet without comment. Terrible things happen, and life goes on. Just before disaster strikes the Kinemon family, there is a lovely shot of David sitting in a chair holding his brother’s baby, his face radiating tenderness for his home and family. After Allan has been brought home, near death, there is a shadowy, Rembrandt-like shot of his wife Rose in a dark room, rocking and nursing the baby, her face numbly set. The effect of these rhyming images is devastating.
Expressive gestures punctuate the film: the way Esther pulls her hat down over her face when David refuses to speak to her; the way the brutish Luke Hatburn (Ernest Torrence) rips an onion out of the ground and chomps on it, dirt and all. Torrence was Scottish and, if you can believe it, a conservatory-trained pianist and operatic baritone. In his film debut he is terrifying as the cretinous, depraved Luke, “whose peculiar humor it was to destroy whatever he encountered,” a title card tells us. He’s so scary because he is completely out of control—his face twitches spasmodically when he goes after David in the end—and because his cruelty is without any sense or motivation. He has only to see a cat to think about heaving a stone at it, and when he looks at poor Esther his eyes roll back with slavering lust. The fugitive Hatburns don’t represent evil so much as barbarism: ignorance and deprivation that make them hostile to anyone who has more.
Hence Luke’s theft of the mail David is supposed to deliver, which triggers the climactic fight. The notion that being entrusted with “the government mail” would be such a great honor and responsibility may seem quaint (there was a time, apparently, when rural Americans revered the government), and the virtues of duty, modesty, and selflessness seem sadly archaic. But the fight itself is anything but sepia-tinted: it looks unchoreographed, messy, desperate, and genuinely painful. The sequence is edited in the style Griffith pioneered, intercut for maximum suspense with Esther’s flight for help and David’s proud mother waiting obliviously for his arrival. The lingering shot in which the camera waits outside the door of the cabin to see who will emerge victorious is a moment of shameless, and peerless, cinematic drama.
Everyone involved got a boost from Tol’able David’s success, including its British screenwriter (and future director) Edmund Goulding. Inspiration Pictures had more successes with King’s The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1925), both starring Lillian Gish, before the company collapsed, in part because of the misdeeds of money-man Charles Duell. Barthelmess remained a major star throughout the 1920s and is often lumped with those silent stars brought down by sound: his voice was weak and his delicate face aged badly. But he made a number of excellent films in the early 1930s, playing roles that suited his tired, disappointed look: as one of a group of damaged World War I veterans drowning their shell-shock in frivolous dissipation in The Last Flight (1931); a martyred Depression-era everyman in Heroes for Sale (1933); a pilot branded a coward in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). The memory of the youthful idol hovers over these parts like a reproachful ghost, suggesting a whole nation’s disillusionment and loss of innocence. Seeing him as David Kinemon, grinning shyly under a Huck Finn straw hat, it’s hard not to ask wistfully: were we ever really so young?
Tol’able David was preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the Film Foundation.
Presented at 2017 A Day of Silents with live music by Frederick Hodges