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Nigel De Brulier
They had faces then and Barthelmess was one of the handsomest
In Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," a forgotten silent-film actress, Norma Desmond, explained the appeal of silent stars: "we had faces then!" In the musical version of that classic, the lyric " with one look I'm the girl (or boy) next door " expanded on the visual powers of silent film actors. Each of those lines could have been written for handsome, charismatic Richard Barthelmess, the star of Henry King's "Tol'able David." Although his too-short pants vainly attempt to obscure the actor's maturity, Barthelmess manages to convince the audience that he is a boy at the edge of manhood. Through his dark eyes, body language, and facial expressions, Barthelmess literally becomes "the boy next door" without uttering a syllable.
"Tol'able David" may be too sentimental and occasionally too hokey for modern audiences, but, if viewed in the context of the post World War I period, the bucolic Americana story is engaging. Like the United States in the years leading up to the Great War, belligerent outsiders disrupt David's idyllic family life, and the young boy becomes a man in the fight to restore his world. The tale is simple, but universal. Enhanced by location filming in Virginia, "Tol'able David" provides a glimpse of country life in the early 20th century. However, produced in 1921, the film preceded the golden period of silent movies that was reached in the late 1920's, and the technical perfection and acting subtleties of that later period are lacking here. Although Ernest Torrence makes a formidable, frightening villain, neither his appearance nor his performance are subtle, and he owes more to the oft-parodied "grand style" of the early silents than to the nuanced acting that evolved later in the decade. However, Barthelmess and his leading lady, Gladys Hulette, perform admirably, even in a broad comic scene with a barrel that seems to have been taken from another movie.
Henry King keeps the story moving, although his camera did not achieve the fluidity that distinguishes later silents. A transitional film made between the innovative days of Griffith and the heights of Murnau, Vidor, and von Stroheim, "Tol'able David" remains entertaining and affectionate towards a vanished way of life and a lost style of film-making. If the viewer can transport him or herself back in time, a dazzling star and a film with genuine warmth and sentiment will immerse the audience in the days when "sentimental" was not a four-letter word.
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