"Tol'able David" (Inspiration/First National, 1921), directed by Henry King, stars Richard Barthelmess in one of his most celebrated roles of his career. Following his previous successes opposite Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith directorial masterworks of BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) and WAY DOWN EAST (1920), this is Barthelmess, like David, on his own and proving himself more than what he can be, in this case, a youth who becomes a man. Taken from the short story by Joseph Hergesheimer, with screen adaptation by Henry King and Edmund Goulding, TOL'ABLE David was so successful that it elevated Barthelmess to the rank of accomplished leading man. Even with these fine credentials, TOL'ABLE David, has become close to becoming a forgotten item of truly great movies from the silent film era.
Following the inter-title opener: "Behind three great ranges of mountains lay the pastorial valley of Greenstream. There the Kinemons had long made their home as tenants on the rich farm of John Galt," comes individual title introductions of its basic characters before the plot gets underway: "Hunter Kinemon (Edmund Gurney) kept the Biblical tradition of a family united by every tie of love and home"; Mrs. Kinemon (Marion Abbott), mother of a home her tenderness helped create"; David (Richard Barthelmess), the youngest son who was called his mother's boy;" Allan (Warner Richmond), the elder son, reckoned the strongest man in Greensteam County"; Rose (Patterson Dial), Allan's wife, loved as a daughter of the house; Esther (Gladys Hulette), the granddaughter of neighbor Hatburn (Forrest Robinson); and John Galt (Lawrence Eddinger), storekeeper, village postmaster, and richest man in the Valley." David is the central character, one many claim to be "tol'able." Aside from "David and Goliath" being his favorite Bible story reading, he wants nothing more than to become like his older brother, Allan, right down to assuming his job of driving the daily hack twenty miles to West Virginia. The family and neighbors live peaceful lives in their own little rural community. All that changes with the arrival of three outlaws ("trouble like the shadow of a black cloud hurried across the countryside toward Greenstream") fleeing from the law of another state: Iska Hatburn (Walter E. Lewis), "chief fugitive of a fugitive family"; Luke (Ernest Torrance), "his elder son whose peculiar humor it was to destroy whatever he encountered"; and Little "Buzzard" Hatburn (Ralph Yearsley), the "baby of the clan." After seeking refuge in the cottage of their Hatburn cousin, the trio begin to make life intolerable for the community, especially for Tol'able David and his faithful dog, Rocket.
While other movies have been inspired by the success of TOL'ABLE David, with the Harold Lloyd feature, THE KID BROTHER (Paramount, 1927) told through comedy with serious overtones, the basic premise itself of TOL'ABLE David was remade as a talkie by Columbia (1930) with Richard Cromwell, Joan Peers, Henry B. Walthall and Noah Beery under John G. Blystone's direction. Virtually forgotten, the 1921 original, under Henry King's leisurely paced direction, ranks one of the finer retelling of good versus evil stories captured on film. It's a fine example of a movie tailor-made for Barthelmess that also gives a well-produced account of rural West Virginia mountain farmers from another time frame. Though Barthelmess in true essence was older than his David of under twenty, he's youthful appearance is enough to make his David believable. The brutal beating of David's brother that leaves him paralyzed (scene eliminated in some prints) and wife with newborn baby in total shock, is quite grim and startling, but nothing compared to what's to follow with David and those responsible.
The film itself must have made an great impression on producer/director William Castle to insert TOL'ABLE David as part of a movie within a movie sequence for his classic "scream" feast of THE TINGLER (Columbia, 1959) starring Vincent Price. Once seen, it's hard to forget such an impressive scene set in a neighborhood silent movie house consisting mostly of teenagers mesmerized through the piano scoring action of young Barthelmess up there on the screen before something occurs to distract them. Unlike many well notable silent film classics, television showings of TOL'ABLE David have been extremely limited. It's only known broadcast (and rebroadcast) was on New York City's own public television station, WNET, Channel 13, for its "Million and One Nights of Film" (1965-66). As with the scene lifted from THE TINGLER, TOL'ABLE David did become part of the revival theater generation, including a presentation from New York City's Museum of Modern Art around 1980 to an attentive audience. Thanks to home video and later DVD format, TOL'ABLE David has become readily available through various distributors. The best and more accurate form (99 minutes as opposed to slightly shorter prints) was from Grapevine Video equipped with satisfactory orchestral score. Other prints include those scored by Robert Israel, or a bargain basement edition with no scoring at all.
In conclusion, TOL'ABLE David may look primitive to the modern eye, but remains quite tol'able for it's melodramatic theme and believable performances by entire cast. (****)
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