Tol’able David (1921) A Silent Film Review

Richard Barthelmess is David, a country boy whose one goal in life is to be considered a man, to prove himself worthy of being allowed into the grown-ups club. When tragedy strikes his family, David finds himself growing up faster than even he had ever wanted.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor psychotic hillbillies…

I sometimes feel sorry for classic films. They are praised to the skies and often the audience will go into the film with unrealistically high expectations. Expectations that no film could ever hope to live up to. I saw Tol’able David pretty early in my silent movie career. I knew it was considered one of the greats of the silent screen and I was a little wary, to tell the truth. I had been bored stiff by some so-called classics. (This is the movie that is playing in the theater when the Tingler attacks.)

Well, I am happy to report that 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.

The Kinemon’s enjoy an affectionate and peaceful family life.
The Kinemon’s enjoy an affectionate and peaceful family life.

David shares a tenant farmhouse with his parents (Edmund Gurney and Marion Abbott), his older brother, Allan (Warner Richmond), and Allan’s wife, Rose (Patterson Dial). There will soon be a new addition to the Kinemon family, Rose is expecting. David is that apple of his mother’s eye and is viewed with affectionate indulgence by the rest of the family. But David doesn’t want to be cute. He wants to be a man.

Still a kid...
Still a kid…

His one dream in life is to drive the wagon that connects their remote village to the rest of the country. Allan makes the daily mail and passenger run but he refuses to let David take the reins for even a day, he is too young to trust with the 20 mile journey to fetch government mail.

David has caught the eye of his young neighbor, Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette). He returns her feelings and shows it by showing off his fishing and harmonica skills. Esther is young and innocent enough to consider these abilities extremely impressive. Together with David’s dog, Rocket, they play and romp through the woods.

Esther is David’s perfect match.
Esther is David’s perfect match.

However, if the film went on like this forever, there wouldn’t be much a plot. So into David’s life comes a storm cloud in the form of the Hatburns, cousins of Esther and her grandfather (Forrest Robinson). The Hatburns have escaped across the state line and need a place to lie low.

Patriarch Iska Hatburn (Walter P. Lewis) is accompanied by his dimwitted, cruel sons. Luke (Ernest Torrence) enjoys killing small animals and Little Buzzard (Ralph Yearsley) seems fixated with smashing walnuts with rocks. Our villains, ladies and gentlemen.

From left: Little Buzzard, Luke and Iska. A pleasant trio.
From left: Little Buzzard, Luke and Iska. A pleasant trio.

The Hatburns make their way to the home of Esther and her grandfather. Luke immediately begins to slobber over poor Esther. Grandpa Hatburn is too intimidated by his cousins to make a stand and the villainous trio sets of up camp in the house.

David is frightened by these intimidating new additions to Esther’s household. However, good news soon distracts him. Rose has given birth and David is now an uncle. He feels his youth quite keenly when he is left out of the celebratory toasts and cigars. His mother makes matters worse by declaring that David will always be her baby. Just what every eighteen year old boy wants to hear, yes?

David just wants to grow up.
David just wants to grow up.

Allan takes Rocket along with him on his mail run. However, as the wagon nears the Hatfield home, Rocket jumps out to chase a cat. Luke sees the dog and kills it. Allan is horrified and tells Luke he will return to settle the score after he has delivered the mail. Luke isn’t one for a fair fight and throws a boulder at Allan when his back is turned. The boulder hits Allan’s neck and he collapses. Allan’s passengers bundle him back into the wagon and ride away.

Allan is carried back to his home where his family is overwhelmed with grief. The doctor has bad news: Allan will not die but he will be paralyzed with no hope of regaining his ability to walk. This is too much for David’s father. He tells the townsfolk not to call in the law. He will take care of this himself. David watches his father load his rifle and he does the same in anticipation of helping to revenge his brother.

Allan is carried home.
Allan is carried home.

One more tragedy is in store: the stress was too much for Mr. Kinemon’s heart. He collapses and dies. David now has the responsibility of revenge. But before he can leave, his mother gets on her knees and begs him not to go. She can’t lose him too. Besides, who will support Allan’s wife and child if David dies? David reluctantly listens to his mother and gives up on the idea of revenge.

The farm’s owner, John Galt (so that’s who he is!) decides that David is too young to handle things himself. The Kinemons are forced to move into a small house in town. Allan is depressed and openly wishes he had been killed rather than paralyzed. All the while, David is simmering with anger.

David and Esther are back together.
David and Esther are back together.

The anger is unleashed on an innocent target: Esther. David tells her that he hates all the Hatburns and refuses to see her. The heartbroken Esther and her father try to get David’s mother to intervene. She tells them to be patient with him.

However, David cannot stay angry at Esther for long. At the local dance, David watches with regret as Esther dances with someone else. He stays outside and dances a waltz by himself, imagining that he is holding the girl he loves. Soon, though, Esther appears and David apologizes to her. All is forgiven. Aww!

Mr. Galt gives David a job as a shop assistant. David throws himself into his work with fresh zeal thanks to his new-found love for Esther. One day, the new mail wagon driver gets staggeringly drunk. With passengers needing to catch trains, mail needing to be picked up and no time to waste, Galt asks David if he will drive the wagon. David is walking on air. The dream job is his at last.

David meets his Goliath.
David meets his Goliath.

Meanwhile, Grandpa Hatburn finally loses patience with Luke’s lusty attitude toward Esther. He goes to town to see if he can get the sheriff to evict his unwelcome guests.

Luke is angry at being told to leave Esther alone. He has an inkling of who Esther really likes and so when he sees David driving the mail wagon back from the station, he keeps a close eye on it. David is so excited that he does not notice that a bump in the road caused the mail bag to fall out of the wagon. Luke sees it at once and makes off with it. Back the house, he gloats that David will be humiliated when he has to admit that he lost the mail.

David soon realizes what has happened. He rushes to the Hatburn home to recover the mail. However, the Hatburn trio have no intention of returning the mail. Or of letting David leave the house alive. Buzzard shoots David in the arm just for openers. Esther runs out of the house to get help for David. Luke chases after her. This leaves David alone with Iska and Buzzard.

David’s brutal fight with Luke.
David’s brutal fight with Luke.

Esther trips and falls outside the house. Luke is about to assault her when he hears gunshots. David has shot Buzzard. Iska attacks David with a chair, forcing David to shoot him as well. Luke leaves Esther and returns to take on David.

Esther comes to and continues her run for help. David grabs the bag of mail and tries to leave but is stopped by Luke. Growing up, David’s favorite story was David & Goliath. Now, David is experiencing it for himself…

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.

David just wants to have fun.
David just wants to have fun.

Credit must also be given to Gladys Hulette. Her Esther is cute and appealing without seeming cloying. Her scenes with Barthelmess are truly sweet, it’s one of the dearest romances in silent film. Hulette was 25 when she played this part. I know, I didn’t believe it either!

Finally, Ernest Torrence lends his hulking frame to the proceedings. Torrence was often cast as villains thanks to his huge size and his craggy features. His cruelly stupid Luke may not be the most complicated of villains but he is truly one that the audience loves to hiss at.

Little Buzzard and Iska threatening David.
Little Buzzard and Iska threatening David.

I found Esther’s grandfather to be rather too passive. I mean, it’s one thing to be a nice guy who just can’t say no to some scary guys. It’s another when your minor granddaughter is regularly being threatened with assault. His character was truly a weak link in the story. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty good. However, Barthelmess and Hulette remain the standouts.

Director Henry King is always at his best with Americana. The cinematography is lovely, if not particularly groundbreaking. Overall, the film has a great earthy feel. Not grimy, not gritty, you just are given the impression that the people in this movie work with their hands and aren’t ashamed of it.

The secret to this movie’s appeal: its lovable leads.
The secret to this movie’s appeal: its lovable leads.

The film is based on a short story of the same name by Joseph Hergesheimer. The story was published in the compilation The Happy End. It is in the public domain and can be read for free online.

One side note: I was quite surprised that a scene of Rose breastfeeding her baby was included. I don’t recall seeing another case of breastfeeding being portrayed casually in a silent film. Frankly, its pretty rare to see it in films even now (unless some kind of gross-out comedy is involved).  No complaints here, just observations.

Probably the most remembered scene of Tol’able David is the extended fight scene between Barthelmess and Torrence. Again, I have to praise Barthelmess. He portrays fear without seeming cowardly. He may be physically smaller and weaker than Torrence’s overgrown bully but he is not about to allow Torrence to stop him from delivering the mail.

The aftermath of the fight.
The aftermath of the fight.

The fight goes on for quite some time and is not portrayed as a showdown so much as a desperate struggle for life. Unlike many fight scenes in action movies and serials, it is quite suspenseful. Both actors really throw themselves into the scene. Their faces are visible the whole time, I highly doubt they were doubled.

One other aspect of the movie I regret is the way David’s mother mentioned how much he liked for her to read him David & Goliath as a child. She says this as David is grappling with the giant Luke a crosscut away. It just seemed a little ham-fisted to bring it up while the actual fight was in the offing. I wish that the filmmakers had brought the parallel up much earlier, in a more subtle manner. Or they could have trusted their audience and left it out entirely. We would have still gotten it.

David and his mother.
David and his mother.

In conclusion, Tol’able David  is the story of a little boy growing up. It is a sometimes sweet, sometimes tragic tale set in a rural world that was rapidly disappearing even in 1921. This movie richly deserves its status as a classic. Highly recommended.

Movies Silently Score: ★★★★½

Where can I see it?

Tol’able David is widely available on DVD. My version is the currently out-of-print Image release. I have not yet viewed the Grapevine release. The Alpha release is likely very low quality and I cannot recommend it.

Update: The out-of-print version has been re-released by Flicker Alley. This is the version to buy.