David and Goliath: Richard Barthelmess, Ernest Torrence and the great fight of Tol’able David

Tol’able David is mostly remembered today for being the movie shown as The Tingler strikes. However, it would be a huge mistake to ignore this classic slice of Americana. It has sweetness, family, humor and tragedy in abundance but the set piece of the film is the climactic fight between Richard Barthelmess, a teenage mailman, and Ernest Torrence’s psychotic hillbilly.

A brief setup is in order. (You can read my full-length review if you want more detail.) Richard Barthelmess is David, a nice kid who loves his brother, his parents, his girlfriend and his dog. Ernest Torrence plays Luke Hatburn, a horrible outlaw who has paralyzed David’s brother, driven his father to a fatal heart attack, terrorized David’s girlfriend and killed his dog. And now he has stolen David’s bag of mail on his very first postal run. You can safely say that this is personal.

David...
David…

The two men could not have been better cast. Barthelmess was twenty-six but easily looked a decade younger thanks to his boyish features and acting skill. He was officially five foot nine but I think we can assume that he was indulging in the usual Hollywood height fibs. No shame in it. Everyone adds an inch or two in the movies.

Goliath
Goliath

Ernest Torrence was a burly Scotsman who stood six foot three. (That I do believe. The guy was huge!) One of Hollywood’s most versatile character actors, he projected menace like crazy. No one in their right mind would want a bare-knuckle brawl with Luke.

So, we have the setup, we have perfect casting, what else do we need to make this battle one for the record books? What’s that? Symbolism and subtext? Sure!

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You may have guessed already that this is a David and Goliath narrative (the title of this piece gives it away). But the whole film brims with old-time religion. Take the start of the fight. Luke is off committing other villainy, leaving David to face the rest of the Hatburns, specifically Luke’s daddy and brother. This is an eye-for-an-eye world and David ends up shooting them both in self-defense. A father and a brother for a father and a brother.

This is all so well established that it’s a darn shame when the film feels compelled to explain the whole David and Goliath connection. Yes, we got it, thank you.

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The final ingredient relies on both the actors and the skill of director Henry King. This must be a mighty brawl. After all the buildup, the audience would go home disappointed if this David vs. Goliath rivalry went out with a whimper.

David is not out to be a hero. He just can’t abandon the mail. His sense of duty won’t allow it. He’s terrified, he wants to escape more than anything but not without the mail. Luke attacks and David defends himself in a blind panic. This isn’t a graceful fight, full of leaps and flips and stylized choreography. It’s just two men who know that only one of them can survive.

Yeah, it's serious business.
Yeah, it’s serious business.

The battle is cross-cut with David’s girlfriend, Gladys Hulette (excellent, by the way), running to town to get help. The thing is, she knows there is no way she will get there in time to save David. The cabin is too far away from civilization. David will be dead by the time help arrives.

(Major spoilers from this point on)

She believes David has been killed.
She believes David has been killed.

David is thrown around, slammed into walls and generally torn to pieces. He and Luke spot a gun on the floor and both of them lunge for it. Who wins the race?

Henry King shows Gladys arriving in town, telling everyone that David has been murdered. Then he cuts to the cabin door. It begins to swing open. Who will be on the other side? King teases the suspense a bit until the door opens completely and David stumbles out. He has beaten his giant. We feel his triumph because we experienced the battle with him.

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Availability: There are several editions of Tol’able David on the market but this film requires skillful scoring to bring out its full potential. I recommend the Flicker Alley MOD edition, which has an utterly perfect score by Robert Israel.

This was my contribution to the …And Scene! Blogathon hosted by the fabulous Sister Celluloid. Please be sure the read the other entries!

5 Replies to “David and Goliath: Richard Barthelmess, Ernest Torrence and the great fight of Tol’able David”

  1. Tol’able David is one of my absolute favorite silent films. Once you’ve seen this big fight scene, it’s with you forever. Glad to see I’m not the only one who’s found it both exciting and moving!

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