Tol’able David (1921)

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Film review by Jason Day of the silent drama starring Richard Barthelmess. Directed by Henry King.

Director: Henry King. Inspiration Pictures/First National

SILENT

 

Cast & credits

Producer: Henry King.
Writers: Edmund Goulding, Henry King.
Camera: Henry Cronjager.
Music: Robert Israel (1999 issue), Damian Coldwell (2009).

Richard Barthelmess, Gladys Hulette, Walter P. Lewis, Ernest Torrence, Ralph Yearsley, Forrest Robinson, Laurence Eddinger, Edmund Gurney, Walter Richmond, Marion Abbott.

Synopsis

In West Virginia, the life of contented country boy David (Barthelmess) is torn apart when a criminal family numbering the mighty Luke (Torrence) hole up in the house of his sweetheart Hulette. They attack and cripple his brother, an act that induces a heart attack in his father and leaves the family destitute. Eventually, he has to stand up to the bullies who threaten to take everything from him.

Review, by Jason DayTol'able David poster

Star Barthlemess, along with director King, founded Inspiration Pictures in the early 1920’s, of which this was one of their first productions. It turned out to be one of the stellar blockbusters of the year (the then influential Photoplay magazine awarded it their ‘Medal of Honour’ for 1921).

The pastoral drama was very much in vogue at this time in American and world cinema. Star Barthelmess had only recently starred in one for director D.W. Griffith (Way Down East) – one of the biggest box-office smashes of the entire silent era and here decided to go one better than the master who had made him an international star; Victor Sjostrom made a series of these filmsnin his native Sweden.

The result here is a mixed bag, but one full of charming and amusing surprises.

The comic tone is just about right. Griffith’s dramas were punctuated by tactless and embarrassing comedy but here the slapstick is not awkward and is actually funny (Barthelmess wears a handy barrel to cover his modesty near the opening of the film and the result still generates genuine laughs).

Barthlemess’ lead performance is monumental, not just in terms of silent movie acting, but acting full-stop. It is a finely judged and intricately nuanced turn, full of telling physicality and delicate expression – Barthelmess was 26 when the film was made (just scraping by in terms of youth), but you can easily believe you are seeing a 16 year old boy (notice how he grabs the front of his trousers when feeling uneasy).

Torrence is a spindly, modern-day Goliath for this literal David to take on and, despite his sometimes farcical facial expressions, is a genuinely creepy character.

The main drawback is the dragging pace, surprising given that King was a director whose later works were noted for their pacing and sense of verve and action. One can forgive the protracted opening that sets the idyllic Appalachian country scene but thereafter things seem a bit to freewheeling and lazy. Although this is completely in keeping with the setting of the film, it none the less makes the 99 minute running time feel a lot longer. What was needed was a bit more steam in the strides.

Based on the novel by Joseph Hergesheimer, Goulding (who would later direct many famous Hollywood movies, including Grand Hotel) provides the script with King.

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