Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – Tol’able David (1921)
One of the great joys of American silent film is not only the “up close and personal” look at times gone by, but seeing how people regarded even earlier times gone by. We associate the early to mid-20th century with Americana today, but during the silent era folks were more likely to associate it with their youth in the 19th century.
By 1921 innumerable generations of Americans had grown up in rural areas, or at least had a childhood out on a farm. It was only recently that 50% of the population had started living in urban areas, and only 3% of American farms had electricity. People had a fondness for old country traditions as well as a keen nostalgia for a way of life that seemed to be fading. Children could quote homespun poems by James Whitcomb Riley, rural-themed plays like Sis Hopkins were wildly popular, and silent films abounded with quaint settings and comic country rubes.
This was the type of Americana-infused atmosphere familiar to Henry King when he directed his rural melodrama Tol’able David (1921), certainly one of the great masterpieces of the 1920s. Films like D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919) and Way Down East (1920) had paved the way for it, as well as rural-themed light comedies starring Charles Ray. But it was King’s own memories of his childhood in Virginia that gave the film its spirit, which still contributes to its power today.
King had gotten his start with stock companies on the stage and started directing at Pathé. He worked for Thomas Ince and studio Robertson-Cole for a few years and then joined the newly-incorporated Inspiration Company, which was headed by Charles Duell and young actor Richard Barthelmess. Barthelmess was fresh from his success in Way Down East and had just gotten the film rights to Joseph Hergesheimer’s short story “Tol’able David” from Griffith, who had been planning on adapting it to the screen but hadn’t gotten around to it. King was excited about the idea and would later say, “With part of the picture I relived the days of my boyhood.”
While scouting for filming locations King sent an assistant to charming little Blue Grass, Virginia, located in a nook in the Shenandoah Valley. He told him exactly what terrain to look for and the type of split rail fences he wanted for his scenes–King had been born only eight miles away, just over the Appalachians. The assistant phoned him from the location, saying, “I stood on top of a hill and I could see everything you told me about.” Without further ado, King brought his company to Blue Grass and work began on Tol’able David.
The plot revolved around the theme of family honor, a concept which feels foreign today but was supremely important in the lives of the film’s characters. David Kinemon, played by Barthelmess, is the youngest son of a family of tenant farmers. He wants to be treated like a real man like his older brother, but he’s gently told he’s “tol’able, just tol’able.” He also wants to impress the sweet Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette) who lives with her grandfather on a neighboring farm.
The Kinemons’ humble, idyllic way of life begins to change when the Hatburns’ distant cousins, the thuggish outlaws Iscah (played by dependable character actor Ernest Torrence) and his grown sons Luke and “Little Buzzard,” move to the Hatburn farm. Esther and her grandfather are powerless to stop them, and they soon begin bullying and terrorizing the Kinemons. They end up killing David’s dog and injuring his older brother, turning him into a cripple. David’s father intends to avenge the family’s honor himself, but perishes from a heart attack. This leaves David as the sole man of the family, and he soon undergoes the ultimate life-or-death challenge to uphold the Kinemons’ honor.
King greatly enjoyed the production of Tol’able David, as did the local residents who often played extras. He insisted on making it feel as authentic as possible, which at times made him a little at odds with his screenwriter Edmund Goulding, who was British and not as familiar with rural America. King later recalled: “I talked about the boy, the type of person he was, the family he came from. I talked about the family kneeling around the chairs each night, saying their prayers, which was done in my home for as long as I can remember.” He insisted on rewriting parts of the plot, amping up the drama. Goulding was nervous about altering Joseph Hergesheimer’s story, but Hergesheimer himself ended up being very pleased, telling King: “You put into this all the things that I left out.”
Tol’able David turned out to be hugely successful with both critics and audiences, and instantly lauded as a masterpiece. Photoplay magazine voted to give it their 1921 Medal of Honor, and stars like Mary Pickford would call it one of their favorite films. Lillian Gish recalled that Griffith himself, upon seeing it, embraced Barthelmess and “told him, with tears in his eyes, how proud he was.”
Today, Tol’able David is a classic that’s certainly stood the test of time, as powerful and engrossing as it was over a century ago. Even parts that seem melodramatic today, such as the scene where David’s mother stops him from seeking revenge, are strengthened by the actors’ sincerity. It feels as authentic as King had hoped, mixing gritty realism with warm sentiment and beautifully capturing the old barns and green valleys of the Virginia countryside. Above all, it has a reverence for an era long gone, a reverence that will still be apparent to viewers today.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.