Tol’able David (1921)


  • directed by Henry King
  • starring Richard Barthelmess, Gladys Hulette, Edmund Gurney, Marion Abbott, Warner Richmond, Patterson Dial, Walter P. Lewis, Forrest Richardson, Ralph Yearsley, Ernest Torrence
  • When three thuggish men are responsible for the death of his father and dog, and the crippling of his older brother, young David must choose between supporting his family or exacting revenge.

Deep into the silent film era as I am, Tol’able David struck me as a unique film because the story was so simple and rural, befitting of the small-town West Virginia setting, but both the compositions and pace were so alive, sophisticated, and damn-near modern at times. In other hands I think the film, which was drenched in sentimentality and country charm, would have on the whole felt more in line with that particular aesthetic.

Whereas D.W. Griffith seemed content in staying solidly in provincial mode with the story and style of True Heart Susie, Henry King on the other hand took it a little further in my opinion, with deep staging, striking lighting, and effective pacing in two regards: the story and characters were given a lot of space to breathe and move along naturally yet there was also a vitality to the action editing-wise and great creativity on the part of King to find innovative ways to make a film look good.

As much of an impression that the filmmaking itself left on me, it still wouldn’t have worked as well as it did without the tour de force performance of Richard Barthelmess as David. The actor was around 25 years old at the time of production playing a boy I would guess in his mid teens. He made a lot of great physical choices for David that showcased the very best of silent film acting. Barthelmess breathed into David a set of almost silent comedy physicalities and the character had a signature posture, a very sympathetic one that clearly illustrated his transitioning between innocence and ultimate responsibility.

David’s energetic slouch more than anything could have been the result of the weight he’d been shouldering from constantly being referred to as tol’able by his family and sweetheart, Esther. “You’re tol’able,” derived from tolerable, but a label that basically boils down to, “you’re just OK, David,” or at best, “you’re not yet of an age to be anything, but you’re sweet and may just be something special someday.”

The funny thing about David’s quest for maturity, respect, and greatness is how modest his dream was all along—to one day be trusted to deliver mail like his father and older brother. His perspective is quickly changed when Esther’s outlaw cousins crash the town and devastate the Kinemon family by killing his dog and crippling his brother, atrocities that extended even further by leading to the stress-induced death of his father. David is immediately propelled into the role of protecting the household and honoring the family’s name.

There were a few great scenes including the intense and expertly choreographed finale, which saw David finally overcoming his Goliath, but the moment that stuck out the most to me was the tender, sweet, and downright visually iconic community dance happening over David’s shoulder through the window as he dances by himself outside. This takes place in the middle of David’s grief and hunger for revenge and provided a poignant moment for the character to look backward to the idyllic serenity of his past in Greenstream, West Virginia. I don’t know if it’s ever appeared in one of those Movie Magic 101 montages that occur at awards shows, but it was definitely one of those confluences of score, camera, character, and story that elevate a film into truly magical territory.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to Tol’able David (1921)

  1. Pingback: Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921) | classixquest

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