Silence is Golden: A Closer Look at – Tol’able David (1921)
One of the great joys of American silent film is not just the “up close and personal” look at times gone by, but to see how people actually looked earlier past times. We associate Americana with early to mid 20th century today, but during the silent film era people associated it more with their youth in the 19th century.
By 1921, countless generations of Americans had grown up in the country, or at least had a childhood on a farm. Only recently 50% of the population lived in urban areas and only 3% of American farms had electricity. The people had a fondness for old rural traditions, as well as a keen nostalgia for a way of life that seemed to be fading. Children could quote James Whitcomb Riley’s homemade poems or plays with rural themes Sister Hopkins were hugely popular, and silent films abounded with quaint settings and hilarious country rubbish.
This was the kind of Americana-infused atmosphere Henry King was familiar with when he directed his country melodrama Tol’able David (1921), certainly one of the great masterpieces of the 1920s. Movies like DW Griffith’s True heart Susi (1919) and Way down in the east (1920) had paved the way for it, as had country light comedies starring Charles Ray. But it was King’s own memories of his childhood in Virginia that gave the film the spirit that still contributes to its power today.
King had started out with public companies on stage and directed Pathé. He worked for Thomas Ince and the Robertson-Cole studio for a number of years, then joined the newly formed Inspiration Company, run by Charles Duell and young actor Richard Barthelmess. Barthelmess was fresh from his success in Way down in the east and had just acquired the film rights to Joseph Hergesheimer’s short story Tol’able David from Griffith, who had planned to adapt it for the screen but never got around to it. King was enthusiastic about the idea and later said, “With part of the picture I relived the days of my childhood.”
In search of filming locations, King sent an assistant to charming little Blue Grass, Virginia, tucked away in a corner of the Shenandoah Valley. He told him exactly what terrain to look for and what kind of fences he wanted for his scenes — King had been born just eight miles away, just across the Appalachian Mountains. The assistant called him from the spot and said, “I was standing 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 continued Tol’able David.
The plot revolved around the theme of family honor, a concept that feels foreign today but was paramount in the lives of the film’s characters. David Kinemon, played by Barthelmess, is the youngest son of a tenant farming family. He wants to be treated like a real man like his older brother, but is gently told he’s “tolerable, just tolerable.” He also wants to impress 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, rowdy outlaw Iscah (played by trusty character actor Ernest Torrence) and his grown sons Luke and “Little Buzzard” move to the Hatburn farm . Powerless to stop them, Esther and her grandfather soon begin to bully and terrorize the Kinemons. They end up killing David’s dog, injuring his older brother and turning him into a cripple. David’s father wants to avenge the family honor himself, but dies of a heart attack. This leaves David the only man in the family, and he must soon face the ultimate challenge of life and death to uphold the honor of the Kinemons.
King thoroughly enjoyed the production of Tol’able David, as did the local residents, who often played extras. He insisted it feel as authentic as possible, which at times got him a little at odds with his screenwriter Edmund Goulding, who was British and not so familiar with rural America. King later recalled: “I talked about the boy, the kind of person he was, the family he came from. I talked about how the family knelt around the chairs and said their prayers every night, which has been done at my house for as long as I can remember.” He insisted on rewriting parts of the storyline and adding to the drama. Goulding was nervous about changing Joseph Hergesheimer’s story, but Hergesheimer himself was very pleased in the end, telling King, “You put in all the things I left out.”
Tol’able David proved extremely successful with critics and audiences and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. photo game The magazine voted to give it the Medal of Honor in 1921, and stars like Mary Pickford would call it one of their favorite films. Lillian Gish recalled that Griffith himself, upon seeing it, hugged Barthelmess and “tearfully told him how proud he was”.
Today, Tol’able David is a classic that has stood the test of time, as powerful and compelling as it was over a century ago. Even parts that today seem melodramatic, like the scene where David’s mother stops him from getting revenge, are amplified by the actors’ sincerity. It feels as authentic as King could have hoped for, mixing gritty realism with warm vibes and beautifully capturing the old barns and verdant valleys of the Virginia countryside. Above all, it has an awe for a bygone era, an awe that viewers will still feel today.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
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 credits to Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion on her website, Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.