TOL'ABLE DAVID, 1921
Starring: Richard Barthelmess, Gladys Hulette, Walter P. Lewis, Ernest Torrence, Ralph Yearsley, Forrest Robinson, Laurence Eddinger, Edmund Gurney, Walter Richmond, Marion Abbott.
In West Virginia, the life of contented country boy David (Barthelmess) is torn asunder 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.
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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 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. The result 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, though ridiculous, is still laugh out loud funny).
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 performance, 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 hulking modern-day Goliath for this literal David to take on and, despite the farcical facial expressions, is a genuine creepy character.
The main drawback is the dragging pace, surprising given that King was a director whose works were always later 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 devoid of incidence. Although this is completely in keeping with the setting of the film, it none the less makes the films 99 minute running time feel a lot longer.
Based on the novel by Joseph Hergesheimer, Goulding (who would later direct many famous Hollywood movies, including ‘Grand Hotel’) provides the script.