While I’m on the subject of Richard Barthelmess I thought now would be as good a time as any to have a look at his classic drama Tol’able David, the story of a real sweetheart of a lad who shows real courage when facing up to a crew of bullying crooks.
Tol’able David is often written about in terms of its whimsical and quaint Americana but don’t be fooled into thinking that the film gushes over into cloying sentimentality – what makes Tol’able David special is the film’s authenticity, particularly the attention to detail in the photography, it’s setting and even in its depiction of emotional, sexual and physical violence. The film is based on a magazine short story by Joseph Hergesheimer and as the film’s director, Henry King, was a Virginian who related strongly to some of the descriptions in the tale he was insistent that filming should take place on location in Virginia.
Henry King, is also worth a mention as he formed the production company Inspiration Pictures with Richard Barthelmess and Charles Duell. Tol’able David was the company’s first movie and probably their greatest success, however he also directed a string of movies in the 1920s starring Richard Barthelmess as well as Ronald Colman’s first US movie, The White Sister, in 1923, Romola, with Ronald Colman and William Powell, and Stella Dallas and The Winning of Barbara Worth also starring Ronald Colman.
Of course in reality there wasn’t much authenticity when it came to casting Richard Barthelmess in the role of the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon – the Photoplay Magazine review describes Richard Barthelmess as a ‘real city slicker’ in comparison to the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon. Additionally Barthelmess was 27 at the time of filming, playing an 18 year old. But when you have acting of this quality, obviously that’s immaterial as Barthelmess perfectly conveys a nice young boy, the pride of his family – in fact in my fevered imagination I’ve thought of Henry King holding up prompt boards for Barthelmess with ‘CREDIT TO HIS MOTHER’ written on it in big letters. Barthelmess brings to the screen the frustration of being the baby of the family, but then terror mixed in with reckless courage when faced with the reality that being an adult means getting into situations that we might find disconcerting, even frightening. I think most of us whichever era we grew up in can empathise with that, it’s a pretty standard experience for teenagers and young adults. Although obviously not involving being beat up by the 6’4 Ernest Torrence. Well not necessarily.
Henry King filmed Greenstream as a beautiful idyll, to an urban Twenties audience this must have looked incredibly peaceful. However peace is shattered by the arrival of the three black sheep of the Hatburn family, escaping justice by stepping over the state line. Ernest Torrence makes a thoroughly convincing villain, his huge frame dominating the screen.
Ernest Torrence was born in Edinburgh in 1878, and was actually a trained operatic baritone, however he moved into acting after issues with his vocal chords rendered his singing career redundant. He and his brother David moved to New York in 1911 to work on Broadway, but once he had made his first film, which was Tol’able David, he remained in Hollywood. The character of Luke Hatburn, a dopey psychopath who indulges in violence out of curiosity and warped enjoyment, was a complete contrast to the cultured and well-bred Torrence, and indeed Ernest Torrence also became very good friends with William Powell, Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman.
There is no doubt that Tol’able David is a motion picture of sublime quality – the care and thought that went into the storyline, casting and photography allows the film to retain its timelessness. It is shown regularly at silent film festivals, and possibly has particular resonance for a modern audience, as it explores recurrent movie themes as coming of age and the psychopathic hillbilly trope. Of additional resonance are more but contemporary themes like the realistic portrayal of the rural working class without idealising them and the brutalities of working class life and poverty. It also taps into concerns about a homogeneous society being threatened by lawless outsiders.
Tol’able David and the American Heritage – Walter R Coppedge
The Parade Goes By – Kevin Brownlow
Photoplay Magazine, January 1922