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Tol’able David and the American Heritage

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

I first saw Tol’able David at a film society in Princeton in 1953. It was the first silent picture I had seen: the larger-than-life acting styles, the iris shots, the sweep of narrative conveyed almost entirely in pictures—these devices unique to the silent film seemed fresh and charming. But what captivated me was something like nostalgia for a place I had never been, a time I never knew. I was watching a work which re-created the preconsumerist, preautomotive, indeed preindustrial America.

The David of the title is established in the mythic dimension as the scene opens on the family gathered in the lamplight in the parlor while David studies an illustration of David against the giant Goliath. David—it is clear to all except David—is still a boy, but nevertheless Tol’able, Tol’able. His attempts to be accorded equal status are good-naturedly rebuffed by his family. His mother gently tells him he is still her baby; his father forbids him a cigar and a drink on the occasion of a family celebration; his childhood sweetheart Esther laughs at him for smoking a pipe. To him the most romantic job in the adult world would be driving the mail hack, a job now entrusted to his handsome older brother, Alien; but David can only fantasize about such a future vocation, as he sits alone in the surrey by the barn, or as he swings on a hickory gate imagining himself driving a team. David, however, must grow up quickly after Allen is crippled by the Hatburn outlaws. Just as he is about to requite the deed, Hunter Kinemon, the father, is stricken with a fatal heart attack, and the support of his mother and brother’s family falls to David. Honor dictates that the Kinemons must avenge their injuries: that is his lot, David thinks, and so the elders of the village would agree. Young David’s chances are best summed up in Esther’s observation: “David, they’d mow you down like a clump of daisies.” Nevertheless, so keenly does David feel an obligation to right the family honor that he takes down the old flintlock, while his mother trails after him to plead that he stay home. Deterred by his mother’s agonized pleading, David swallows his pride and remains at home. The support of the family must now fall to him and his mother.

One day David is given a chance to carry the mail when the regular hack driver shows up too drunk to work. The mail, however, falls from the vehicle at a bend in the road—an accident espied by one of the Hatburns. Luke Hatburn seizes the bag as plunder and carries it to the outlaw headquarters where the Hatburns are terrorizing Esther and her grandfather. Having surmised the fate of the mailbag, David summons his courage and enters the Hatburn lair where the three offer him a menacing welcome.

The film now begins to build to a masterful climax as it crosscuts from David’s grappling with the Hatburns, to Esther’s escape and her pursuit by Luke Hatburn, to the community waiting at the store for the afternoon mail. When Esther arrives, announcing that, “They’ve killed David,” we crosscut once again to the Hatburn house, to the exterior door, as it swings slowly ajar, then closes, then swings open again then closes once more, then swings open to a gaping blackness for what must be a count of five. From the dark passage the stricken David emerges dragging the mail. The hack is waiting. Exhausted and moving painfully, David manages to turn the team around for Greenstream where simultaneously a posse is forming to go after the Hatburns. David is lifted from the hack and tenderly laid in his mother’s arms. Then the face of the soulful Esther hovers with the mother’s above David in a striking three-shot composition. “David, you’re wonderful,” Esther murmurs. David looks up at his mother now wiping his face and smiles, “I’m Tol’able, just Tol’able.”

The picture, released in 1922, achieved instant and universal success. In its final issue for the year, Billboard rated the best pictures in this order: Orphans of the Storm, Robin Hood, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Count of Monte Cristo, Nanook of the North, Blood and Sand, Tol’able David, Smilin” Thru, and Grandma’s Boy. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm was considered by Billboard to be “deservedly the best.” Griffith himself, however, was delighted to see Tol’able David brought so successfully to the screen; it was a property he had acquired, developed, and then sold to his protege Richard Barthelmess. After its successful opening, he offered the young star congratulations and rendered the opinion that it was “one of the best pictures I have ever seen.” He took Barthelmess in his arms and told him how proud he was of his former player and the picture he had produced.

The cognoscenti agreed with this judgment. Heywood Broun in the New York World commended the “remarkable feeling which [the director] has for the atmosphere.” From 34 film choices that year, readers of the then-prestigious Photoplay voted Tol’able David the year’s best picture, thereby earning for the film the coveted Gold Medal Photoplay Award.

Europe went wild over the picture, as its director, a native Virginian named Henry King, later recalled. The reviews from across the United States were encomiastic: “perfection” said the Baltimore Sun; “magnificent” exclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle; “it is impossible to avoid superlatives” raved the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; it would “go down in motion picture history as one of the greatest productions” predicted the Chicago Journal. And how, one might wonder, did it play in Peoria? “It is the sort of picture,” concluded a reviewer in the Peoria Transcript, “that will make you shout before you leave your seat,”By golly, wasn’t that a peach! We must bring mother to see this”—the greatest of all screen masterpieces produced up to this date.”

The trade press issued similarly glowing notices: The New York Exhibitors Trade Review found the picture “a sure remedy for commercial illnesses.” In hailing Barthelmess” bold move into independent production, Motion Picture News observed that “evidences of broken box office records and spellbound audiences continue to point out that the star’s initial venture for himself has created a veritable sensation.”

In Virginia, the Newport News-Press rejoiced over the announcement that the film had won the Photoplay Medal as the year’s best picture: “Tol’able David is the cinema’s finest product, its artistic justification for existence.” The combination of Joseph Hergesheimer as author and the Virginian Henry King as director offered “authenticity of conception and development with a genuine feeling which no outsider could grasp.” The Richmond News-Leader, demonstrating the familiar prejudice in favor of the printed word over the moving image, acknowledged that it was “most charming and artistic,” but ignorantly attributed its success

to the close supervision of the author of the story who mercifully preserved it from mutilation from the hands of the scenarist and director, one of whom is an Englishman who had never seen Virginia . . .and the other of whom is trained in the traditions of the studios, with a penchant for close-ups and conventional “fade-outs.”

But it was King’s close supervision and intimate knowledge of atmospheric detail that accounted for the authenticity of the picture. Born circa 1886 in a village near Christiansburg, and having taken part in those pastimes and activities the film lovingly portrays, he left home as a very young actor to seek his fortune with an itinerant troupe touring the South. Within a few years he was playing in Chicago where he came to the attention of Wilbert Melville, who was a producer for the Lubin Western Studios—a pioneer film company when the flickers were not quite respectable. King’s early films from this early period with such titles as Love and War in Mexico (1913) and The Moth and the Flame (1914) do not survive, nor do what appear to be sentimental melodramas of the war years. By 1917 he began to write as well as to act in a Pathe series, a sequence of morality melodramas entitled Who Pays? The star was Ruth Roland, rival to Pearl White. Following this series, the first star of many he was later to discover was a child, Baby Marie Osborne, who by the time of her sixth picture with him, King avers, enjoyed a box-office appeal second only to Mary Pickford. Nothing in the description of these early pictures suggests that they reached distinction, especially the series of Westerns starring William Russell. By 1920, his casts now included fine players such as H. B. Warner (with whom he was to make six pictures), Lillian Rich, and Anna Q. Nilsson. With the exception of Ince, for whom he had made the popular 23½ Hours Leave, King had been working for independent producers such as Balboa and Box Office Attractions: these men then sold their product by the literal foot (a system now called “negative pick-up”) for release under some aegis. Robertson-Cole, one of these successful independents headquartered in New York, invited King to come for expenses to discuss a more permanent arrangement for his services. King refused to accept expenses but came to New York to explore a contract. The day that they were to cement their deal, financial panic seized the bank in which Robertson-Cole kept its funds, and Robertson-Cole had no choice but to back off Nevertheless, during this visit, King had been introduced to Jim Williams, with whom he played golf; as First National’s head Williams had had the prescience to sign Chaplin for seven pictures. Williams introduced King to Charles Duell, a New York attorney. Would King do a story? Duell asked. The property was one which Richard Barthelmess had acquired to launch his own career as an independent actor.


Barthelmess was 27 in 1921. Eight years earlier he had been graduated from Trinity College (in Connecticut). His mother’s stage experience led her to become a voice coach for the famous Ukrainian actress Alla Nazimova (whose English, heard 24 years later in Escape, seemed hardly to have improved by such tutelage). Nazimova had been signed by Carl Laemmle to star in War Brides (1916), Universal’s first big critical and popular success. Although she was a family friend, she could no doubt surmise that Barthelmess” cameo good looks were strikingly photogenic; her confidence was to assure him an important part in the picture. With his dark eyes, ivory skin, and chiseled profile, he won parts with such established players as Nilsson and Marguerite Clark. It was Dorothy Gish, however, who chose him to play opposite her in a series of successful vehicles; but his big break came when Griffith cast him against Dorothy’s sister Lillian. After the sudden death of his juvenile lead Bobby Harron, Griffith searched for a replacement who could combine Harron’s sensitivity with greater strength. Barthelmess promised such sensitivity and was, moreover, better looking: as Lillian Gish has said, Barthelmess had the most beautiful face of any man who ever went before the cameras. First in Broken Blossoms (1919) and then in Way Down East (1920), the two radiated a luminous purity which still lights up the screen today. After these successes and his work in two minor Griffith pictures, Barthelmess audaciously decided to strike out on his own by making and starring in his own films.

In 1921 this decision to some may have been foolhardy, for that year witnessed the crack-up of two careers. Nazimova’s Beardsleyan version of Salomé was a commercial disaster. Charles Ray, another actor who specialized in country swain roles (of which Barthelmess” David is representative), sank irretrievably after producing The Courtship of Miles Standish. And the Selznick superstar Clara Kimball Young would shortly destroy herself in attempting to manage her own company. But Barthelmess knew that his following was growing; he knew also that he had acquired a good property in Joseph Hergesheimer’s widely followed Saturday Evening Post serial, a work retelling the David and Goliath story in a mountain setting. Duell would produce Barthelmess” films through a company to be called Inspiration Pictures. Duell offered King a small capitalization fund—$250,000— which he would then expend as seed money in the production of seven pictures, of which Tol’able David would be the first; the contract would run from July, 1921 to December, 1922. With no other prospect, King decided to accept the offer.

King chose for his cinematographer the almost forgotten Henry Cronjager. What remains of Cronjager’s work deserves to rank among the best of the silent era. Striking in Tol’able David are a freshness and clarity, and especially memorable are the scenes of early morning. No one who has watched the picture attentively is likely to forget the two shots of Rose and Mrs. Kinemon as they hold out their arms to Alien’s broken body; or the mute grief of Rose rocking in the darkened bedroom where Alien lies helpless. The eloquence of these shots makes title comment unnecessary. Cronjager’s meticulous attention to detail won from one of his directors, Marshall Neilan, the epithet of “Wait-a-minute-Henry.” King explains that just when the cameras were ready to roll, Cronjager would cry, “Wait a minute! See that piece of paper over there? If it moves, nobody’s going to look at the actors.” The successful collaboration of King and Cronjager on this picture brought Cronjager back to work with King on two other Barthelmess films, The Seventh Day and Sonny.

For his scenarist, King secured Edmund Goulding, an Englishman who had sought his fortunes first on the New York stage and then in the rapidly growing film industry. King asked Goulding to do a treatment and to scout for locations in the Virginia mountains. Although Tol’able David would be a highly successful partnership for both of them, Goulding’s relations with King were troubled by the fact that he objected to script changes King thought necessary. To declare responsibility for these changes, King added his own name under Goulding’s in the credits for screen adaptation. When the film became a hit, Goulding complained to Harriet Underfilled of the New York Herald that King was now depriving him of his due. The addition of Esther (the love interest) and the tripling of the Hatburn antagonists were, however, enriching contributions to the Hergesheimer story. Despite this disagreement, King and Goulding were to collaborate on The Seventh Day and Fury, both Barthelmess pictures of 1923. Goulding later became a notable director, remembered for the early Crawford in Sally, Irene, and Mary, Garbo in Love, the star-studded cast of Grand Hotel, and Bette Davis in four of her most sympathetic roles.

It remained for King to gather a cast quickly, and with the help of Edward Small, a well-placed theatrical agent, King swiftly chose his players that summer in New York. At the Lamb’s Club he ran into George M. Cohan’s stage manager, Lawrence Eddinger—whom King was to cast as John Galt, the storekeeper and landowner whose farm David’s family live on. At the same club he also met “Drunk Jack” Dillon whose dramatic specialization won him his soubriquet: Dillon would double as a passenger in one scene (“the drummer”) and the besotted hack driver in another. Walter Lewis, who had created the role of a drunken referee in a popular vaudeville sketch, would supply the role of the outlaw father. Ralph Yearsley, a young Australian, was cast in the part of the outlaw brother. Edmund Gurney, a British actor who had come to New York to support Mrs. Patrick Campbell in Pygmalion, would portray David’s father, the hardworking tenant farmer. The role of the kindly grandfather whose home is terrorized would be taken by Forrest Robinson, who recently on Broadway had played a paternal role in The Fortune Hunter. David’s mother was to be played by Marian Abbot, an abundantly maternal actress under contract to Frohman and Belasco. Patterson Dial, who had appeared recently in the Central Theatre productions Aphrodite and Princess Virtue, was cast to play David’s sister-in-law in the poignant role of the wife. There remained three important supporting roles: David’s girlish sweetheart, Esther; David’s dashing elder brother Alien; and the archetypal villain of the piece, Luke Hatburn.

When King met Ernest Torrence, an operatic baritone who had been graduated from such distinguished institutions as the Edinburgh Academy of Music, the Stuttgart Conservatory, and the Royal Academy of Music, King examined him quizzically: “Mr. Torrence, you look more like a banker than an outlaw. Do you think you could play Luke Hatburn?” Torrence, nervous despite his stage and music hall experience, had never appeared before a camera; he thought a moment and accepted the part. He need not have been apprehensive for after the film opened, Metro was so impressed with his screen potential that they sent a special car to fetch him from his train before it was to arrive at the Los Angeles station. Torrence transplanted easily to Hollywood where he became a familiar figure in the British colony, as he basked in his successes in some celebrated pictures of the time. He played the drunken frontier scout in the first Western epic, James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon; Captain Hook in Herbert Brenon’s widely admired Peter Pan; Uncle Pio in Charles Brabin’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; and Moriarty against Clive Brook’s Sherlock Holmes in the 1932 film of that name.

A young, strong-jawed actor with blue eyes and a big smile from Culpeper, Virginia, Warner Richmond had toured on the stage early in the last decade and acted with Henry King. His work in film found him mostly on the West coast where he played in largely undistinguished pictures: the roles he played then and until his career declined in the thirties were athletes, policemen, cowboys, soldiers—often second leads but in the company of rising actresses such as Dorothy Gish and Bebe Daniels. Shortly after the release of War Brides in 1916 he found himself having tea with a lady who had moved from the East. Richmond remarked that he had admired the young lead in War Brides. Did the lady (whose name was Mrs. Harris) know this young actor Barthelmess? he asked. Yes, Mrs. Harris replied, “He happens to be my son.” In a few years Richmond found the opportunity to work with Barthelmess when King offered him the role of Alien, “the strongest man in the county,” who is paralyzed for life by Luke Hatburn.

For David’s sweetheart Esther, King recruited a lovely ingenue with extensive experience in theater and film, Gladys Hulette. She had entered movies as early as 1907, and in 1909 she was to play in Hiawatha, the first motion picture made by IMP, Carl Laemmle’s maverick production company formed to break the Motion Picture Patents” cartel. By 1914 she was featured in Thanhouser pictures, and by 1917 she was playing in the company of Florence La Badie and Irene Castle at Pathé. Although Miss Hulette continued to work steadily in films until 1928, Esther was to be her most important role. Her porcelain complexion, long lustrous hair, and soulfully compassionate eyes suggested a delicacy which flapper styles were soon to make old-fashioned.

King got away with absurdly low salaries, promising his actors expenses and cool locations in the Virginia mountains while New York was sweltering in a July heat wave. Eddinger and Dillon were engaged for 35 dollars a week; Abbott for 50; Torrence and Richmond for 200; Hulette for 400; and Barthelmess for 1200. The cast boarded the train for a tenhour ride to Staunton. From Staunton, they traveled for 48 miles over three ranges of mountains in a convoy of vehicles to descend to Monterey.

Barthelmess dramatically recounted the journey to a reporter. “Never have any of us traversed such roads nor looked into such precipices as stared back at us gruesomely on that night. We were not altogether reassured when we saw our driver place in the car within easy reach a repeating rifle.” The driver explained that on a recent journey two wildcats had jumped from the trees.

The actors—so it was reported—arrived in Monterey with lights blazing and the citizens of the community heavily armed in expectation of a visit from a band of local outlaws called the Ryder boys. Barthelmess exaggerated when he claimed that the company “found primitiveness that could not be imagined.” These citizens, he averred, “rather gloried in having the world know that progress has not laid hands on that section of the country.” He added, however, that the inhabitants were “most obliging,” and residents who recall the great event remember that the film crew were received very hospitably.

Mrs. H. B. Marshall of Blue Grass clearly remembered that Barthelmess and his wife (the film actress Mary Hay) were lodged and served separately in a private home while the rest of the crew stayed at the Monterey Hotel. “We all tried to help them out, to get them what they needed.” High-spirited good fellowship, evident in several pictures taken by Mrs. Marshall and Cronjager, made for cheerful working conditions. King recalled that Blue Grass was “the only location I ever went to in my life where I never changed a thing.”

Although exterior shooting took place in Blue Grass and vicinity, Monterey served as the headquarters of the company. The Monterey Hotel, a pleasant rambling frame structure built in 1904, reopened to house the company; it provided a simple—although hardly primitive—homey, boardinghousestyle environment. There were communal bathrooms, high ceilings, a wide verandah with rocking chairs, and electricity until eleven at night.

Although the interiors were all shot at the old Biograph studio on 174th Street, these sets are so convincing that one can visit the site of the old Kinemon home—now a storage building on the Kenton Rexrode farm—and feel certain that the front room with the fireplace is the very room where David and his family gather at the opening of the film. King reproduced the room exactly from photographs. Further authenticating detail came from the use of an antique bed, quilts, and an old flintlock.


The notion that he was creating a work of art, King has said, never occurred to him (as it never occurred to John Ford). The director in King’s view is a storyteller. A film director must tell his story in pictures, whether the medium is silent or sound; therefore King tried to show when he was making silents 90 percent of the action in pictures and about 10 percent in titles. In the 102 minutes of Tol’able David, there are only 28 titles. King has said that the director’s work is to invent the atmosphere that makes for the feeling of real characters in a real place. As he told Barthelmess:

We must get the real atmosphere of the Virginia mountains. This is not a story of a feud or moonshiners and we have to go down among these people, absorb their mannerisms and ideas. In short we must live as they do; think as they do; and do as they do.

Thus King rehearsed each actor until his role was as familiar “as an old shirt.”

To prepare Torrence for his portrayal of the heavy, King suggested that Luke Hatburn is essentially “not a mean man at all;” rather he is so ignorant that he might kill a cat with a stone not out of malice but to “see the guts spill.” Like his successor in Deliverance, John Boorman’s similar study of ignorant depravity, Luke operates at a level barely human. One afternoon on the verandah of the Monterey Hotel, King pointed out a bedraggled man shuffling down the street, “the most dilapidated man you ever saw.” King asked Torrence to study him closely; Torrence excused himself and came back in half an hour now wearing the tattered clothes of the bedraggled man. “What’d you do with the body?” King asked. Torrence explained that he caught the fellow and took him to a store where he exchanged new clothes for Luke’s costume. To suggest Luke’s desperate hunger, King instructed him to pull an onion out of a garden as he walks by, and sink his teeth into it—the kind of improvisation which described what King means by showing rather than telling.

One high-intensity scene which must be dramatized rather than reported, never fails to generate some derisory chuckling in a contemporary college audience. Students find it difficult to accept Mrs. Kinemon’s dragging herself through the mud to keep her boy from going after the Hatburns. David’s conflict of values—the dilemma which defines what moral problems are all about—opposes the conflicting claims of David’s duty to his family as a son and to himself as a young man. When questioned as to whether the business of Mrs. Kinemon’s tackling her son to keep him home might not be excessive, King replied with this story:

When my father had died, I was about 12—he had died three or four months before this. There was a man living near Ellison, Virginia who had some sheep. Two dogs had killed some of his sheep, and someone identified one of those dogs as Widow King’s. The other one was Dr. Oliver’s—Dr. Oliver was a doctor in Ellison. The law in Virginia is that if a dog kills a sheep you have to kill it. This man went to Dr. Oliver, and he said to him,”Doctor, I have to kill your dog.” Dr. Oliver married late in life, and he had a baby about three. It was not unusual to see the child riding the dog or lying down on the ground with his arms around him. . . He said, “Well, the dog is out there with my baby in the back yard. John, if you kill that dog, I’m going to kill you.” The man thought about it. Nothing more was said.

He turned and walked out the door and he came to our house and he told my mother what he was after. . . . This dog—I shared everything I had with him, any food—he was as close to me—a boy and his dog!—I went upstairs and got out the window and heard all that was said. My mother surrendered. So he got off his horse and tied a rope around my dog and started away. I ran to my father’s trunk and got his revolver. My mother happened to see me as I ran across the back porch and she saw what I was doing. She took after me and ran across this meadow. She made one last lunge and grabbed me by the feet and I fell on my face. She held my feet.

And so, King concluded, the man escaped while the wouldbe young assassin was restrained only by the desperate intervention of his mother; some 20 years later that struggle was reenacted as Mrs. Kinemon desperately holds back her son from taking on the family adversary.

Most viewers today may find that the chief delight of Tol’able David lies in its witness to the way things were in 19th-century America. As a pastoral (a genre in which the country setting is as important as character), there is a timelessness appropriate to the style of romance. David, an archetypal swain, is a boy on the edge of manhood; as Sir Philip Sidney said of the pastoral, shepherd boys must pipe as if they never would grow old. Villains must be more menacing—and who more frighteningly depraved than Luke?; and heroines more blue-eyed and beautiful—and who more meltingly appealing than Esther, especially when she is confronted by the brutish Hatburn? (“We can sleep anywhere,” mutters Luke when he first sees Esther.) The pastoral archetype requires a setting where things do not change: the coekcrowing, the cooking of breakfast, the swimming hole in the morning, the enduring games of childhood, and village houses of indeterminate architecture—the timelessness of these details blurs any attempt to specify period.

When the Russian director and film theorist V. I. Pudovkin celebrated the achievement of Tol’able David, he singled out for special commendation a quality in the film he called “color,” or what King called “the atmosphere,” which it is the business of the director to provide. There is a poignant sense of “that’s the way it must have been” when one sees on a summer afternoon men and boys playing marbles together. Community life is affectionately observed at the school dance where the three fiddlers scrape away; at the celebration of a birth with a jug of local brew; at the store where the village gathers to talk and wait for the mail; and in the lone figure of the country doctor astride his horse as he makes his rounds. Domestic touches show how the family gathered for prayers before going to bed (a practice King remembers from his own childhood); how clothes were scrubbed on a washboard outside the house; how knives were sharpened on a grindstone; how flies were kept from the dinner table with a fly whisk shredded from newspapers; and how a trout may be skillfully speared from a river bank. A young boy of 17—even an older man, according to Blue Grass residents who remember those days—might quite unselfconsciously play mumblepeg. If a director is a storyteller who has to make a picture breathe, the accumulation of countless small details thus makes the pastoral setting credible: one can cite the small boys who are seen hitching rides on the tail gates of passing wagons, David’s playing with Rocket and his trout-spearing, and Esther’s herding her cows down a country lane.

In King’s compelling vision of 19th-century America, the moral development of David is a central concern. David’s triumphant return to Greenstream with the mail signals the completion of the ordeal that marks his passage to man’s estate. That he should have risked mayhem and murder to bring back the afternoon mail leaves some contemporary audiences more amused than admiring, if not incredulous; but surely such responses comment more on our inability to transpose ourselves to another time than to any foolish simplicity in David’s character. As King pointed out in speaking of how respect was accorded in his own birthplace, “People don’t realize in a small town like Lafayette that to drive the hack to carry the U.S. Mail was a responsibility— the biggest responsibility there was.” In a mountain fastness the mail carrier provided the link with the outside world, and upon him the community depends. “David’s brother was a great hero in his eyes,” remarks King. Whatever his occupation a hero serves his people; David’s willingness to risk his life in the name of duty represents the virtues which developed the country.

Some years ago in a widely read account of the shifts in American values, Charles Reich suggested that American culture in its first phase (denominated as Consciousness I) enshrined as essential to the spirit that created the country the values of duty, responsibility, industry, perseverance, and sacrifice. In a new and vast land, Reich wrote, “reality centered on the truth of individual effort. America would prosper if people would prove energetic and hard working. The crucial thing was to realize the individual energy.”

To such values does David testify. They were to be displaced in the twenties and still again in the sixties. But in 1921 the Peoria reviewer who recognized that Tol’able David was the sort of picture to bring mother to see, similarly recognized the community of values that had bonded the family and the pastoral community whom the picture addressed.

Perhaps it was Barthelmess’s association with those virtues which earned his invitation to visit Sing Sing (where he was struck to observe the inmates rooting for the hero against the outlaws); and his clean personal life prompted his selection as the first film star to appear on radio. In the wake of the terrible Hollywood scandals of 1921, Barthelmess addressed 300,000 members of the Amateur Radio Reserve and challenged the censors of America to find anything unclean or demoralizing in Tol’able David. Indeed, the picture was inspiring enough to open the church hall of the Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey.

In the ninth decade of the century, draft scores indicate that the educational achievement of 18-year-old men in 1920 is normally the knowledge of 13-year-olds today. A girl who at 17 reached puberty 60 years ago would now learn what it is to be a woman at 12 or 13. The largest age group watching Saturday Night Live, T. V. ‘s most sophisticated cabaret entertainment, is, astonishingly enough, an audience of 12-yearolds.

Those who think human nature never changes might ponder the significance of such statistics; the descendants of 19th-century ancestors have ripened into a strange maturity under the cool white light of the television tube. In the exponential change wrought by each decade, values no less than information have been transformed. While the quest of the hero is timeless, the nature of the journey changes; the horse gives away to the jet, the bucolic wilderness becomes the urban jungle; the monstrous adversary in the rural fastness metamorphoses into the vice lord or corrupt politico. Getting initiated into the society in which one must live necessarily remains the central rite of passage in a lifetime; but the initiation comes sooner, is far more complex, and requires today great wariness and intelligence.


Henry King went on to a long and distinguished career in American film, achieving wide recognition, after John Ford, as Twentieth-Century Fox’s preeminent director. Despite work in a variety of genres—swashbucklers, melodramas, musicals, “biopics,” spectacles, comedies, wartime pictures, and one Biblical epic—King’s reputation as a master of Americana has given him a special distinction. A 1980 UCLA retrospective on King’s films seemed to indicate that at long last he is being regarded as more than a sturdy professional; he is being acknowledged as an artist just now receiving the attention his rich varied films so justly deserve. Considering his work as a whole, he will be remembered for those authoritiative recreations of American life of which the present subject is the first; the others, nearly all would agree, are State Fair (1933) Jesse James (1939), The Gunfighter (1950), I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951), Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952), and This Earth is Mine (1959). King died in June of this year at his home in California’s San Fernando valley. He was 96 and the director of more than 100 films during a 46-year-career.

The success of Tol’able David catapulted Barthelmess into stardom; only Valentino among the rising actors of the new decade shone more brightly. Barthelmess and King went on to produce for Inspiration three additional pictures—The Seventh Day, The Bond Boy, and Fury, all of which were successful except The Seventh Day (“a dog,” King felt). Under the aegis of Inspiration King directed two of Lillian Gish’s finest films, The White Sister and Romola. Despite their distinguished contributions to the company, Barthelmess and King began having troubles with Duell. But when Lillian Gish discovered Duell’s undoubted and shameless victimization of her trust, Inspiration was in trouble.

The incredible story recounted in Gish’s The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me indicates that Duell wanted not only to control Gish but to marry her. Finding himself flatly turned down, he sued her for breach of contract. Gish’s defense against these unconscionable pressures resulted in Duell’s total disgrace and his being fined heavily for perjury.

When Inspiration expired, Barthelmess had made for the company a total of 18 films, and now his career had begun to sag. But when he signed on at First National, his fortunes revived with The Patent Leather Kid, a role that won him a nomination in the first Academy Award competition. Now in his thirties, he was no longer easily cast in youthful roles; and additionally when sound required that the gods speak, Barthelmess” nasal baritone was not quite what one might have fantasized. He was still an important name but less and less of a draw despite some excellent roles—the courageous flyer in Hawks” Dawn Patrol (1930) and the flip Lost-Generation expatriate in Dieterle’s The Last Flight (1931). For his last memorable picture, Howard Hawks” Only Angels Have Wings (1939), he returned, curiously enough, to the kind of role which won his fame in Tol’able David. Once again he played the reputed coward whose mettle is triumphantly tested by an arduous journey. He made no further pictures after 1943. After the war, he retired to Long Island, where he lived until his death by cancer in 1963. He left an estate of more than a million dollars.

Of the cast of Tol’able David only Gladys Hulette survives. Her career continued active for most of the decade, although she appeared in only one notable picture, John Ford’s railway epic The Iron Horse (1925) in which she played a minor role. She worked largely in undistinguished pictures with improbable plots, although she did have the good fortune to be directed by Tod Browning at MGM in a lost work about spiritualism called The Mystic, Her film career seems to have ended by 1928 after she turned out two films for a forgotten company called Excellent Pictures. A full-page ad in Variety (ca. 1928) shows her lustrous long tresses cascading over her shoulders—but even Mary Pickford had bobbed her hair by that date. After a while, she reports, the calls for work stopped coming.

Today she lives in distressed circumstances as a ward of the state in Rosemead at a place eerily called the Monterey Sanitarium. One remembers Robert Frost’s description of a woman who was once “the picture pride of Hollywood” and whose days end in neglect: “Not the memory of having starred/ Atones for later disregard.” Yet her eyes are bright, her figure supple, her complexion pink and porcelain. She is still graciously appreciative of kindness, especially the assurance that she would not be forgotten as long as people look at Tol’able David. And how long will that be? As long as people discover the past and explore the American heritage, as long as people watch movies, as long as film survives. One might quote Shakespeare: “So long lives this/ And this gives life to thee.” Enduring life, after all, is what makes a classic, and what enables art to triumph over mortality.


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