Sunday, January 3, 2010

Silent Psychos: TOL'ABLE DAVID (1921)

Henry King's Tol'able David was a highly regarded film in its time, one that helped consolidate the stardom of Richard Barthelmess, who had two years earlier played the Chinese protagonist of D. W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms. Barthelmess was 26 when King's film came out, but actually looks fairly convincing as a teenager thanks to his boyish looks and an effective haircut. David is a coming of age story set in rural Virginia, in which the title character hopes to emulate his older brother and drive the hack that delivers the government mail. He flirts with the neighbor girl, romps with his dog, and rejoices in the birth of his nephew, but feels held back by his ma's apron strings and the perception that he's just "tol'able" -- tolerable, that is, as in "just adequate" or "you'll do." He'll be forced into manhood when his family is virtually destroyed by the arrival on his girlfriend's farm of three fugitive cousins, the Hatburns. These are the days when you could shake the law by crossing the state line, and having done so the father and two sons impose themselves on their innocent kin, a father and daughter, until the heat's off across the border. Their appearance made me wonder whether the Hatburns could count as the ancestors of all the psycho hillbillies who've plagued American cinema ever since. They steal the film from a game Barthelmess, especially Ernest Torrence as the craziest coot of the three.

(l-r) Ernest Torrence, Walter P. Lewis and Ralph Yearsley as the outlaw Hatburns. Below, Torrence draws a bead on the law.

Torrence may be best know to silent film fans as Buster Keaton's dad in Steamboat Bill Jr. Here, in his second film role, he's a hulking hayseed lunatic. In an interview included on the Image DVD, King makes clear that he envisioned Luke Hatburn as a kind of psychopath. He recounts instructing Torrence about his character, explaining that Luke doesn't act out of hate but out of a perverse enjoyment of violence. Having crossed the state line, Luke has to be restrained from shooting the sheriff. He doesn't want to kill the lawman, King told Torrence; he just wanted to see if he could knock the man from his horse. Throughout the film, Luke is a creature of uninhibited impulse, killing David's dog just for running past him, nearly killing David's brother with a rock moments later, and nearly raping his cousin, David's girlfriend, later in the picture. Torrence's facial expressions fit King's conception of the character, which he claims to have come up with independent of Edmund Goulding's screenplay: a savage, scarifying idiot.

The other Hatburns aren't exactly sedate. Ralph Yearsley as little brother Saul is arguably even more of a subhuman than Luke, though mostly less menacing. His big scene comes after Luke has stolen the government mail off David's hack, when David invades the Hatburn house to reclaim it. Saul shoots David in the arm and tells his dad he'd been trying to shoot the boy's ear off. Moments later, David shoots him.

Ralph Yearsley as Saul "Little Buzzard" Hatburn.

That sets off the patriarch, who had moments earlier smacked Saul for firing the gun. This is Walter P. Lewis's big moment, when he seems to turn from man to beast before our eyes, eyes glazing and arms lengthening like a gorilla's as he prepares to attack David with a chair. King films these moments of violence very well and for maximum emotional intensity.

Luke is outdoors chasing his cousin, who faints away in proper silent film fashion, when he hears the shots from the cabins. He starts as if feeling the bullets hit his own heart, then lurches back to the cabin, fearing the worst. Seeing it, it's his turn to go lip-twitchingly berserk as a build-up for one of the best dramatic fight scenes of the silent era, a figurative David-Goliath battle between the looming Torrence and the boyish Barthelmess.

Tol'able David is like a more serious and brutal version of Harold Lloyd's rural idylls like Grandma's Boy or The Kid Brother. Barthelmess takes what looks like a huge beating in the climactic showdown, redeeming himself more in his own eyes than anyone else's. His mother would not allow David to seek revenge on the Hatburns for paralyzing his brother and indirectly causing his father's death by heart attack, because David was now the provider for the remaining family and could not risk his life in what looked like a suicide run on the villains. From random village comments David assumes that he's regarded as the coward of the county, and King does a good job of understating this to the point where you could believe that this is more David's opinion of himself than anyone else's. David is a well-constructed story that treats the rural characters with respect rather than as hillbilly stereotypes. I think it would retain its dramatic power with audiences today if they'd give it a chance. The villains, Torrence especially, are a big reason for that, as they are probably the most familiar element in the film for modern viewers. Torrence is so good as a villain, in fact, that he helps Tol'able David retain its status as a silent classic.


Lolita said...

Really great review! I can't believe I haven't heard of this one. The psycho hillbillies almost remind me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre... They are definitely one of the earliest examples of that type of characters, they must be. I need to look this film up!

Sam Juliano said...

Great review indeed of a minor silent classic, which I rate a bit lower, but nonetheless is a significant film for its time. Barthelmess gives a commanding performance, on the level of the one he delivered in Griffiths's BROKEN BLOSSOMS. This film would be a worthy choice for any silent films list.

Samuel Wilson said...

Lolita, if you like silent movies you'll probably like David. A lot of the menaces in movies from that era or early talkies have a plausible grotesquerie that often makes them more disturbing than more elaborately made-up monsters. The Hatburns fall into that category.

Sam, I'm not yet sure how high I'll rank David but I'm sure it'll make my top 100. Between this and Blossoms Barthelmess proved himself pretty versatile. When I see him in talkies like Heroes For Sale he looks a lot older than you'd imagine from the way he looks here.

Judy said...

A great review, Samuel, and interesting to focus on the evil hillbilly. When I watched this film about a year ago, I was blown away by Barthelmess' powerful performance, so I probably didn't pay enough attention to Torrence and the other villains - I've been meaning to watch it again and will look more at the impression they make this time round.