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Film / Tol'able David

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Tol'able David is a 1921 silent film directed by Henry King, based on a short story by Joseph Hergesheimer. Richard Barthelmess stars as David Kinemon, a teenaged boy in the bucolic rural town of Greenstream, Virginia, who lives with his parents and his older brother Allan. David longs to prove himself as a man, but his family still looks at him as a boy, and only "tol'able" (tolerable). David courts pretty Esther Hatburn, who lives on the farm next door, but she too sees him only as "tol'able". Allan won't let David help with the family business—driving the mail cart around the area—and when Allan's wife has a baby, David is judged too young to have a celebratory cigar.

Things turn quite a bit darker when three criminal Hatburn cousins flee across the state line into Greenstream and commandeer the family farm where Esther and her grandfather live. Grandpa Hatburn is too scared to do anything about his criminal cousins, and nobody else does anything until Luke Hatburn, the most unhinged of the three hoodlums, kills David's dog. An outraged Allan vows revenge, which is short-circuited when Luke throws a large rock that hits Allan in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Things get even worse when Pa Kinemon suffers a fatal heart attack from the stress. The situation further deteriorates for David, until he has a final confrontation with the Hatburn clan.

Tol'able David is considered one of the great works of American silent film, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Compare Stark Love, a 1927 film also in the Registry that offers a far darker take on life in Appalachia.


  • Attempted Rape: Luke Hatburn is about to attack his cousin Esther when he is pulled away by the sound of the gunshots coming from the Hatburn cabin. David has shot and killed the other two Hatburns.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Luke Hatburn's "peculiar humor" is to kill whatever crosses his path. He almost clubs his cousin's cat with a rock before he's interrupted, and he beats David's dog to death with a stick for no reason.
  • Dances and Balls: Esther has gone to the town dance, but David, who blames her for the harm her hoodlum cousins brought to his family, can't bring himself to go inside and face her. In one of the more memorable scenes in the movie, he lurks outside the dance hall, dancing by himself.
  • Down on the Farm: Beautiful Greenstream, nestled in a peaceful valley, populated by simple farm folk.
  • Dramatic Irony: Just after the scene where David's dog is killed and his brother crippled, we see David, who knows nothing about this, imagining himself in rich clothes, driving a fine carriage with the dog seated next to him.
  • Evil is Petty: In addition to killing animals at random, Luke Hatburn steals David's mailbag just so he can make it look as though David lost it.
  • Foreshadowing: David reads the story of David and Goliath, which foreshadows his brutal fight with his own Goliath, the hulking Luke Hatburn.
  • Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen: An interesting variant on this trope—David goes for a dip in the local swimming hole. His dog then proceeds to run off with his pants.
  • Heroic BSoD: Allan's wife goes into a catatonic trance after he's brought back home, crippled. (The shot of her breastfeeding the baby is a reminder of how much the movies could get away with before The Hays Code).
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: David's father Hunter intends to visit vigilante justice on the Hatburns, but is prevented from doing so by an abrupt heart attack.
  • Imagine Spot: David imagines the mail cart as a fine carriage, with himself driving it while decked out in the finest livery.
  • Improvised Clothes: David has to put on a barrel after his dog runs off with his pants.
  • Kick the Dog: When the Hatburn gang arrives at their cousins' farm, Luke Hatburn, who seems to like killing things, is about to wing a stone at a cat when his brother bumps into him. Later, he kills David's dog for no reason.
  • Momma's Boy: Ma Kinemon calls David her "baby" and treats him as such.
  • Parental Abandonment: No clue as to where Esther's parents are.
  • Police Are Useless: While Hunter Kinemon prefers to avenge Allan himself, the Greenstream sheriff never takes any action against the Hatburns after Hunter dies of a heart attack, even though Allan was assaulted in full view of two of his passengers, and the Hatburns are wanted fugitives. When Grandpa Hatburn complains that the family's terrorizing him and his daughter, the sheriff's only comment is that the jail is full and court won't be held for another three months. It's not until Esther claims David's been killed that a posse/lynch mob gathers to take matters into its own hands (and by that point, David's already disposed of the Hatburns himself).
  • Run for the Border: The Hatburns make it over the state line just ahead of the posse that's chasing them.
  • Unstoppable Mail Man: The climax comes when David, who has finally been allowed to drive the mail carriage, has to retrieve the sack of mail when Luke Hatburn steals it. He gets the sack of mail back and gets it to town, but he has to kill all three Hatburns to do it.