Tol'able David

Tol'able David

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry King
Produced by Henry King
Written by
Based on "Tol'able David"
by Joseph Hergesheimer
Cinematography Henry Cronjager
Edited by W. Duncan Mansfield
Inspiration Pictures
Distributed by Associated First National
Release dates
  • November 21, 1921 (1921-11-21) (U.S.)[1]
Running time
99 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent (English intertitles)

Tol'able David is a 1921 American silent film based on the Joseph Hergesheimer short story. It was adapted to the screen by Edmund Goulding and directed by Henry King for Inspiration Pictures. They filmed the movie on location in Blue Grass, Virginia during 1921; with some inhabitants in minor roles.[2]

A major box office success, the acclaimed film was voted the 1921 Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor[3] and is seen by critics and film historians as one of the classics of silent film.

In 2007, Tol'able David was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress; films selected are judged to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[4]

Plot summary

Young David Kinemon, son of West Virginia tenant farmers, longs to be treated like a man by his family and neighbors, especially Esther Hatburn, the pretty girl who lives with her grandfather on a nearby farm. However, he is continually reminded that he is still a boy, "tol'able" enough, but no man.

He eventually gets a chance to prove himself when outlaw Iscah Hatburn and his sons Luke and "Little Buzzard," distant cousins of the Kinemon's Hatburn neighbors, move into the Hatburn farm, against the will of Esther and her grandfather. Esther initially tells David not to interfere, saying he's no match for her cousins. Later, the cousins kill David's pet dog and cripple his older brother while the latter is delivering mail and taking passengers to town in his "hack" wagon. David's father sets out to administer vigilante justice on the Hatburn cousins (the sheriff doesn't have the means to deal with the outlaws himself), but has a heart attack. David is determined to go after the Hatburns in his father's place, but his mother talks him out of it, arguing that with his father dead and brother crippled, the household, including his brother's wife and infant son, depends on him. The family is then turned out of the farm and are forced to move into a small house in town. David asks for his brother's old job of driving the hack but is told he is too young. He does find work at the general store though. Later, when the hack's regular driver is fired for drunkenness, David finally has a chance to drive the hack. He loses the mailbag near the Hatburn farm, where it is found by Luke. David goes to the Hatburn farm to demand the mailbag. He is refused and gets into an argument with the cousins, during which he is shot in the arm. David then shoots Iscah and the younger son and later, after a prolonged fight with the older brother (meant to recall the story of David and Goliath), emerges victorious. Esther flees for help and makes it to the village, telling that David has been killed. As a crowd prepares to go look for David, he, although injured, arrives in the hack with the bag of mail. It is clear to all that David, no longer merely "tol'able," is a real man and a hero.



Released in December 1921, Tol'able David was both a commercial and critical success. Carl Sandburg, reviewing the picture for the Chicago Daily News, repeatedly referred to it as a masterpiece.[5] In Life, Robert E. Sherwood wrote, "It is the first motion picture to achieve real greatness without placing any any reliance on spectacular effect."[6]

Trade-related publications widely recommended it. In Photoplay it was called a masterpiece again and "one of the few film tragedies of uncompromising power".[7] Variety said of Barthelmess' performance that it came "close to being the best effort he has ever made".[8] The review in Motion Picture News gave the opinion that there would be "few who will not feel the power of it".[9] The Exhibitors Herald found it "a superb piece of cinema craftsmanship" and "excellent throughout".[10]

In a 1924 interview for Photoplay, Mary Pickford named it among her favorite films, saying, "When I first saw this picture I felt I was not looking at a photoplay but was really witnessing the tragedy of a family I had known all my life."[11] It influenced Russian director V.I. Pudovkin who used it as an exemplar in his writing.[12]

In 1963, John Ford named Tol'able David in his Top Ten of favorite films.[13]

Other adaptations


  1. "Tol'able David". Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved October 31, 2015.
  2. Ausführliches Essay zum Film
  3. Gottesman, Ronald; Geduld, Harry M. (1972). Guidebook to Film: An Eleven-in-one Reference. Ardent Media. p. 208. ISBN 978-0-03-085292-3.
  4. "Hooray for Hollywood". Library of Congress Information Bulletin. 67 (1–2). January–February 2008. Retrieved October 31, 2015.
  5. Sandburg, Carl (2000). Arnie Bernstein, ed. The Movies are: Carl Sandburg's Film Reviews and Essays, 1920–1928. Lake Claremont Press. pp. 101–103. ISBN 978-1-893121-05-8.
  6. Sherwood, Robert E. (February 2, 1922). "Tol'able David". The Silent Drama. Life. 79 (2048): 22.
  7. "Tol'able David". The Shadow Stage. Photoplay. XXI (3): 64. February 1922. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  8. Silverman, Sid (as "Skig.") (January 6, 1922). "Tol'able David". Pictures. Variety. XLV (7): 42.
  9. "Tol'able David". Motion Picture News. XXIV (25): 3100. December 10, 1921.
  10. "Tol'able David". Exhibitors Herald. XIII (22): 49. November 26, 1921.
  11. Howe, Herbert (January 1924). "Mary Pickford's Favorite Stars and Films". Photoplay. XXV (2): 29. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
  12. Pudovkin, V. I. (2013) [1929; 1933]. Film Technique and Film Acting – The Cinema Writings of V.I. Pudovkin. Read Books Limited. ISBN 978-1-4465-4735-9.
  14. Ward, Richard Lewis (1995). A History of the Hal Roach Studios. SIU Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-8093-8806-6.
  15. MacCann, Richard Dyer (1996). Films of the 1920s. Scarecrow Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-8108-3256-5.
  16. Fritzi Kramer (11 February 2013). "Tol'able David (1921) A Silent Film Review". MoviesSilently. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
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