Henry King's Tol'able David (1921) really makes a viewer appreciate the complexity and pathos of a typical D.W. Griffith film. Dramatically over-facile and flawed though Griffith's films may have been, they offered a certain dramatic coherence and a tautness, in terms of acting, filmmaking techniques, and story, that hold a viewer's interest more than a simple, flat, uninteresting work such as Tol'able David, a film so cloyingly melodramatic that we may even begin to question the etymology of the word itself. Does it really, as the dictionary states, stem from the Greek melos, meaning tune or song--after all, there is not even a soundtrack--or could we have the revisionist pleasure of violently re-etymologizing it to grow out of the Latin mel, meaning honey, with all its connotations of heavy, sticky, suffocating sweetness?
The basic premise of the film is quintessential melodrama: a hard-working family, a pretty, prearranged future for all of the characters, and a heavy-handed intimation that the "peace of Greenstream" (after the fifth repetition of the phrase, there is a temptation to yell, "Enough already!") may soon be shattered by the "dark cloud" of unexpected fate. But of course it is eminently expectable and even painfully predictable.
There is also, I believe, a plotting problem in the story. The attack on Allan Kinemon by the Hatburn brothers just doesn't seem to be very provoked, and it suffers because of this. In the context of the story, if we cared about the characters, which we really don't for any reason established thus far in the story, we might feel some empathy or sympathy for the victim of such a random attack, but, in reality, that kind of senseless random attack could only be a sign of insanity...and that fails to frighten, because it seems such an aberration. If there were an intelligence behind the madness, there might be more effect to this sequence, but, as it stands, there is absolutely none.
The acting style is pure Belasco. The villains stare crazily with madness, and it seems more like they have been told to hold a stare than that they are actually contemplating anything particularly depraved or evil. The old folks are all hardworking and dutiful, as are the young folks just starting out. The sweetheart-to-be tolerates David's shenanigans and tomfoolery (was "Let's us play a game of Mumble-ty-peg?" ever a good pickup line?) and smiles coyly for the camera, then overplays distress when she is threatened with harm. Richard Barthelmess as David is almost campy. He plays the immature child in such an over-the-top way, running around like a fool, loping hilariously as if to underscore his youth, playing games, boasting--at one point, outside of the Hatburn home, when David is confronted by a Hatburn, David actually reaches down and covers his dog's eyes. These are the acting skills later perfected in Warner Brothers cartoons.
King does use titles effectively at the beginning of the film. The irony of them may have been lost on the audience of the day, but it is really deep and rich. It is also effective in introducing the characters and giving us a neat idea of who is who and where the story will likely take them. After the beginning, the titles tend to take away from the story, however, driving home points that need not be made, or which have already been made sufficiently. The dialogue is hackneyed and trite.
The camera work and sets do not add much to the film. Scenes of tranquility look as flat as scenes of threat. The camera does not dare to look at a scene in an economic or deft way, but simply takes the pictures and moves on to the next scene. Whether it is an effect of time or equipment, the fast-motion during comedic sequences, such as David's chase for his pants, is effective and even subtle. But I do suspect that this is a glitch of watching the movie today, as some of the fast-motion effects extend into scenes where they do not belong.
Overall, King has recreated a typical stage play of the time, but has encased it in celluloid. Even the poorly painted backgrounds survived the transition. He takes advantage of almost none of the uniqueness of film to portray emotion or convey his story, and the film suffers because of this.
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