Film Title: The Big Parade
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- John Gilbert
- Renée Adorée
- Hobart Bosworth
Director King Vidor sat down with producer Irving Thalberg in 1924 and told him that he “was weary of making ephemeral films. They came to town, played a week or so, then went their way to comparative obscurity or complete oblivion.” Thalberg was sympathetic and asked Vidor if he “had any ideas commensurate with this ambitious goal.” Vidor replied that he’d like “to make a film about any one of three subjects: steel, wheat, or war.” After discarding the first two ideas, Thalberg asked if Vidor had a particular war story in mind. “I said that I had only an approach. I wanted it to be the story of a young American who was neither overpatriotic nor a pacifist, but who went to war and reacted normally to all the things that happened to him. It would be the story of the average guy in whose hands does not lie the power to create the situations in which he finds himself but who nevertheless feels them emotionally. I said the soldier doesn’t make war. He simply goes along for the ride and tries to make the most of each situation as it happens.” Thalberg agreed to the concept and promised to have MGM’s reading department send Vidor all the synopses they could find of war plays and war stories.
Vidor went through everything but found nothing that reflected the kind of story he wanted to tell on the screen. A week later Thalberg wired from New York that he was bringing writer Laurence Stallings back to Hollywood with him. Stallings’ play, What Price Glory?, had opened on Broadway to considerable acclaim that year. The film rights had already been purchased by rival Fox Film Corporation (although Vidor’s film would beat it to the screen by a year), but when Stallings arrived in Hollywood, he brought a five-page story treatment with him titled The Big Parade. Stallings, however, had no intention of holing up in some drab MGM office working on a screenplay. He was returning to New York; Thalberg quickly told Vidor to go along with him. Vidor grabbed another young writer named Harry Behn to accompany him, and they boarded the train to New York with Stallings. On the train ride east, Vidor coaxed Stallings to elaborate on his own war experiences. Stallings had been a captain in the Marine Corps and had lost a leg as a result of a wound he received at Belleau Wood in France in June of 1918. Vidor, though, was having trouble envisioning the reality of Stallings’ war experiences. One night Stallings took the upper berth and Vidor the lower. Before retiring, Stallings removed his artificial leg and hung it on a wall hook with the sock and shoe still in place. A while later, the train swayed and Stallings’ artificial leg swung out from the wall and hit Vidor hard in the chin. The experience literally stunned Vidor into a deeper awareness of the reality and the horror of war. “I have often wondered if this timely blow on the chin didn’t contribute much to the reality and later success of the film,” Vidor later recalled. On the train ride back to Hollywood, leaving Stallings behind in New York, Vidor and Behn completed their scenario for The Big Parade.
“In 1917 America was a nation occupied in peaceful progression. Mills were humming with activity, Buildings climbed skyward, monuments to commerce and profession,” reads the opening title card of The Big Parade. But all this “peaceful progression” is shattered by whistles and bells proclaiming the United States’ entry into The Great War. Interrupted at work as a riveter high atop a skyscraper under construction are Slim (Karl Dane), and a Bowery bartender, Bull (Tom O’Brien). Also interrupted, but under lather at a barbershop, is rich, young and idle Jim Apperson (John Gilbert). At first Jim has no intention of enlisting as he tells his worried mother (Claire McDowell). But his girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams) thinks he’d look splendid in a uniform! That afternoon, Jim is downtown and finds himself in the middle of a patriotic parade down Main Street. “What a thing is patriotism! We go for years not knowing we have it. Suddenly, Martial music! . . . Native flags! . . . Friends cheering! . . . and it becomes life’s greatest emotion!” Jim finds himself getting carried away with this display of excitement and patriotism. When a gang of his chums pulls up in a car and one yells, “Come on! The whole gang’s going over!” Jim succumbs to the pull and joins them.
The film follows Jim, Slim and Bull to boot camp and then to the small French town of Champillon, where they’ll await their call to the front. The boys find themselves with a lot of time on their hands. Jim becomes infatuated with a young French farm girl named Melisande (Renée Adorée). When he receives word that his unit is being called up, both Jim and Melisande realize that their feelings run deeper. “I’m coming back, remember, I’m coming back!” Jim tells her. Jim, Slim and Bull find themselves at the front and experience their first taste of the reality of war.
The Big Parade is an undisputed masterpiece of American cinema. It was wildly successful upon its initial release and played an unprecedented eighty-six-week run at the Astor Theatre in New York. It is either the first or second highest grossing film of the entire silent era depending on which source you believe, or whether you’re talking about domestic or worldwide grosses. Variety, in 1932, listed it as second exceeded only by The Birth of a Nation. It was the highest grossing film in MGM’s history until Gone With the Wind came along fourteen years later. Preeminent silent film historian Kevin Brownlow declared, “. . . had The Big Parade been [Vidor’s] sole contribution to the art of the cinema, his place among the screen’s greatest artists would still be secure.” Vidor admits, “It catapulted John Gilbert to the status of a major star, and advanced Renée Adorée and Karl Dane way up the ladder of fame. . . . [it] quickly put Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on an extremely solid foundation and, with Ben-Hur, pushed the new company into top place. Irving Thalberg was hailed as the production genius of the industry; Laurence Stallings was praised for his original story; and I found myself among the top directors.” John Gilbert, in a Photoplay story in September 1928 declared, “It was the high point of my career. All that followed is balderdash.”
Some of what makes The Big Parade work so well is Vidor’s attention to detail and character. Gilbert and company are not called up to the front until nearly an hour and a half into the picture. This time is used to establish the four main characters so that by the time Gilbert and Adorée are parted and Gilbert, Dane and O’Brien take their first steps in Belleau Wood, we are invested in these characters’ lives and fates. Brownlow noted, “The film is a collection of fragile incidents, directed with such affection and care that even the comic moments are strangely moving. Vidor’s concern is with ordinary people, there are no villains, no melodrama, no heroics. And no lies.”
One of the many memorable scenes in the film involves an early rendezvous between the Gilbert and Adorée characters. They are sitting on a bench in front of Adorée’s farmhouse. Neither understands the other’s language and both refer to a phrase book that Gilbert has. Eventually they are both able to understand that they enjoy each other’s company. Gilbert removes a stick of gum from his shirt pocket and pops it into his mouth. Remembering his manners, he offers a stick to Adorée. She tentatively takes a nibble and Gilbert mimes that she should put the whole piece in her mouth and chew. She’s not getting the concept but complies. She chews for a while, and still not getting it, swallows the piece. Gilbert figures out what she’s done and offers her another, which she hastily declines. Then Gilbert spits his piece out which confuses her even more. Incredibly this whole chewing gum lesson piece was improvised on the set the morning it was shot. Observing someone on the set chewing gum Vidor recalled, “Here was my inspiration. French girls didn’t chew or understand gum; American doughboys did. . . . Gilbert’s efforts to explain would endear him to her and she would kiss him. . . . [It was] one of the best love scenes I ever directed.”
Probably the best-remembered scene in the picture is the parting of Jim and Melisande. They quarrel when Jim is forcibly reminded that he already has a girlfriend back home, having received a letter and snapshot from her. But when Jim’s unit is abruptly called up, the lovers, now knowing they may never see each other again, frantically scan the crowd calling to each other. At the last possible moment they find each other and only have time for a hurried embrace before Jim is pulled aboard a departing truck. Melisande clings to his leg, and when that becomes impossible, to a chain attached to the back of the truck, trying to prevent its departure. As the truck gains speed and she is forced to let go, Jim throws her kisses and whichever of his possessions he can lay his hands on, finally a big hobnailed boot hanging from his backpack. Melisande clutches the boot to her chest and slowly sinks onto the dusty country lane. It may sound corny in the retelling, but the movement of trucks and soldiers and civilians and dust are choreographed so skillfully that the plight of Jim and Melisande is heart wrenching, yes, even still today.
The sequence of the soldiers’ march through Belleau Wood came to Vidor as he reviewed footage of the war taken by the Signal Corps of the United States. In one sequence he was “struck by the fact that a company of men were passing the camera at a cadence decidedly different from the usual ones. It was a rhythm of suspended animation and their movement suggested an ominous event. There was no soundtrack, but the whole pattern spelled death. Then a flag-draped coffin came into view atop a horse-drawn caisson. The men were in a funeral cortege. The thought struck me that if I could duplicate this slow, measured cadence as my American troops approached the front line, I could illustrate the proximity of death with a telling and powerful effect.” So when it came time to film this sequence, Vidor brought a metronome to the location and a drummer amplified the metronomic ticks. Each step was taken on a drumbeat, every movement, a turn of the head, lifting a rifle, pulling a trigger, sinking to the ground when hit, all occurred on the drum beat. The result is an eerie, surreal, but also completely natural advancement by the men into a forest landscape that could be hiding death behind any tree or bush. It is a stunning sequence.
And finally, a sequence often copied: the scene in which Gilbert finds himself in the same shell-hole with a German soldier he has just mortally wounded for killing Gilbert’s buddy. He holds a bayonet to the soldier’s throat fully intending to finish him off, but when he sees the boys face and recognizes that the boy is dying, he can’t bring himself to follow through. When the boy mimes his desire for a cigarette, Gilbert lights one and places it in the boy’s mouth. He’s still enraged that the boy killed his friend, but there they are, together, and as much as he’d like to avenge his friend’s death, what’s the point? Neither asked to be there, nothing will bring the friend back, and the boy will die anyway. As Gilbert checks the wound he received in his leg, the boy slumps over and dies. Gilbert wrote later, “The shell hole scene with the German soldier boy. The only thing known about it being ‘Jim offers him a cigarette.’ And when it was over, Pop’s (Vidor) question, ‘Do you think you slapped him too many times?’ And my hysterical reply, ‘God, no, I felt it.’ And King, ‘If you felt it it’s right.'”
The Big Parade was released only six years after the war’s end. Up until that point, films about the war had been either heroic or anti-German. The Big Parade is neither. It’s not an anti-war film per se, but it doesn’t glorify war either. What it does is record the reactions of a group of characters placed in certain situations. Its effect on war films to follow, notably Lewis Milestone’s 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front, is profound (Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, upon which Milestone’s film was based, was first published in 1929, four years after The Big Parade’s release.) Other great to very good WWI films, including Milestone’s, would follow: What Price Glory? (1926), Wings (1927), John Ford’s Four Sons (1928) and The Dawn Patrol (1930). All owed a debt of one kind or another to The Big Parade.
All of the performances, without exception, are very good. And Gilbert delivers what is undoubtedly his best in this film. Spoiled rich boy, army soldier in training, innocent lover, combat initiate, combat proven, combat weary, Gilbert had the role of his career in The Big Parade and he performed it flawlessly. His characterization of Jim Apperson is always natural and believable. Wearing no make-up and clothes that were often torn and tattered, his face and hands often mud-begrimed, his performance is pitch perfect in each moment of the film. John Gilbert was excellent in a number of his films, both silent and sound. But The Big Parade stands apart.
MGM re-released The Big Parade in 1930 with a synchronized musical score by William Axt. It reportedly did good business. But then it sank from sight for the next forty or so years. Television’s advent in the late 1940s and 1950s gave old films a new lease on life, but silent films, except for the great comedies of the era, were not regular television fare. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a renewed interest in classic Hollywood films and revival houses sprang up in major cities across the country. With the popularity of home video in the 1980s, Hollywood studios started searching through their libraries for films to release to home consumers. But by this time, after so many years of indifferent neglect, many classics were not in good enough shape to be transferred to video. There were a number of determined preservationists around though. In the late 1980s David Gill and Kevin Brownlow, in conjunction with Britain’s Thames Television, took a number of silent film titles from the MGM vault and put them through a restoration and sometimes even a reconstruction. The Big Parade was one of the titles they selected. Carl Davis composed and recorded a new symphonic score for the film and it was released on VHS tape and laser disc in 1992. Davis’ score is epic, in keeping with the tone of the film. However, it never overpowers Vidor’s images. His use of percussion in the Belleau Wood sequence is brilliant and lends itself to Vidor’s visual/musical concept.
Unfortunately this film has not yet been released to DVD. Used copies of the VHS and laser disc releases can be found on-line, but they are getting pretty pricey. Rumor has it that Warner Home Video, which now owns the home video and theatrical rights to the MGM library, is preparing this film and others in the MGM Silent Classic series for release on DVD. I watched a laser disc copy of the film, and it looked darn good. One wonders, however, with advances in digital technology in the twenty years since The Big Parade’s restoration, if it couldn’t look even better. Davis’ score accompanies the film and it is rendered well in stereophonic sound. I’m sure it too could be remixed and presented to better advantage.
The Big Parade is a classic film of the silent or any other era. Movie enthusiasts should have the opportunity to view this film. It is truly a great American film, too long overlooked and neglected. John Gilbert, one of the screen’s greatest stars, gives the performance of his career in The Big Parade. This is arguably director King Vidor’s best film (his 1928 film The Crowd immediately comes to mind as well), and he continued to direct important films through the 1950s. If you have a chance to see it, grab it!
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