“No love has ever enthralled me as did the making of this picture. No achievement will ever excite me so much. No reward will ever be so great as having been a part of ‘The Big Parade’. It was the high point of my career. All that followed is balderdash.” – John Gilbert
The Academy Awards were not around in 1925 however if they had been, MGM’s WW1 epic The Big Parade would easily have won Best Picture. In fact, if the film were released today it would arguably be the best movie of 2019. Or of any year.
Directed by the legendary King Vidor, The Big Parade tells the story of three American buddies – one wealthy and two working class – who are sent to France to fight in “the Great War”. The film’s protagonist is Jim Apperson (played by the dashing John Gilbert), the spoiled son of a wealthy businessman. Swept up by the big brass band and romantic patriotism during a recruitment parade, Jim eagerly jumps forth from the sea of waving flags to join his buddies to enlist. He is not the only one dazzled by the day’s war propaganda, with its promise of heroic adventure: “You’ll look gorgeous in an officer’s uniform!” his fiancée gushes. “I’ll love you more than ever.” Jim, like many young men, sees the war as his chance to travel and experience adventure; sadly his dreams of romantic heroism will mutate into real life nightmares of unspeakable horror and loss.
As historian Jeffrey Vance has pointed out, The Big Parade was made just seven years after the Armistice by the very generation that fought in World War 1. Indeed many in the cast and crew were directly involved in WW1 including Canadian actress Claire Adams who worked as a Red Cross nurse; actor Tom O’Brien, who plays Jim’s army buddy Bull, served in the Navy during 1917-1919 and Laurence Stallings, who wrote the film’s story, had served as a Marine Captain and lost his leg fighting in the “Great War”. The U.S. War Department (now known as the US Department of Defense) loaned MGM two-hundred Army trucks, four thousand soldiers and airplanes for use in the movie. Veterans of the American Expeditionary Forces worked as technical advisors on the film’s combat scenes. (Source: Jeffrey Vance audio commentary, 2013 DVD release of The Big Parade)
The great writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The same can be said of a first-rate movie: The Big Parade manages to combine both light-hearted comedy and gritty drama to admirable effect. The first half of the movie, with its Chaplin-esque comic high jinks as the unit is billeted in a farming village, plays almost like summer camp, albeit a summer camp rife with head lice and fleas (“We drown the fleas in our Bee Vee Dees, we’re in the Army now!” the soldiers sing as they wash their laundry in a nearby creek), while the second half of the film exposes the brutal horrors of war. “How important every scene becomes when a death is being faced around the corner, just over the hills,” Vidor said in an interview on the making of the film. “Because it gives a zest and a power to every scene you do.”
And then there’s the sheer swoon-ability of the film’s romance between Jim and village farm girl Melisande (stunningly played by actress Renee Adoree). Jim doesn’t speak French and Melisande doesn’t speak English but this doesn’t stop them from falling in love. “I don’t understand a word you say,” Jim says to Melisande. “But I know what you mean.” This title card is also symbolic of silent film and the universal language of pantomime. Before sound, movies could be shown anywhere in the world – body language has no barrier. One of the film’s most beloved scenes involves Jim teaching Melisande how to chew gum (she’s never seen chewing gum before). The scene – which is one of the most joyful and romantic ever put to celluloid – was improvised by Vidor, Adoree and Gilbert. As per Gilbert after they finished filming, Vidor exclaimed “I’ll be damned if I ever saw a scene as good as that.” In a later scene Jim receives a letter and photo from his fiancée back home and must explain this to Melisande; the sadness and heartbreak in this scene is expressed by the actors’ eyes and hand movements only. Their performances are both touching and organic – natural and human – not at all the exaggerated histrionics often associated with silent film. “You could have put all the dialogue in the world that you wanted (in that scene),” King Vidor said, “and you could have had sound and words and it would not have added one bit (to the scene).”
Romantic comedies have been considered box office poison for years now. Personally I blame 1998’s There’s Something About Mary and the genre’s subsequent decline into cynicism and sleaze. When it comes to bringing sexy back, today’s filmmakers could learn a lot from The Big Parade. Let the adults show ‘em how it’s done.
Of course, the effectiveness of the film’s romance owes a lot to John Gilbert (insert rapturous sigh here), also known as “The Great Lover.” It is impossible to describe Gilbert without using the word “dashing”, however good looks alone do not a sex symbol make: in addition to his physical beauty, Gilbert possessed a great deal of vulnerability, a trait he shared with other classic sex symbols such as Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe. Also like Bow and Monroe, John Gilbert was much more than just a pretty face; neglected by his parents and orphaned at the age of sixteen, the self-educated Gilbert went on to write and direct films, in addition to becoming one of the most popular actors of the silent era. Indeed, his performance in The Big Parade is considered one of the finest of the silent period. Though his popularity waned with the arrival of talkies, Gilbert’s career was derailed not by his voice (which was just fine) but by poor scripts that were weighted down with ridiculous dialogue. His lovely body ravaged by alcoholism, Gilbert would succumb to a heart attack in 1936. He was only 38 years old.
There are many parades in The Big Parade, all are memorable and all are moving, but the most chilling is the “bloody ballet”, as the troops make their way to the front in a woods filled with enemy snipers. King Vidor used a metronome and bass drum on the set during the filming of this scene. He instructed the actors to take each step forward on the beat of the drum. Every physical move had to be taken on a drum beat. “What is this?” one of the extras griped. “A bloody ballet?” Vidor conceded later that was exactly what it was: “a bloody ballet – a ballet of death.”
The battle scenes in The Big Parade are genuinely suspenseful and horrifying, without reveling in gore as many modern war films do today. As per King Vidor, before the Big Parade, “war had not been explored from the GI viewpoint.” The title cards in the film express a soldier’s anguish: “I came to fight – not to wait and rot in a lousy hole while they murder my pal!” Jim exclaims. “Waiting! Orders! Mud! Blood! Stinking stiffs! What the hell do we get out of this war anyway! Cheers when we left and when we get back! But who the hell cares…after this?”
In 2013, Warner Bros. released a gorgeous 4K digital restoration of the Big Parade on DVD, taken from the original camera negative, with the original music score composed by Carl Davis. The DVD extras include audio commentary by historian Jeffrey Vance and audio interviews with director King Vidor. I found a used copy of this DVD at Sonic Boom for twelve dollars and it is now the prize of my classic film collection.
Prior to making The Big Parade, King Vidor told MGM head of production Irving Thalberg that he was “weary of ephemeral films (that) came to town and played a week or so” and that he wanted to work on something that “had a chance at long runs throughout the country and the world.”
Almost ninety-four years after its premiere, The Big Parade still enthralls audiences around the world. Talk about long runs. Mission accomplished, Mr. Vidor.
Long live the King.
Review written by Heather Babcock, 2019