“A tree is a tree.” So spaketh director King Vidor, whose name ironically suggests both nobility and a connection to the home media age – ‘Vidor’ being Latin for ‘video’. The pomposity in that name was, however, in direct contradiction to the man – perhaps to affirm another Hollywood mantra – that the reality is far greater than any myth or legend. To the last, King Vidor remained a congenial, forthright and very gracious gentleman. In his later years he also became something of an éminence grise for the newer generation rediscovering his impressive body of work. In an industry that tends to plump out the details of personal accomplishment as though they were a declaration made from the pit of the elders, Vidor remained an unassuming intellectual, one who openly shared his thoughts and ideas with renewed energy and candor, seemingly harboring no ill-will or regrets. Vidor actually borrowed the line ‘a tree is a tree’ - the title of his autobiography – from a tried and true motto of his day, “A tree is a tree. A rock is a rock. Shoot it in Griffith Park!”
Indeed, Griffith Park – with its acreage of landscaped grounds heavily treed in Eucalyptus proved a formidable counterpart to France’s Belleau Wood (although it looked absolutely nothing like it). Belleau Wood was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the First World War miraculously re-created in Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) – an undisputed highlight of the silent era. In retrospect, The Big Parade is a watershed achievement. It effectively elevated Vidor’s reputation in the industry from competent craftsman to an A-list creative genius of noteworthy and big budget spectacles. Only a few months before, Vidor had gone to the newly inaugurated MGM’s VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg, with a request to make a movie either about wheat, steel or war. The first two topics held little interest for Thalberg. But he was intrigued by the prospect of making a ‘war’ picture. Furthermore, Thalberg trusted Vidor’s instincts. MGM was a new corporate entity and Thalberg firmly believed in The Big Parade as a movie that could elevate the company’s prestige. The studio already owned the rights to Laurence Stalling’s Plumes – a grimly truthful novel thinly veiling the author’s own experiences during the Great War. Stalling was brought in to write The Big Parade but would later be assisted by screenwriter Harry Behn.
The Big Parade’s premiere at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater – then the foremost venue for exhibition – came a scant seven years after the signing of the armistice. But in the intervening years Hollywood had seen a definite shift in the public consciousness. Prior to the European conflict the concept of war had been misperceived by men as an excuse to exercise their valor. It had also been romanticized all out of proportion by the women who remained behind. In the end, the world awoke to a terrible revelation. More than 9 million had perished in this new age of mechanized warfare; more than 20 million spared the reaper, ironically by the same technological advances that could now prolong life at the cost of a limb or some other horrible disfigurement. During the war, Hollywood had inundated movie goers with crassly commercial – and grossly inflammatory – depictions of ‘the hun’ – so much, that audiences quickly tired of the savagery. ‘War pictures’ were suddenly out of fashion.
But Thalberg was a gambling man. Moreover, King Vidor had been a fastidious director whose movies always made money. The problem for Vidor was that he had grown tired of directing disposable melodramas that played for a week or two at the local picture houses before fading almost entirely from the public consciousness. He wanted to do an ‘important’ picture. The Big Parade would certainly prove to be just that. It was neither pacification nor glorification of war itself, but rather an astute and unvarnished observation seen through the eyes of one soldier; doughboy James Apperson (John Gilbert). Vidor’s approach to the material personalized the movie’s narrative; the audience invested in the camaraderie between young soldiers and the tender romance of one in particular with a French farm girl. Vidor sets up the premise with an exquisite reveal; introducing us to America – land of progress, promise, optimism and blind faith in the future. Enter the three gallants – affluent playboy Jim Apperson, tough guy/saloon keeper, Bull O’Hara (Tom O’Brien) and easy-going riveter, Slim Jenson (Karl Dane). Each will ultimately find more than they bargained for after enlisting in the cause.
The first act of The Big Parade plays very much to the strengths of Vidor’s early movie career. It’s a melodrama, cleverly staged and expertly executed. After enlistment and basic training are completed Jim forgoes his affections for the girl he left back home, urban sophisticate Justyn Reed (Claire Adams), to pursue the rural and earthy ardor of French farm girl, Melisande (Renée Adorée). It all plays into the idealism of the post-gilded/modern age: the young men caught in the fervor to prove their masculinity and metal ‘over there’, throwing caution to the wind without fully comprehending the hardship of battle fatigue and death soon to befall them. Roughly three quarters of The Big Parade was shot on back lot recreations of Champillon at MGM. However, Vidor was not a slave to authenticity. But he did enlist the U.S. Department of War for the loan out of an impressive myriad of tanks, planes and marching men in reserve to help flesh out the stunning battle sequences staged in Griffith Park; also on a lonely open road in Texas; the entourage stretching for miles and adding depth, girth and believability to his production.
Yet, The Big Parade is hardly beholding to these ‘set pieces’. The film is an intimate epic – perhaps Hollywood’s first - choosing to remain tightly focused on the friendship between Jim, Slim and Bull; the trio becoming inseparable as time wears on. Evidently, Thalberg mildly disagreed. For after Vidor had put the film to rest and departed to direct La Bohème, Thalberg elected to add footage to The Big Parade shot without Vidor’s consent or participation. The penultimate battle in the dead of night, with its myriad of pyrotechnics, is pure MGM panache – slick and stylishly edited into the final cut, but obviously lacking Vidor’s insight into the grittiness of war. During the halcyon days of the studio system, cinema art was very much a product made by committee; the genius of the system also occasionally its flaw and weakness. In any case, Thalberg’s tinkering did not negatively impact the movie. In fact, praise for The Big Parade was almost universal and immediate. It became the road show Thalberg and Vidor had hoped to make, playing for nearly a year at advanced ticket prices and sell-out crowds before going into general release in 1926.
For John Gilbert, The Big Parade marked a turning point in his career. Prior to its release he had been MGM’s resident male beauty - a matinee idol to rival Rudolph Valentino. Following Valentino’s untimely death a year after The Big Parade’s triumphant debut, Gilbert would assume Valentino’s mantel in popularity with the ladies until the end of the silent era: the dawn of sound all but deflated his fame and fortunes. The Big Parade proved that Gilbert was much more than a pretty face plastered in heavy orthochromatic makeup. Indeed, in viewing the film today one is immediately struck by Gilbert’s conveyance of emotions, thoughts and ideas without the benefit of dialogue; his eyes expressively darting about, the actor maturing his performance from a sparkle of glee to speckled and careworn anxiety: a young man aged well beyond his years by the suffrage he has endured.
Thalberg was horrified to learn that Vidor had shot the final sequence with Gilbert as a war amputee. Vidor felt that it was necessary to illustrate the very real implications and sacrifices made by these young gallant men. Furthermore, Vidor’s decision to have Jim Apperson lose a leg was very much influenced by Laurence Stalling’s own loss of a limb during the war, Gilbert actually mimicking Stalling’s exaggerated limp on his prosthetic leg for the genuinely tearful reunion between Jim and Melisande shortly before the final fade out. Thalberg feared that showing the studio’s most bankable star with only one leg would ruin his image as a leading man. Reluctantly, Vidor shot an alternate ending with Gilbert’s Apperson returning home on two legs instead of one. Both were tested with preview audiences; Vidor’s version ultimately staying in the final cut.
From our present analytic vantage of movie culture predicated almost solely on box office receipts it is virtually impossible to comprehend the impact of The Big Parade. But in 1925 it not only proved itself as one of the finest artistic achievements of the silent era and most popular with movie-goers, it also became something of a template for subsequent war epics – William Wellman’s Wings (1927) and particularly, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Viewed today, The Big Parade has lost virtually none of its impact to entertain and inform. Part of the movie’s success is that it begins on a note of American pride and optimism – that continues to linger until Jim, Bull and Slim are suddenly plunged into the thick of mechanized warfare.
Vidor effectively split his action at an intermission; the first half of the movie depicting familial normalcy and camaraderie amongst young men; introducing us to Jim’s love interest and setting up several ebullient vignettes that deliberately insulate the audience in an almost playful comfort zone. Melisande and Jim’s ‘cute meet’, as example, takes place in a muddy and unassuming barnyard. He is stuck in a rain barrel and tumbling about as Melisande impishly impedes his ability to make it back to barracks. Later Jim’s innovation, creating a makeshift shower from the barrel suspended up in a tree, leads to an even more mischievous moment when Bull and Slim are caught ‘aux natural’ by Melisande while bathing. Such moments play almost as screwball comedy. But immediately following the intermission the narrative takes on more ballast and a decidedly somber note.
This leads us into the moments for which, arguably, The Big Parade is best known and readily resurrected as a cultural touchstone: the battle sequences. In Belleau Wood the men march in cautious formations toward the front; camouflaged sniper and machine gun fire picking them off one at a time. In staging this moment of bedraggling death, Vidor drew inspiration from a funeral procession, timing each actor’s steps, or even a turn of their head and glance to coincide with the consistent beats of a metronome. While the actors were hardly assured by the soundness in Vidor’s logic the effect it created on-screen proved uncanny; a ballet of death punctuated by William Axt and David Mendoza’s ominous orchestral score. The sequence is extraordinary in the way it builds from one moment to the next; the ‘art’ of war distilled into the basic mechanics of human carnage and slaughter, concluding with the whimpering expirations of, first, Slim, then Bull; our hero Jim left isolated, friendless and wounded on an open field with bombshells and gunfire echoing all around him.
The Big Parade is genuine and unflinching in its depiction of war. But it does not sacrifice the more intimate love story to dazzle the viewer with these more gruesome spectacles. Vidor keeps the checks in balance, preserving the narrative integrity of these two seemingly incongruous threads. It is a superb balancing act, one for which Vidor would justly be celebrated in later years. Interestingly, The Big Parade was not King Vidor’s favorite film. He preferred The Crowd or even Show People (both made in1928). In later years, Vidor was even critical of some of the decisions he had made on The Big Parade, turning off from the movie during the 1960s before finally coming around to accept it with pride in his emeritus years. Viewed today, The Big Parade is unquestioningly Vidor’s finest hour as a silent movie director. And yet, it seems to lag – marginally, perhaps – behind William Wellman’s Wings (1927). Perhaps the comparison is moot since Wings is a tale of heroism set in the skies while The Big Parade is decisively grounded in the terra firma experiences of soldiers locked in hand-to-hand combat. But The Big Parade endures because of Vidor’s meticulous planning and John Gilbert’s masterful performance; the latter a testament to one of filmdom’s all but forgotten leading men.
John Gilbert’s epitaph is one of Hollywood’s great tragedies. After the introduction of sound to cinema his career faltered and he fell into deep depression – advanced by a failed marriage proposal to the elusive and unattainable Greta Garbo who had been his lover for several years. Garbo, however, did not forsake or forget Gilbert – insisting that he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina (1933) – the movie that briefly rekindled their love affair. However, Gilbert’s effete voice clashed with the public’s impression of him as a leading man. Simultaneously, L.B. Mayer began to lose interest in Gilbert’s career – relegating him to B-pictures of little to no consequence. Succumbing to bouts of alcoholism severely weakened Gilbert’s heart and he suffered two heart attacks, the latter proving lethal. He died in 1936. He was only 38 years old. The Big Parade reminds us of John Gilbert in his prime – heartthrob and thespian combined – a man of so many intangible qualities squandered too soon and too fast.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray of The Big Parade is one of the finest restoration efforts put forth from the studio in a very long while. Using original camera elements for the bulk of this remastering effort has yielded a visual presentation that – at times – appears almost stereoscopic; the sumptuousness in John Arnold’s (and an unaccredited Charles Van Enger) cinematography crisply realized throughout. Age related artifacts are practically non-existent. The gray scale has been exquisitely preserved as has the thickness of natural-looking film grain. We are seeing fine detail in hair, fabrics and background information as never before and the results belie the fact that The Big Parade is 88 years old!
There are several moments where image quality ever so slightly falters, and at least two instances of some odd digitized fringing occurring around the letters of several title cards. Otherwise, this is an exceptionally fine transfer that will surely not disappoint. The audio is an enveloping 5.1 DTS re-orchestration of Carl Davis’ score written for the 1988 reissue which cribs heavily from the Axt/Mendoza original orchestrations and includes some celebrated source music indigenous to the era. Extras are the only real disappointment – no ‘making of’ documentary – but a thoroughly comprehensive audio commentary from historian Jeffrey Vance instead, and with archival excerpts from King Vidor. Historian Kevin Brownlow also has been called upon to provide extensive liner notes in a handsomely put together 64 page booklet. We also get a vintage 1925 studio tour short subject and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)