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In 1925 the newly consolidated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was determined to conquer Hollywood on a grand scale, even after it pulled its epic production Ben-Hur back from Italy to be finished in Culver City. But MGM's biggest success of the silent period was King Vidor's The Big Parade, a war drama that was expanded in scale during filming. Director Vidor very much wanted to make movies of lasting importance, and Laurence Stallings' tale of a green recruit thrown into battle arrived just when audiences were ready to see the WW1 experience revisited on theater screens. Star John Gilbert was one of MGM's top matinee idols; he shaved off his signature mustache for the film. Cooperative and easy-going, director King Vidor combined technical proficiency with an understanding of actors to make movies with a deeper vision. The Big Parade placed him at the top of the Hollywood game.
Warners has given The Big Parade a remarkable 4K restoration that makes the 1925 release look as if it were filmed yesterday. The impeccable presentation was supervised by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow.
Author Laurence Stallings' most famous work was the play What Price Glory. His own experiences as a U.S. infantryman form the basis of the story that became the template for film scenarios about The Great War. Wealthy but uninspired, young Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) becomes enthused by a military parade. He enlists, leaving behind his mother and father (Hobart Bosworth & Claire McDowell) as well as his girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams), who promises to wait for him. At boot camp he falls in with Slim (Karl Dane), a rowdy construction steeplejack, and Bull (Tom O'Brien), a tough bartender from the Bowery. In the French town of Champillon, Jim falls in love Melisande (Renée Adorée), a local girl who understands no English. Jim realizes that she's the love of his life when his unit is called up to join the front lines. Their objective is a difficult one -- to take Belleau Wood away from the Germans.
The Big Parade was a landmark picture for MGM, which promoted it as one of the studio's enduring classics. But it wasn't screened during WW2, after being placed on a list of films that might be detrimental to morale. Lewis Milestone's highly emotional All Quiet on the Western Front was withdrawn as well.
Harry Behn and Joseph Farnham's screenplay stresses universal experiences. Cheerful Jim Apperson enlists on a momentary impulse. The fact that he leaves his car in the middle of the street to join a patriotic parade sums up his mental state. Everything seems out of his hands. His girlfriend Justyn is the one to break the news to his parents.
The basic story has been so frequently re-told that we're surprised how fresh it seems. Jim Apperson's time in France before battle is the stuff of military comedies. He and his jolly Army buddies are billeted to a barn previously occupied by pigs. They sing quite a bit (in text inter-titles) and get in trouble with superior officers. All three pursue the adorable Melisande in pursuit of a kiss, but she chooses Jim. Their barnyard courtship sees Jim introducing her to chewing gum, a motif that King Vidor uses to excellent effect. When the call to arms separates them Vidor creates a classic farewell scene that's been imitated ever since. Melisande runs after Jim's departing truck, and audiences were moved to tears. After Jim's gone we see Melisande once again chewing gum, and we know she's thinking about him. Gilbert and Adorée make an attractive couple, brought together and separated by war.
King Vidor's lengthy Belleau Wood battle sequence is designed in a formal, slightly artificial style. To create a specific visual rhythm Vidor assigned musicians to play drums for the actors to march to. The soldiers march through the Wood in strict cadence, their movements evoking a vision of a grim funeral machine. Most every other shot in the film is a static angle, but in the Belleau Wood scene the camera constantly moves with the advancing troops. Realism is not a major factor -- the soldiers do not break step even as snipers kill scores of them. When German machine guns open fire, only a couple of soldiers fall, instead of entire lines of men (see Peter Weir's Gallipoli for an extreme example of this).
Commentators persist in describing The Big Parade as neither pro-war or pacifist, when the show is definitely "pro". The final confrontation on a shell-cratered open field is bad news for Jim and his friends, but also a conventional triumph of old-school battle emotionalism. Jim assaults the enemy line single-handed because "the b______s killed my best friend." He may not know what he's fighting for, but the lesson is taught that combat by blood and steel is still a defining ritual that real men never shirk. Jim and his comrades compete to see who will go on the suicide mission. Alone and wounded in no-man's land, Jim claws his way forward with his bayonet, eager to kill some more. The fact that he shows mercy to a dying foe only completes the image of his gallantry.
The movie's honest sentimentality won over the mass audience. Jim was the Universal Soldier of the time, the man who went cheerfully to war and if lucky came back in one piece. When Jim's mother's greets his return, King Vidor uses a rapid truck-in to her heartbroken reaction. After all the static scenes the abrupt camera motion increases the shock. The bittersweet upbeat finish -- true love conquers all -- surely made audiences feel more secure after the harrowing battle scenes.
Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front now plays as a possible rebuttal to The Big Parade. King Vidor's epic may not reflect the full horror of The Great War, but it doesn't portray it as a picnic, either. It was an emotional summation of the conflict that audiences of 1925 were ready to accept.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Big Parade is an impressive, nearly perfect presentation. The level of detail revealed by the 4K scan is amazing, and whatever cleanup was necessary is all but invisible. The restoration people have retained the special effect of an ambulance with its Red Cross glowing bright red in the middle of a B&W movie. In HD we can also appreciate MGM's excellent special effects for the combat scenes. An automatic matting system is used to place actors in the middle of miniature battlefields; lines of men become transparent as they cross into the double-exposed miniature areas. Elsewhere, excellent matte paintings turn Melisande's farm into a complete wreck.
The presentation features a powerful, heartfelt music score composed and conducted by Carl Davis. The 151-minute running time reflects a slowed projection speed. Motion is natural, although in the 'metronome march' in Belleau Wood the frame transposition rate affects the motion of the marching legs. At one hour and sixteen minutes a couple of seconds of damaged film have been replaced with an image from the 1931 talkie reissue. We can tell this because the left-hand frame line jumps -- the sound-on-film release cropped some of the image to make room for the soundtrack.
The presentation comes in Warners' book-like packaging. The 56-page souvenir booklet contains a long essay on King Vidor and The Big Parade by Kevin Brownlow, the man who championed the rediscovery of silent films in the 1960s and '70s. The book is embellished with vintage photos and a reproduction of the film's original souvenir booklet.
Author Jeffrey Vance's commentary is packed with fascinating information about the film and the interesting personalities of the people that made it. We learn that battle scenes were filmed in Griffith Park, on the undeveloped hills of Westwood and in Cloverfield Park, which is now a heavily developed section of Santa Monica. Vance goes into detail on Vidor's struggle to have Jim Apperson's screen injury mirror author Laurence Stallings' actual war wound. Vance helpfully points out an inter-title reference to Ernest Hemingway, which was added for the '31 reissue. In 1925 Hemingway's name was not yet a household word.
Also on view is the oft- screened 1925 MGM Studio Tour short subject, the one that shows the various departments and the lineups of silent-era cameramen and directors. Unfortunately, it's still in Standard Definition. An impressive silent trailer finishes the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Parade Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.