When MGM’s THE BIG PARADE strutted on to movie screens in 1925, it forever changed the way many Americans looked at war. Its intimate/epic contradictory narrative – a handful of “little stories” painted upon its vast canvas of a horrific chunk of history – likewise kicked the twentieth century's entertainment-for-the-masses up a notch into that lofty universe, christened the modern art form. The person most responsible for these culture shocks was the innovative Texas-born director King Vidor. Professionally, almost everyone associated with this landmark pic made out like a bandit, so it’s particularly gratifying that this groundbreaking classic silent is now available in a superb special edition Blu-Ray, courtesy of the folks at Warner Home Video.
From the outset, Vidor was intent upon depicting a realistic look at war and its effect on average folk – the soldiers and the villagers. Routine treatments and scenarios flooding the MGM acquisitions department were on the verge of driving the director crazy when Thalberg sent him to New York to sniff around at, to coin a contemporary phrase, what b happenin'. This proved most fortuitous, as Vidor checked out Broadway's hottest ticket, a Great War comedy-drama, What Price Glory? Its author, war veteran, Laurence Stallings, and Vidor hit it off – although their working relationship was a difficult one. Stallings had written a short story called The Big Parade. Said Vidor, in a book-length 1980 interview with Nancy Dowd and David Shepard, “...[I]t cut out all the bunk, all the fantasies and insincerities of the war. It happened to be the way we both wrote [and thought].” Thalberg brought the writer out to Hollywood, where he penned nearly a half-dozen treatments that would make up the bulk of the picture. Stallings, noted Vidor, “...was a man with a lot of energy, but...very articulate. He had played football once, and had spent time as a newspaper man. He had lost a leg in the war, and had a mechanical leg to replace it, and at times he went around without it. I tried to pin him down to work on the script. He wasn't the type of man you could pin down, and at the time he was making the most of his visit to Hollywood.” Making the most meant partying with a vengeance, and when Stallings returned to New York, Vidor went with him – determined to mine personal quirks and bits of body language that could prove authentic for the movie. Again, it was mostly parties and carousing, plus some lively lunches at the famed Algonquin round table.
Originally, THE BIG PARADE was to be another John Gilbert heroic action movie. Vidor opposed this approach, and wanted a type more like James Murray would be in The Crowd. He met with Gilbert, who agreed with the director – and they cemented their friendship (Vidor had previously directed Gilbert in two movies, His Hour and Wife of the Centaur). “My approach was to have him reacting to things he saw and experiences he had...Gilbert was playing a part he never played before. He never had dirty fingernails before, and he'd never done a part without makeup before...He liked it!”
A big part of THE BIG PARADE's natural take was the casting of Renee Adoree as the French villager Gilbert falls in love with. It was the fourth of eight screen teamings between the pair. Three scenes with Adoree are as powerful as any of the large-scale “war stuff” that unspool later.
Vidor eschewed the cookie-cutter romance devices that were already movie cliches by 1925. THE BIG PARADE enabled him to make the Gilbert/Adoree attraction totally genuine by doing what silent movies did best: pantomime. What better way, reasoned the director, for two people who don't speak each other's language, to communicate? Perhaps the most famous result of this is picture's renowned gum scene wherein Gilbert teaches his mademoiselle the art of chewing. As with so much classic cinema, it was completely unscripted and improvised. “We had a line in the script: Love Scene Between the Two. That's the way the script would read...I was standing around and the cameraman was asking me where I wanted him to put the camera. [visiting writer Donald Ogden] Stewart said something like, 'Come, let's get going!' I looked up at him and saw he was chewing gum I said to the prop man, 'Get me some gum in a hurry!'...It was all done in one set-up. It wasn't cut up with any close shots...I just let them sit there on the bench and it was terrific.”
Another scene was when Gilbert's fiancee from back home sends him her picture. Adoree's reaction is fantastic. Whereas someone like Raoul Walsh might have had the fiery French girl explode with anger and comical violence, Vidor has Adoree react calmly, honestly understanding, “Yeah, why WOULDN'T someone like Gilbert have a girlfriend/lover back home?” A beautiful moment.
Lastly is the farewell between the two lovers, as Gilbert is shipped to the front. Amidst the confusion of thousands of doughboys, vehicles, artillery and horses, the couple try to find each other. It's one of cinema's all-time great sequences. And very musical. Vidor was now regularly using a metronome to time out and edit segments. This would be augmented by the director's live accompaniment suggestions for the picture's release. The title itself indicated a brass band – the phoniness of going off for an exciting adventure. A far cry from the single drum of the later harrowing death march through the forest; unlike any other war movie, the camera follows a straight line of advancing soldiers, with bodies occasionally falling victim to snipers (and all timed to the beat of Vidor's metronome).
When Adoree searches for Gilbert, it's an orchestra of activity, sweeping and spectacular. The scene ends quietly with her alone on a now deserted-country road. You can actually time the clicks to yourself, slowing down each beat; it perfectly jibes with editing of the footage. Lillian Gish had recently signed a contract with MGM, and had full directorial approval. Her first production for the studio would be La Boheme. To choose her director, MGM screened a number of pictures for her; as soon as she saw this scene, Vidor said, she halted the screening and emphatically announced, “Don't go any further. That's the director I must have for La Boheme!”
Other casting in THE BIG PARADE doesn't wear as well as its leads. Karl Dane, the tragi-comical relief, transcends borderline annoying; he's often scarifyin'! Tall, gangly – like some horrific genetics experiment involving Howdy Doody and Slim Pickens – Dane (a local carpenter whom Vidor discovered) spends most of his on-screen time spitting and exhibiting the over-the-top facial and physical reactions of a crack-cocaine addict just given a fatal hot shot. Nevertheless Dane became something of a sensation post-THE BIG PARADE, his celebrity ruined by the talkies (like Gilbert and Adoree, he wouldn't live past the mid-1930s).
Vidor was fighting his own war – off the battlefield of THE BIG PARADE – and on the ramparts of Culver City, with MGM's front office. Irving Thalberg, who had judiciously cut seven hours out of von Stroheim's Greed, was about to have a similar “snip”-fit over Vidor's edit, which was shaping up to clock in at two and half hours (it's actually 151 minutes). Initially, with the delicacy of a steamroller, he tossed the beginning and ending sequences involving Gilbert and his parents. Once the cut neared its final form, he recapitulated to Vidor's protests, and admitted they added significantly to the pic's overall impact. It made Vidor seethe in later years when stories of how Thalberg saved THE BIG PARADE by insisting that these scenes be included in the scenario (another notorious example of legend getting it only half right).
In fact, Louis B. Mayer wanted these moments extended, especially scenes with Gilbert and his mother. At one point, he told the director that this footage was so good that they should have gotten better actors. Ultimately, Mayer threw financial caution to the wind and had Vidor re-shoot these portions with other “parents.”
Mayer wasted more of THE BIG PARADE's time and money with another sore point – Gilbert's character losing his leg. Vidor was stunned when Mayer thought it far more desirable for Gilbert to merely limp. “We could give him a cane” smiled the mogul. Vidor was forced to film an extra day of Gilbert limping around the sets and French locales. When asked by his d.p. which takes to print, Vidor replied, “None!” Fortunately saner heads prevailed, and the limp footage was buried in the studio vault, never to see the light of day.
But it wasn't just the money-men who were priming Vidor for ulcer city. THE BIG PARADE's technical advisors – retired American officers – were big parades in the ass. Vidor, already immersed in prepping La Boheme, had sent second unit director David Howard to Texas to film the aforementioned “straight line” death march (most of the other exteriors were shot in Griffith Park). When the rushes came back, they ludicrously revealed the troops zig-zagging helter skelter all over the place. Vidor blew a fuse! Howard cried that the generals said that this is the way it was done. Vidor screamed that they lied – the straight line tactic was EXACTLY what happened in France! Vidor was forced to drop everything and speed toward the location. There he clashed with the officers, who threatened their commitment to the over 4000 enlisted men and equipment promised to the production. Vidor grabbed his cast and crew and traveled twenty-five miles to a suitable spot, and filmed the battle as originally planned. After THE BIG PARADE was released to unanimous acclaim, these same authorities praised it to the skies, referring to it as required viewing for anyone wanting to know what war was really like (Vidor’s commitment to the Gish picture later necessitated his briefly ceding the directorial reins to George Hill, who shot some additional action scenes).
Upon his return to MGM, Vidor then found out that Thalberg was at it again – instructing editors to trim the movie down to a reasonable length. What Vidor saw mortified him: all the humanity, the charm between the leads, had been chopped out (possibly these were the same executioners who attacked Greed, avid proof, according to von Stroheim, that these “...men had nothing on their minds but their hats”). He confronted Thalberg, who surprisingly relented, but asked the director to try and remove at least 800 feet (approximately ten minutes). Vidor spent many subsequent nights running his fingers across the rough cut film. When he'd hit a splice, he'd measure twelve inches on a ruler and snip out a foot.
When THE BIG PARADE opened in 1925, it redefined the term blockbuster. It didn't just go through the roof; it disappeared in the clouds. It became one of three mid-1920s movies (along with The Merry Widow and Ben-Hur) that forever “made” MGM as Hollywood's premier studio. Since John Gilbert appeared in two of these unbridled smashes, he (for at least the time being) ruled the Metro roost. He had, within the space of one year, gone from star to major star to super-star.
The profits were astounding. THE BIG PARADE remains the highest-grossing silent movie in history, deceptively bested only if one includes 2011’s The Artist. In one New York theater alone, it brought in rentals of over one million dollars, an astronomical feat for a motion picture from ANY period (the $250,000 production eventually reaped $5 million at the conclusion of its U.S. release, approximately $67 million when adjusted to 2013 moolah conversion rates).
This could have been an amazing coup for King Vidor, who owned twenty-five percent of the picture. Mayer and Thalberg, sensing THE BIG PARADE might be huge, cut him off at the pass. Supposedly looking out for his best interests, the moguls told Vidor that the depressing parts of the picture's storyline could tank THE BIG PARADE before it ever had the opportunity to “break out.” As Vidor recounted, “I lost a fortune by selling the percentage that I had in THE BIG PARADE. They did all kinds of things to get it away from me and they succeeded. I was making La Boheme and it was turned over to a lawyer to handle it for me. Later on I heard that the lawyer had accepted a big bonus for selling me out. It even got into Congress, and they tried to prevent me from talking about it by paying me off again. I didn't talk too much about it. I didn't want to ruin my life, but my twenty-five percent would have really been a fortune.” Preferring to regard the affair as a glass half-full, Vidor mused, “Maybe it's good that I didn't get it, though.”
Money aside, THE BIG PARADE towers over the competition, silent or sound. In regard to the former, however, it really is the greatest pre-talkie war movie ever made, far outshining the subsequent classics it paved the way for, including What Price Glory?, Wings, Four Sons and Lilac Time.
And the new Blu-Ray deservedly does THE BIG PARADE justice. The monumental 1080p High-Definition 4K digital restoration scan (say THAT five times fast), mastered from the rediscovered camera negative is nothing less than a revelation. For classic movie buffs, it's truly what the format is all about; John Arnold's cinematography (with uncredited assist from Charles Van Enger) is both startling and stunning. The near-pristine crystal clarity (marred infrequently by a stray dupe shot) and monochrome contrast (with some occasional beautiful tinting) will have your jaw dropping to Karl Dane proportions (okay, that may not be the best purchasing incentive, but you get what I mean). The stereo DTS-HD master 2S audio, featuring Carl Davis' fantastic score (composed for the pic in the 1980s) is appropriately thundering, moving and poifect. As indicated earlier, this version is not only complete, but is presented at the correct speed, allowing THE BIG PARADE all of its 151 minutes (since the 1960s, a variety of alternate versions ran between 128 to 140 minutes).
A 64-page illustrated book covers the making of the pic and is only but one of the plethora of supplemental goodies, including audio commentary featuring Vidor, the original 1925 trailer (an exploitation hoot, reducing The First World War to “the greatest lark in history” and highlighting the narrative as the “kiss of love for the lips of death”) and that vastly entertaining 1925 32-minute Studio Tour of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer featurette, showcasing not only its dream factory city, but its star-studded inhabitants (it's nightmarish to see young Howard Hawks, introduced as a writer, grinning like Mr. Sardonicus). The self-promoting docu also concentrates on one starlet in particular, following her through makeup, costuming, hair and even into a bit part (gee, I wonder what ever happened to Lucille LeSueur?).
Finally, I know I'm beginning to sound like her agent, but how can I not bring up another reason to append THE BIG PARADE Blu-Ray with a copy of Eve Golden's wonderful recent book on its lead, John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars. They fit like Calvin Coolridge – put togither!
THE BIG PARADE. Black and White/tints [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 stereo-surround DTS-HD Master Audio. CAT # 300051947. Warner Home Video. SRP: $27.98.