John Gilbert’s been on my mind. With Turner Classic Movies set to run a nine movie Gilbert birthday marathon on Wednesday, I started my copy of Dark Star, the 1985 biography by his daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, on Tuesday. I’m dying to click Buy on Eve Golden’s new Gilbert biography, but I just can’t bring myself to do so until I’ve read the earlier book that has been sitting on my bookshelf far too long.
I had planned to write about my favorite Gilbert talkie, Gentleman’s Fate (1931), for Wednesday, but at the last moment chose to put that off for a later date. Instead I decided to write about my first impressions of King Vidor’s The Big Parade, originally released by MGM in 1925. I watched this major silent film classic for the first time late Monday night.
And, after all, if I was going to write about it that meant I would have to watch it for a second time Tuesday so I could grab some images for this post. After spending daytime Tuesday recalling several moments I had enjoyed so much watching the night before, there was nothing I would rather do than create another opportunity to watch The Big Parade!
I enjoy the history around the First World War more than I do World War II. It’s no slight against the Greatest Generation, which my grandparents were a part of. I grew up around that generation in their senior years, and sadly all those I knew from it are now gone. But I shared a common world with that group long enough to hear the stories and not consider their past all that distant. Our worlds intersected; we even watched movies together. This was not the case for me with the previous generation. I had no direct relationship with any of them. Their time is only known to me through books and movies, a world just outside my reach of total understanding.
But people don’t change all that much and as long as you can get over any silent film bugaboos you’ll find much of what made The Big Parade work so well at the time of its original release does the same today. Love and war spring universal emotions and King Vidor captures them all in his sprawling tale of a time that was not so far removed when the film was originally released in November 1925.
We miss out on that. What must it have been like to see The Big Parade as a veteran of the War or as one who’d seen their father, husband, or brother serve, perhaps even been maimed or die, during that recent world calamity?
I’m sure many women attending wished they had been Renee Adoree, but how would a young woman in the crowd had felt if her personal history had more resembled that of the Claire Adams character? And what of the men who had fought and made it back? Did a faint smile cross their lips while watching the antics of John Gilbert, Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien? Did once forgotten dalliances cause them to flush at their wife’s side as Gilbert romanced Adoree? And the battle, what might that possibly have done to them? Adrenaline surely spiked, but what emotions poured forth?
Thankfully, I had none of those concerns while watching The Big Parade unfold my first time. John Gilbert plays Jim Apperson, the spoiled, number two son of strict father (Hobart Bosworth) and doting mother (Claire McDowall). When War comes—and this reaction always seems so foreign—there is celebration. Young Apperson isn’t celebrating though. He looks a little worried. At least until he is swept away by a patriotic parade that leads to his enlisting.
John Gilbert is quickly off to Europe. But it’s going to be awhile before King Vidor brings us any battle.
The next hour of the film is spent allowing the viewer to embrace the Gilbert character, whose beginnings were a bit shaky for us. First he becomes friendly with Dane and O’Brien and then, more importantly, he falls in love with Renee Adoree’s French girl, Melisande.
The language barrier makes this an especially cute courtship and this was probably intensified back in the mid-20s when silent film was the norm. Being so used to hearing voices, the silent Melisande did not seem nearly as foreign to me as she certainly did to Apperson. We can’t hear either of them and so Gilbert comes off as chatty as any silent lead while Adoree seems more mute than foreign. Still, their differences are accentuated and the romance works, soon magnificently. It grows throughout this hour and is punctuated by the famous chewing gum scene before building to Adoree’s mad dash through the streets seeking out Gilbert amongst the other soldiers after he and the other men have finally been called off to battle.
While this is the first time I watched The Big Parade from start to finish, I had seen clips of this particular scene several times in various documentaries and so, again, from my retrospective view, while the men are being rounded up and begin marching off a little excitement built in me. Here it comes, I thought, the classic scene, the one I knew so well. But I had only known it off in space, on its own.
It would have been easy to be let down. It’s happened before during similar experiences. Oh, is that it? or Wait, THAT was the climax? were thoughts that never occurred to me during my acquaintance with this scene in its correct context. Sure, it was the climax: of the first half of the movie. Tension only grows from this point as The Big Parade becomes a total war epic for the next 45 minutes. Was that it? Well, if it was, it was everything: Gilbert loves Adoree and now we’re fully invested in Gilbert. He’s got to survive this damned war; he’s got to get this girl back!
The battle scenes that follow are eerie, ferocious, heart-breaking and rousing, sometimes all at once. While Gilbert spouts occasional corn across the title cards once the men have advanced deep into battle, it was surely served fresh back during the original run of the film. Previously my favorite infantry battle scenes were from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and as soon as Kirk Douglas blows his whistle in Paths of Glory (1957). Vidor’s elaborately choreographed and shockingly brutal battle from The Big Parade now stands alongside them, if not out front.
Even before the mustard gas or the tense wait in the shell holes I was hooked. As the men make their initial march forward, spread just a few feet apart, the silence of The Big Parade is magnified. Why? Because we’re in their boots now, the movie has totally captured us. Out of the corner of your eye you’ll spot a soldier dropping to the ground dead and the death just doesn’t stop. The slow determined march moves forward, the falling bodies becoming more prominent and our only hope becomes that Gilbert, Dane and O’Brien continue to stand and march.
I’ll be honest. There were times during the first half of the movie, when Gilbert and Adoree were falling for each other, that I thought to myself, isn’t this supposed to be a war movie? I was enjoying what I watched, but it wasn’t what I had originally expected. I knew the importance of Adoree’s involvement, but still, I came to the movie expecting war to be hell from start to finish. Our war finally comes, but it really begins just before that first battle when Adoree desperately seeks out the young American she has fallen in love with.
And that made my second viewing on Tuesday night all the more pleasant. The Big Parade gets better the second time. The power of what is to come still builds anticipation, but the story that leads us to the battlefield is improved both by knowing what does follow yet understanding just how much we will come to value these characters in reaching the hell that Vidor is about to put them through.
I watched The Big Parade nearly ninety years after it was first released. I suppose the best answer as to how it was received in the 1920s would be the bottom line. It became, arguably, the highest grossing film to that time and is still, along with The Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the two all-time highest grossing films of the silent era.
The Big Parade was originally released at 140 minutes in 1925 when it premiered at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. A few weeks later it premiered in New York at the Astor Theatre where it ran for a stunning two years! It only had limited release at that time and most of the country had to wait nearly two years for it to reach them during a September 1927 re-release.
The copy I viewed was recorded off of TCM from the 1988 restoration produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow. The Big Parade was previously released on VHS in 1992 and after yet another restoration in 2005 finally comes to Blu-ray and DVD from Turner Home Entertainment on October 1, 2013.
Third time should be even more the charm for me come this October.