Random Film of the Week: The Big Parade

(thanks, SilentPianoNinja for making this spectacular modernized trailer!)
 

The Big Parade MPIf you know someone who’s straddling the silent movie fence or avoiding it entirely for some strange reason, The Big Parade is a great movie to get them into appreciating a great many important films they’re missing out on. Director King Vidor’s absolutely brilliant and hugely influential 1925 film benefits from stellar performances all around, and a half comedic/half dramatic structure that introduces its cast of characters with vigor and plenty of humor in that first half before pulling no punches in its latter half’s battle scenes.

The great and handsome as heck John Gilbert along with the beautiful Renée Adorée give what would have been Academy Award-winning performances had the Academy existed at that point in time and for me, this is one of the more stirring pre-sound epics worth rounding up friends and/or family to watch this classic with. You’ll need a kettle of popcorn, a barrel of root beer (that barrel will come in handy later) and perhaps a box of tissues to go ’round the room, as this is 141 minutes of fantastic film making that’s truly stood the test of time

Gilbert’s James “Jim” Apperson is the layabout second son of a wealthy mill owner who finally ends up volunteering for service in the first World War after initially refusing to go. Between some pointed urging by his friends and later, his fiancée, Justyn (Claire Adams) who thinks he’ll look just snazzy and fit in his nice Army uniform (eek!), Jim zips into boot camp thinking it’ll be easy-peasy and he’ll get in and out of any combat (if he makes it that far) without a scratch. One has to keep his uniform neat for one’s intended, right? Anyway, the first half of the film is a breezy, blast of rapid-fire patter (silent style) as Jim meets fellow recruits Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O’Brien) Bull (characters who amusingly LOOK like their nicknames). The three men bond during boot camp and after their training is up they set sail for and eventually land in France, temporarily holding up in a small village waiting to be sent into action. In the midst of all this is a hilarious scene where Jim unpacks a rock hard cake sent to him by Justyn, the men sort of adjust to life in a foreign land and there’s Adorée’s pretty farm girl Melisande, to distract them from duty for a bit.

Actually, Jim ends up the the lucky draw by means of an unlucky draw. He’s picked unfairly to go into the small village to get a big barrel the men can turn into a DIY shower and as he’s coming back from a wine merchant with the barrel over his upper body (how else does one carry a barrel without rolling it?), an amused Melisande tries to figure out who’s the monkey in the barrel as the encumbered Jim tries to get a look at who’s stopping his progress. Once he sees her face through a hole in his wooden jacket, it’s pretty much a given that the two will fall for each other in that wartime sweetie manner and more. Language barrier aside (Jim speaks not a word of French and Melisande’s English is equally terrible), that courtship process is itself ridiculously cute and gets wrapped up in a sweet, wonderful scene where Jim introduces Melisande to chewing gum with comical results. On a side note, the first time I saw this film, the scene of Jim stretching his gum and trying to get Melisande to follow suit made me look up the history of bubble gum, which wasn’t officially as a successful product invented until 1928. A-ha…

As their romance continues, Melsiande finds out through a letter he shows her that Jim is engaged and the lovers are torn by this revelation. Jim loves his faithful Justyn, but she’s so far away and with Melisande being so close and receptive, he’s basically forced himself into a trap of his own design. As both are lamenting away, there’s a sudden call to battle that leads to another stirring sequence where Jim and Melisande go looking for each other in the crush of men forming up and heading out to battle. They find each other and get in some emotional farewells that close the first half of the movie out perfectly. The second half starts out equally powerful and it’s all war from this section for most of the movie as the tone shifts to a more and mostly dramatic series of set pieces.

Men! Guns! Men! Men! Guns!
To the front! To the front! To the front…Front!…FRONT!

In no short order, the men are strafed by a German biplane, have a frightening encounter with snipers while traversing a thick forest and eventually make they way to the front lines and No Man’s Land as a whittled down, but still formidable fighting force. Of course, between the mustard gas, barbed wire, shelling and withering machine gun fire, not to mention brutal hand to hand fighting, the amount of man on both sides is far less than it was when the fighting begun. Spoiler: not all of the trio make it through this section (war is indeed hell), but those who die go out in heroic fashion. The battle sequences are amazing because of their ferocity, the terrific beauty of the cinematography and yes, how quickly how men are cut down pretty much from the moment they enter harm’s way. It’s clear that while not an anti-war film, Vidor and company are showing the cost of mass brutality cuts deep and it’s the survivors who often suffer more than the dead.

After the big battle a recuperating, but desperate and not fit for travel Jim breaks out of his convalescence when he finds out Melisande’s village has been bombed. He’s saved in dramatic fashion and is sent back to recover, but it’s clear where his heart now lies. Will Justyn understand when he gets back to her or will there be some silent heartbreak and perhaps Jim getting the big boot despite his injuries? Oh, you can figure THAT out pretty easily, as the film telegraphs a bit at times yet manages to be so engrossing that you’ll still be kept guessing. There are actually a few Big Parades in the film: the one on the way to France, the one in France on the way to battle and the final one that sends the survivors back home to their loved ones. Jim eventually makes it back worse for the wear and with the need to make a decision for a few futures.

What makes the film work in addition to the above noted performances are the snappy editing and excellent use of rewritten versions of “You’re In The Army Now” that convey the proper humor and drama to scenes as they open or conclude. As there’s no speech in the film both the great title cards and superb score (at least in the version I saw recently on TCM) help carry the emotional weight and enhance the actors’ performances all the more. This is a a film where you feel the performances practically leap off the screen and one that should get those former silent nay-sayers speaking up themselves and wanting more.

wwi-blogathon-banner-big-paradeJust writing up this post makes me want to see this again, so I guess that’s what I’ll be doing once I get some free time. The mark of a great film is one you want to see more than once, and The Big Parade is one that’s well worth seeing multiple times because it’s got the same power to entertain and thrill that it had 89 years ago. Then again, war itself never really changes and neither does the need for well-told tales about it. And, hey! This post is part of the World War I in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently and Silent-ology.

23 thoughts on “Random Film of the Week: The Big Parade

  1. Pingback: World War I in Classic Film: A Historical Blogathon | silent-ology

  2. What a great write-up–I’m glad you joined in to cover this classic! “Timeless” is the perfect word for The Big Parade…it was one of THE biggest hits of the 1920s, I believe.

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    • Thanks much. The last time it was on TCM, I got a friend to watch it (he’s not into silents at all) with his wife (who’s a bit more flexible in her viewing habits) and they were both surprised at how great the film was. It’s definitely a “Silent Film 101” selection for anyone who has misconceptions about movies from this amazing era of cinema history.

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      • I’ve noticed that there’s a considerable number of people who love classic film already–“from the 30s to the 50s.” I can’t help thinking–what about the other 30 or so years of the classic film era? Why sell ourselves short? 😉

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      • I think I lucked out because as a kid, we had WNET running Chaplin and other silent films, and another channel (WPIX) that showed Days of Thrills and Laughter way too many times, so I got to see and appreciate the comedic side of silents and gradually worked my way into other genres. Although Metropolis initially baffled me (the prints back then were horrible, disjointed messes), I think I saw that one the most because there was a lot there that fascinated my eyes and brain. I also lucked out because I kept coming across classics (Potemkin, Safety Last, Nosferatu) before I encountered a few duds, so I’ve always been more willing to dip a toe into anything I haven’t seen and find something to enjoy.

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    • Oh, you’re welcome! I was hoping people would pop in who’ve seen this one and comment on their favorite scenes, so thanks for that input. I love how the film shifts in tone so perfectly and how it even more so captures what must have been pure hell for anyone fighting in those trenches and anywhere else on the front lines. I can’t imagine how audiences must have reacted to this under a decade after that war, but given its popularity, I’m betting word of mouth drove people into the theaters (and probably more than once)…

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  3. I watched this recently for the first time, and I couldn’t agree with your analysis more. It’s a great intro to silents, thanks to the wonderful acting and (despite its scope) the authenticity and believability. Although it seems very chaotic – I do wonder how Vidor managed to make such a comprehensive film out of it! Maybe the romance is a bit too cute, but it’s not a worse film for it.

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    • Oh, I think the cuteness of that romance works in a “calm before the storm” manner, but yes, it’s certainly not working against the film at all. That scene where they’re forced apart is a total knockout and the battles wipe the humorous stuff away in such a powerful fashion that’s a complete 180 from the first half. I’d have loved to see how Vidor and his crew composed the battle scenes and how many takes were done because it looks like those men on that massive set went through a lot to get it looking so realistic. “55 takes later…”

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    • And amusingly enough, all I had to ask were two questions: “Do you like war movies?” to the Mr. and “Does she like love stories?” about the Mrs., and that, as they say, was that on the convincing friends to give this one a try front.

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  4. I’ve wanted to see this for ages but sadly, like most silents, it isn’t available in the UK and is never shown on TV here – I do hope to catch up with it when I get the chance, though. I was lucky enough to see Vidor’s ‘The Crowd’ a while back and loved it. Enjoyed your review!

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    • Wow, I didn’t know you were so deprived of the classics over there, as you guys get seem to get more recent classics on Blu-Ray and DVD’s than we do in terms of some films. I guess an all-region player or maybe playing a DVD of The Big Parade on your computer might be a solution if you can find somewhere to import it from that won’t cost an arm and a leg (no war pun intended!). This one’s well worth tracking down. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  5. Your recommendation for bringing newbies to silent movies into the fold through “The Big Parade” is a winner. In the late 1930s the movie was still a draw, with Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre clearing stage acts from the venue for a week’s engagement of “The Big Parade”. This was done a few times throughout the decade and was always a money maker.

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    • I’m so glad this film is a favorite of so many people. It’s funny because as much as I’d LOVE to see a shift away from expensive blockbusters filling mall-sized multiplexes, I’m gathering TBP would qualify as one of its era, albeit one that was actually worth seeing more than once (ha and ha). Of course, the challenge of getting some people to see silents as something more than “Oh, those old movies?” is the first hurdle to leap over, but this one’s got broad appeal for sure. Thanks for popping by!

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  6. I’m sorry I haven’t seen this one yet. My husband, who is not a big silent film fan, has seen most of this film and loves it. The trailer you posted was quite moving, and your excellent post has spurred me to see this one, finally. 🙂

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    • It’s funny – I usually don’t like using fan-made trailers, but this one was so well done that it made sense to borrow it and perhaps get a few people who’ve never seen it before to do so. Oh, you’ll love it, I think. It’s great that your husband loves it, as it’s one of those films I think both the director and studio wanted to appeal to anyone who paid to see it. I had a laugh yesterday when another friend who was curious asked me “Is this like Pearl Harbor? I hated that movie!” I almost choked on the water I’d just sipped before I assured him it was FAR from anything close to that Michael Bay production. Anyway, he liked it after a bit of hesitation a few minutes in, so that’s another victory for a classic. 😀

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    • Thanks for your comment! Well, that picture isn’t inaccurate at all. You just thought it was bubble gum when it was plain chewing gum. I’d imagine had bubble gum been invented, war casualties would have been higher because of all that popping in the trenches giving away positions. Pop! BANG! (Ouch). Let me go read your post, as I’ve yet to see the film you chose and could use a recommendation… 😀

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