Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Big Parade (MGM, 1925)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running a movie I’ve been curious about for years and had never had the chance to see; The Big Parade, the 1925 MGM blockbuster hit about World War I that was the second-highest grossing movie of the entire silent era (after The Birth of a Nation). The Big Parade started when MGM production chief Irving Thalberg decided to buy the movie rights to Laurence Stallings’ hit play What Price Glory?, a comedy set against a backdrop of World War I. When William Fox outbid him for What Price Glory?, Thalberg decided that if he couldn’t have the hit play he could have something similar by the same author about the same subject, so he hired Stallings to write him an original World War I story (just as, six years later, he responded to the success of Warners’ gangster film Little Caesar by hiring W. R. Burnett, author of the novel on which Little Caesar was based, to write an original gangster story for MGM, The Beast of the City).

Originally The Big Parade was planned as a modestly budgeted star vehicle for John Gilbert, but when director King Vidor turned in his rough cut, Thalberg screened it and said, “Make it bigger.” So Vidor was sent back to his locations (Legion Park, near Griffith Park, in Los Angeles and Clover Field in San Diego) along with hundreds of troop transports and other military equipment, to shoot the two great scenes that give the movie the inspiration for its title: the U.S. army going forth to battle in France with hope and high spirits — and returning from a rout at the hands of the more experienced, battle-hardened German troops in a low-energy state of despair. Vidor told interviewers Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg that his inspiration for The Big Parade was a desire to make films that would have long theatrical releases (“In those days we’d put a lot of effort into films that would come to town and play for only a few days and then be forgotten”), and also to make the first truly honest movie about war. “Until then they’d all been very phony, glorifying officers and warfare,” Vidor said. “There hadn’t been a single picture showing the war from the view of ordinary soldiers and privates, not one with some feeling of anti-war, of realistic war.” The Big Parade is probably the first, and still one of only a handful of war movies in which almost no commissioned officers are shown as characters; when Vidor said he wanted to focus on “ordinary soldiers and privates,” he wasn’t kidding.

The central characters are Jimmy Apperson (John Gilbert), wastrel son of a steel mill owner (Hobart Bosworth) whose nerdy brother Harry (Robert Ober) is being trained to take over the mill; local bartender Bull (Tom O’Brien) — the titles are a bit coy about what he does for a living and remind one that Prohibition hadn’t yet been passed in 1917, when the film takes place, but was in full force when it was made in 1925; and the comic-relief character Slim (Karl Dane), who works as a riveter on skyscrapers. Suddenly the U.S. declares war on Germany and a title mentions that people who before didn’t know what patriotism was immediately get swept up in it; the proletarian principals enlist immediately, and a chance run-in with them convinces Jimmy to sign up too. Jimmy leaves his sports car in the middle of the street (the car has right-hand drive, a neat symbol of Jimmy’s lack of touch with American life and his upper-class pretensions) and dashes off to the recruiting office, then is scared to tell his parents that he’s signed up. (The living room of the Apperson mansion is one of those incredibly exotic sets MGM hauled out of their warehouse regularly, usually as a Third World palace; it seems decidedly over-the-top representing the residence of an American businessman.)

When Jimmy’s girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams) “outs” him as an enlistee, predictably dad is happy about it and mom is miserable. The soldiers go through training and then to France — they’re kept together in the same unit but Bull becomes a sergeant and thus has command responsibility over the other two — and for most of its first half The Big Parade is more a comedy than anything else, featuring scenes in which Our Heroes have to shovel shit to clean out the French barn they’ve been billeted in and try to eat a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent Jimmy which has grown ultra-stale in transit. Eventually Jimmy meets Melisande (Renée Adorée, one of the great phony star names in Hollywood history — she was genuinely French but the name she was born with was either Jeanne de la Fonte or Jeanne de la Fontein, sources differ), teaches her to chew gum and falls in love with her.

The mood of The Big Parade changes abruptly when the American soldiers are actually ordered to the battlefield — and there’s a big, intensely moving scene in which Melisande chases after the troop transport that is taking Jimmy away (a scene Vidor reproduced in the 1929 film Show People, which starred Marion Davies as an actress on her way to Hollywood stardom; in Show People Davies and William Haines re-enact the scene, supposedly as part of a movie they are making together, and though I haven’t seen Show People in years it’s my recollection that, as good as Adorée is in the scene, Davies played it even better). The company marches off to war (by this time Bull has inadvertently kicked an officer and been busted from sergeant down to private) and in a scene that goes far to explain why World War I was such a carnage, facing a German army with machine guns they charge into battle standing straight up, practically inviting themselves to be easy targets — the infantry charges we’re used to seeing in World War II movies, with the advancing men hugging the ground and crawling the last 200 feet or so towards the enemy to avoid being picked off by machine-gun and long-range rifle fire, apparently hadn’t been invented yet.

Much of the battle footage was directed not by Vidor, but by another MGM director, George Hill — and it’s among the best material in the film; whereas Vidor seems to have been going for an ironic contrast between the natural beauty of the battlefields and the carnage taking place on them (the dappled sunlight effects give the battle scenes an oddly pastoral look), Hill pulls out all the stops and shoots his battle scenes in what was then (ironically) called the “German” look, with deep shadows and a chiaroscuro, high-contrast visual style that later became identified with film noir. Slim gets picked to go on a mission to take out the German machine-gunner that is decimating their unit, and he’s severely wounded (at first we think he’s dead, though he turns up alive but in a military hospital later), and Jimmy is shot in the leg going after him — he escapes from the hospital with one leg in a cast, and later he loses the leg (as writer Laurence Stallings had in real life).

The scene of his homecoming is still one of the subtlest and bitterest anti-war commentaries in film: Vidor keeps his camera waist-high as the domestic drama plays out — including the revelation that in the meantime Justyn has fallen in love with Jimmy’s stay-at-home brother Harry — and only when his parents have expressed their gratitude that he’s home and he’s alive does Vidor cut to a full-frame shot of Jimmy with one leg missing. (The effect is absolutely convincing and I found myself wondering how they did it in 1925; long before the invention of digital imaging that allows modern filmmakers to paint out electronically the limbs of actors playing amputees, the usual way of staging something like this was to use a straitjacket-like device to tie the actor’s leg behind him — but Vidor’s camera shoots the one-legged Gilbert both front and back, so it’s highly unlikely they did it that way.) On learning that Justyn doesn’t want him anymore, Jimmy determines to return to France and find Melisande — which he does (he comes upon her chewing gum, natch) for what Irving Kolodin called a mezzo-lieto fine: a sort-of happy ending (the good news is he’s found his girlfriend, the bad news is he only has one leg — though between the two climactic scenes he’s been fitted with an uncomfortable-looking and not entirely convincing prosthesis).

The Big Parade holds up surprisingly well for the period and manages to be intense entertainment even today — though the juncture between the relatively light-hearted first half and the grimness of the war footage jars. Though one of the companies that later merged into MGM, Metro, had made an even better epic involving World War I, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade is a great film, well balanced between sweeping imagery and an intimate story — and if it sometimes seems clichéd, it’s important to remember that this is one of the movies whose makers invented those clichés.

The acting is effective even though there’s no performance here with the kind of charisma Valentino brought to The Four Horsemen; John Gilbert seems to be overdoing the character’s naïveté early on, unable to strike the required balance between playing superficial and being superficial, but once he gets into combat and the war takes the sheen off his character, he’s quite good, with some heart-stopping close-ups that make it clear what 1920’s audiences saw in this since-maligned star. (Gilbert made his best films — The Big Parade and Stroheim’s The Merry Widow — in 1925; afterwards MGM pretty much cast him in relatively superficial romantic leads until he ran into problems in the sound era, less — I think — due to the timbre of his voice than his inability to act with it; by the time he learned to modulate his voice and change its tone and timbre to reflect the emotions his character was supposed to be feeling, he had already tumbled down from the heights of stardom and MGM didn’t quite know what to do with him, though some of his later talkies as a contract player at MGM — The Phantom of Paris, West of Broadway and Fast Workers — are genuinely interesting and entertaining films.)

Renée Adorée was your typical silent heroine; Vidor was effusive about her (“I was mad about her,” he told Higham and Greenberg; “She was actually French …and because of her background there was never any argument against using her”), and he did get her to cool it on the simpering coyness she showed in some of her other movies (but then simpering coyness was an occupational hazard of silent-era ingénues), but she’s nothing special. Karl Dane’s comic relief gets oppressive after a while — though his near-death scene is surprisingly moving — and Tom O’Brien is quite good but he’s the least important of the three principals and we don’t get to see enough of him. What you get out of The Big Parade is the spectacle and the way Vidor and his writers (Stallings, scenarist Harry Behn and title writer Joe Farnham) manage to work in an anti-war message without getting preachy about it the way the makers of All Quiet on the Western Front (same war, different side!) did five years later; at one point Jimmy Apperson lets loose a tirade against the whole idea of war and his role in it (the one sequence in The Big Parade that would actually have worked better in a sound film), but for the most part the film is content to understate its condemnation of war, which is welcome. Both the romantic leads in this film had quite unfortunate subsequent lives; Gilbert’s failure and early death are well known, and Adorée caught tuberculosis and was forced to retire in 1930, three years before the disease took her life at age 35.