Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Big Parade (1926)

Director: King Vidor                                           Writer: Joseph Farnham & Laurence Stallings
Film Score: Carl Davis (1988)                            Cinematography: John Arnold
Starring: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Tom O’Brien and Karl Dane

King Vidor is not only one of the all-time great directors, he’s one of the few who were able to make great films in both the silent and sound era. The two silent films that he is best known for are intimate epics about America, about the common man, and because of that still resonate to this day. The Crowd, from 1928, deals with idealism and what happens to life when those dreams are not reached, when we must resign ourselves not to being great but simply being happy. This film, The Big Parade from 1925, is ostensibly a World War One film, but again is about people in this country from all walks of life who come together and accomplish something great, despite the odds. In a way, he was doing Capra before Capra. It also doesn’t hurt that he worked with some of the greatest stars in the business, and that he was working for the most prestigious motion picture company at the time. In this case his star was John Gilbert, and the film company MGM.

The film begins by looking at the men who will be going off to fight the war. Karl Dane is a construction worker, Tom O’Brien is a bartender, and John Gilbert is the lazy son of wealthy parents and has no intention of enlisting. That is, until his girl Claire Adams tells him how much more she would love him if he did. But while his mother is devastated, his father is delighted when he signs up and soon he is off to France and doing just about everything but fighting. The solders are ordered to shovel manure one night before they go to sleep in a hayloft. They sing when they do march, and seem to be having all sorts of fun even while simply washing their clothes. Gilbert soon falls for a French girl, Renée Adorée, and their inability to communicate in words is another humorous aspect of the film. Eventually, however, the men have to go off to battle and the film finally takes a turn for the serious. No one knows who will make it home and who won’t, or if Gilbert will ever see Adorée again.

What’s interesting is that some of the plot ideas from the film would be rehashed a few years later in William Wellman’s Wings, especially the idea of the boy who is in love with the girl he grew up with, going off to war and falling in love with someone else. And there are brief glimpses of flying scenes of the type used in the later film. But this is not a war film, per se, not in the way that Wings is, and certainly nowhere near something like All Quiet on the Western Front. My previous invocation of Frank Capra earlier is far more apt. There is a lot of humor in the film and an innocence in the way that the soldiers are portrayed that would scarcely seem to be indicative of what most American soldiers experienced during The Great War. One of the exceptional things about the film for modern audiences, however, is the terrific score by Carl Davis. Though the film has no sound effects everything musical, from drums to bugles to whistling, is mimicked by the score in a way that is very satisfying. The composer, who also wrote the music for the World War Two series The World at War, also does a magnificent job during the battle scenes with particularly chilling music.

Vidor is masterful behind the camera, framing shots in such a way that they achieve maximum impact without drawing attention to themselves. John Gilbert is also very good. He has a real knack for the physical comedy required in the role and seems extremely confident in pulling it off. The rest of the cast is average the exceptions being Renée Adorée, who became a star after this film but died at the same time silent films did, and Karl Dane who is a little too goofy for my taste. The film is the highest grossing film of the silent era, and it’s easy to see why. A story like this that cuts across classes, has lots of comedy, and finishes quite romantically was bound to bring in a big audience. And while the film was praised at the time for not glorify war, the horrors of war are definitely a small part of the film and buried in among more light-hearted fare, and so it can’t really be seen as an anti-war picture either. The Big Parade is, in the end, a solid film that displays John Gilbert’s talents extremely well and is a very entertaining.

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