Cast & Crew
In the spring of 1917, America enjoys peaceful prosperity, while war rages in Europe. In New York, laborer Slim Jensen toils on a skyscraper, while in the Bowery, Michael "Bull" O'Hara tends bar. On the other side of town, wealthy idler James Apperson scoffs at the idea of working in his father's factory. All three men's lives are interrupted by the news of America's declaration of war against Germany. Disinterested in the war news, Jim is bewildered by the patriotic fervor that stirs the crowds and inspires an enthusiastic parade. When a group of Jim's buddies excitedly tell him that they are enlisting, Jim impulsively joins them. That evening, Jim avoids telling his family he has enlisted, so as not to worry his anxious mother. Jim's father berates him for his indolence and points out that Jim's brother Harry has already placed the family factory in war production. Jim's proud fiancée, Justyn Reed, then accidentally reveals Jim's enlistment, which dismays Mrs. Apperson, but cheers Mr. Apperson. Several days later in boot camp, Jim meets Slim and Bull. After a hasty training period, Bull is made sergeant and the company is shipped to France where, after several days march into the countryside, set up camp in the farming village of Champillon and are welcomed by the villagers. A few days later, Jim receives a cake from Justyn that he shares with Bull and Slim. To break up the monotony of camp life, Jim decides to rig a shower for the men near the river and searches for a barrel in the village. There, he is spotted by farm girl Melisande, who lives alone with her mother. Curious about Jim's actions, Melisande follows him back to the river and watches Bull and Slim try out the primitive shower. Jim then introduces himself to Melisande, although he speaks no French and she does not understand English. Jim is annoyed when Bull and Slim also show interest in Melisande, but she rejects them in favor of Jim. That evening, Jim waits for Melisande in front of her home and when she appears, shyly offers her a stick of gum and shows her how to chew it. Using a French dictionary, Jim and Melisande manage to communicate their mutual attraction to each other and over the next several weeks, Jim sees Melisande as often as possible, despite constant teasing from Bull and Slim. At mail call, some days later, Bull is angry when someone playfully takes his letter, causing Bull to mistakenly attack an officer he believes responsible. The officer angrily then angrily demotes Bull. Upon retrieving the letter, Bull is taken aback to learn that he is going to be a father. Meanwhile, Jim is overcome by guilt when he receives a letter and photo from Justyn, who frets at not hearing from him. Melisande finds Jim and the two quarrel when she realizes that Jim is engaged. Despite Jim's insistence that he genuinely cares for her, Melisande is hurt and departs in tears. Moments later, the company receives orders to move to the front immediately and Jim hurries to gather his equipment. The villagers rush to bid the soldiers farewell as trucks and equipment begin speeding through Champillion. After hastily packing, Jim searches frantically for Melisande, but is forced to join his unit. Attracted by the bustle of the army's sudden departure, Melisande anxiously joins the crowd of soldiers marching through the village, desperately hoping to find Jim. Jim finally spots Melisande and, rushing to her, vows that he will return. An officer orders Jim to return to his truck and as the transport moves off, Melisande frantically hangs on to the truck's side in a vain effort to stop its departure. When she is forced to let go, Jim throws Melisande a necklace and a shoe, which she clings to as the caravan of soldiers speeds away. Jim, Bull, Slim and the company then proceed toward enemy lines under the protection of fighter planes. When the company must continue on foot, the men are strafed by a German planes and Jim sees his first wounded and dead. Jim and his company are then ordered to spread out to march through a forest filled with German snipers. Continuing on, the men are bombed by shells and gas and, putting on their masks, seek shelter in the trenches. After surviving an afternoon-long attack, night falls and Jim, Slim and Bull take turns napping and eating canned ham. While the Germans lob shells over the trenches every few minutes, Jim tries some of Slim's chewing tobacco for the first time. Later, an officer creeps into their trench to order one of them to destroy the German cannon. Knowing that he is the best spitter, Slim suggests a spitting contest to see who will take on the dangerous mission. After winning the contest, Slim slowly crawls through the dirt, hiding behind dead bodies until he reaches the German cannon nest, which he destroys with a hand grenade. As he crawls back, however, flares illuminate Slim, and German machine gunners shoot at him as Jim and Bull listen tensely from their trench. When Slim does not return, Jim and Bull begin calling for him anxiously, until they are reprimanded by an officer. A little later, Jim and Bull hear Slim feebly calling for help and, frantic, Jim disobeys orders and leaves the fox hole to rescue Slim. Bull joins Jim and upon finding Slim dead, both men grieve, then, in a fury, destroy the German machine gun nest. While moving in on a second nest, Bull is killed and Jim wounded in the leg. Jim attacks a German with his bayonet and the two tumble into a shell hole together. His rage abruptly spent, Jim cannot kill the young soldier and instead offers him a cigarette, but the soldier dies minutes later. A few days later, Jim awakens in a church turned into a makeshift infirmary. A fellow patient tells Jim that he was wounded in nearby Champillon which was subsequently overrun by the Germans. Alarmed, Jim escapes from the hospital on crutches to go in search of Melisande, unaware that the village has been evacuated. Jim collapses upon arriving at the shattered village, where he is later found by a medical unit. Upon the declaration of peace, Jim returns home, an amputee as a result of his wounds. Although Justyn and Harry have become involved in Jim's absence, she is determined to maintain her engagement to Jim. Despite his family's sincere relief at his return, Jim realizes that they can never understand how his war experiences have changed him. When he later confesses to his mother that he is in love with Melisande, she encourages him to find her. Much later in France, Melisande and her mother are working in the fields when Melisande spots a distant figure coming across the hills towards them slowly. Incredulous, Melisande recognizes Jim and the two are reunited.
Dr. William Axt
Ethel P. Chaffin
Joseph W. Farnham
The Big Parade
Vidor's emotional epic opens as three young men from different walks of life are thrown together as soldiers and fast buddies during World War I: a son of privilege James Apperson (John Gilbert), a Bowery bartender Bull (Tom O'Brien) and a gawky ironworker Slim (Karl Dane).
The trio's experiences billeting in France are initially light-hearted and charming. James woos a beautiful village girl Melisande (Renee Adoree) who looks just like his fiance back home. In the meantime, Bull and Slim try to horn in on Melisande, who doesn't speak a word of English and seems overwhelmed by all of the romantic attention. The sequences between James and Melisande, as he shyly flirts and she shyly retreats, made the most of Gilbert's remarkable flair for understated acting, as well as the pairing of the two charming, well-matched actors (the duo teamed up one more time in 1930 for Redemption). The scene where consummate American James teaches Melisande to chew gum captured the wonderfully light and subtle touch both actors had with comedy. Vidor has noted that the scene was entirely improvised after he watched his cameraman chewing gum and decided to use it to embellish an otherwise vague love scene.
The pairing of these two romantic leads boosted Gilbert's popularity and allowed Adoree, a veteran of the circus and the Folies-Bergere, to rise from a respected actress in the MGM stable to star status. Gilbert broke out of his more typical romantic leads to movingly portray the doughboy James Apperson, who goes from naive kid to a painfully wizened man over the course of the film. That image-change only solidified Gilbert's fame and transformed him into a superstar.
As James, Bull and Slim experience more and more of the war, their youthful enthusiasm is chipped away. In an absolutely devastating battle scene in Belleau Wood, the men line up with bayonets ready and gradually march into the fire of German snipers hidden in the forest. Shot from high angles to capture the number of men involved, and also straight-on to capture the terrified expressions of individual men, the sequence has a nightmare immediacy enhanced by John Arnold's cinematography and Gilbert's effective acting. One by one, snipers hidden in the treetops and Germans manning machine guns pick off the American soldiers as they continue to march relentlessly forward. Vidor created the chilling effect of men marching to their death by using a bass drum during the shooting to force the actors to keep time to the beat as they marched. "Everybody was instructed that no matter what they did, they must do it in time to the beat. It's all so relentless," said Vidor. Sound was also used to emotional effect during the film's remarkably successful run at the Astor Theatre on Broadway, where eighteen men with bugles and wagons filled with iron created sound effects to replicate the experience of actual battle.
As the story progresses the bond between the trio grows tighter and they take enormous risks to protect one another, including a risk that proves fatal and ends in a heartbreaking expression of fraternal love. According to a Variety review of the time, that scene of one friend dying while the other cradles him in his arms, "had the majority of the audience in tears."
It was the success of Laurence Stallings' and Maxwell Anderson's stage play What Price Glory? that inspired MGM's adaptation of Stallings' The Big Parade. Vidor stuck close to the gritty realism of Stallings' wartime recollections when he worked with the writer on adapting the film. The Big Parade included scenes of unfiltered violence, like a wounded soldier with blood running down his head and graphic language in the film's intertitles, to reflect the realism of Stallings' own wartime experience in WWI where he lost a leg in Belleau Wood.
"War had not been explored yet from the realistic GI viewpoint," Vidor noted, "It was more based on songs like 'Over There' and songs of that sort."
That The Big Parade was the first war film told from the doughboy, rather than the officer's perspective, helped explain its enormous popularity. As testament to its power, The Big Parade was commended again and again by veterans of WWI for its accuracy.
To convey that wartime authenticity, Vidor relied heavily on Signal Corps footage of battle and troop movements to help in choreographing his film, and also incorporated some of that footage into the film itself.
The Big Parade established Vidor as one of the top directors of the age. The film made MGM a mint, but while it raised his status in Hollywood significantly, Vidor unfortunately signed away his percentage share and was thus unable to capitalize on the film's enormous financial success. Vidor would continue his unique combination of humanism and technical virtuosity in films to come like The Crowd (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1934).
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Harry Behn, based on the play by Joseph Farnham and the story "Plumes" by Laurence Stallings
Art Direction: James Basevi, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: John Arnold
Costume Design: Ethel P. Chaffin
Film Editing: Hugh Wynn
Original Music: Dr. William Axt, Maurice Baron, David Mendoza
Principal Cast: John Gilbert (James Apperson), Renee Adoree (Melisande), Hobart Bosworth (Mr. Apperson), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Apperson), Claire Adams (Justyn Reed), Robert Ober (Harry).
by Felicia Feaster
The Big Parade
The Big Parade on Blu-ray
MGM's epic has been given a remarkable 4K restoration that makes the 1925 release look as if it were filmed yesterday. The impeccable presentation was supervised by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow.
Author Laurence Stallings' most famous work was the play What Price Glory. His own experiences as a U.S. infantryman form the basis of the story that became the template for film scenarios about The Great War. Wealthy but uninspired, young Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) becomes enthused by a military parade. He enlists, leaving behind his mother and father (Hobart Bosworth & Claire McDowell) as well as his girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams), who promises to wait for him. At boot camp he falls in with Slim (Karl Dane), a rowdy construction steeplejack, and Bull (Tom O'Brien), a tough bartender from the Bowery. In the French town of Champillon, Jim falls in love Melisande (Renée Adorée), a local girl who understands no English. Jim realizes that she's the love of his life when his unit is called up to join the front lines. Their objective is a difficult one -- to take Belleau Wood away from the Germans.
The Big Parade was a landmark picture for MGM, which promoted it as one of the studio's enduring classics. But it wasn't screened during WW2, after being placed on a list of films that might be detrimental to morale. Lewis Milestone's highly emotional All Quiet on the Western Front was withdrawn as well.
Harry Behn and Joseph Farnham's screenplay stresses universal experiences. Cheerful Jim Apperson enlists on a momentary impulse. The fact that he leaves his car in the middle of the street to join a patriotic parade sums up his mental state. Everything seems out of his hands. His girlfriend Justyn is the one to break the news to his parents.
The basic story has been so frequently re-told that we're surprised how fresh it all seems. Jim Apperson's time in France before battle is the stuff of military comedies. He and his jolly Army buddies are billeted to a barn previously occupied by pigs. They sing quite a bit (in text inter-titles) and get in trouble with superior officers. All three pursue the adorable Melisande in pursuit of a kiss, but she chooses Jim. Their barnyard courtship sees Jim introducing her to chewing gum, a motif that King Vidor uses to excellent effect. When the call to arms separates them Vidor creates a classic farewell scene that's been imitated ever since. Melisande runs after Jim's departing truck, and audiences were moved to tears. After Jim's gone we see Melisande once again chewing gum, and we know she's thinking about him. Gilbert and Adorée make an attractive couple, brought together and separated by war.
King Vidor's lengthy Belleau Wood battle sequence is designed in a formal, slightly artificial style. To create a specific visual rhythm Vidor assigned musicians to play drums for the actors to march to. The soldiers march through the Wood in strict cadence, their movements evoking a vision of a grim funeral machine. Most every other shot in the film is a static angle, but in the Belleau Wood scene the camera constantly moves with the advancing troops. Realism is not a major factor -- the soldiers do not break step even as snipers kill scores of them. When German machine guns open fire, only a couple of soldiers fall, instead of entire lines of men (see Peter Weir's Gallipoli for an extreme example of this).
Commentators persist in describing The Big Parade as neither pro-war or pacifist, when the show is definitely "pro". The final confrontation on a shell-cratered open field is bad news for Jim and his friends, but also a conventional triumph of old-school battle emotionalism. Jim assaults the enemy line single-handed because "the b______s killed my best friend." He may not know what he's fighting for, but the lesson is taught that combat by blood and steel is still a defining ritual that real men never shirk. Jim and his comrades compete to see who will go on the suicide mission. Alone and wounded in no-man's land, Jim claws his way forward with his bayonet, eager to kill some more. The fact that he shows mercy to a dying foe only completes the image of his gallantry.
The movie's honest sentimentality won over the mass audience. Jim was the Universal Soldier of the time, the man who went cheerfully to war and if lucky came back in one piece. When Jim's mother's greets his return, King Vidor uses a rapid truck-in to her heartbroken reaction. After all the static scenes the abrupt camera motion increases the shock. The bittersweet upbeat finish -- true love conquers all -- surely made audiences feel more secure after the harrowing battle scenes.
Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front now plays as a possible rebuttal to The Big Parade. King Vidor's epic may not reflect the full horror of The Great War, but it doesn't portray it as a picnic, either. It was an emotional summation of the conflict that audiences of 1925 were ready to accept.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Big Parade is an impressive, nearly perfect presentation. The level of detail revealed by the 4K scan is amazing, and whatever cleanup was necessary is all but invisible. The restoration people have retained the special effect of an ambulance with its Red Cross glowing bright red in the middle of a B&W movie. In HD we can also appreciate MGM's excellent special effects for the combat scenes. An automatic matting system is used to place actors in the middle of miniature battlefields; lines of men become transparent as they cross into the double-exposed miniature areas. Elsewhere, excellent matte paintings turn Melisande's farm into a complete wreck.
The presentation features a powerful, heartfelt music score composed and conducted by Carl Davis. The 151-minute running time reflects a slowed projection speed. Motion is natural, although in the 'metronome march' in Belleau Wood the frame transposition rate affects the motion of the marching legs. At one hour and sixteen minutes a couple of seconds of damaged film have been replaced with an image from the 1931 talkie reissue. We can tell this because the left-hand frame line jumps -- the sound-on-film release cropped some of the image to make room for the soundtrack.
The presentation comes in Warners' book-like packaging. The 56-page souvenir booklet contains a long essay on King Vidor and The Big Parade by Kevin Brownlow, the man who championed the rediscovery of silent films in the 1960s and '70s. The book is embellished with vintage photos and a reproduction of the film's original souvenir booklet.
Author Jeffrey Vance's commentary is packed with fascinating information about the film and the interesting personalities of the people that made it. We learn that battle scenes were filmed in Griffith Park, on the undeveloped hills of Westwood and in Cloverfield Park, which is now a heavily developed section of Santa Monica. Vance goes into detail on Vidor's struggle to have Jim Apperson's screen injury mirror author Laurence Stallings' actual war wound. Vance helpfully points out an inter-title reference to Ernest Hemingway, which was added for the '31 reissue. In 1925 Hemingway's name was not yet a household word.
Also on view is the oft- screened 1925 MGM Studio Tour short subject, the one that shows the various departments and the lineups of silent-era cameramen and directors. Unfortunately, it's still in Standard Definition. An impressive silent trailer finishes the package.
By Glenn Erickson
The Big Parade on Blu-ray
Studio electrician Carl Barlow was killed in a fall during production.
Is the highest grossing silent film of all time, making $22 million dollars during its worldwide release
The following written statement appears in the onscreen credits: "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gratefully acknowledges the splendid cooperation of the Second Division, United States Army and Air Service Units, Kelly Field." The copyright notice for the film indicates that some sequences in the film were tinted in color, but there were no tinted sequences in the viewed print. The titles in the viewed print listed Western Electric Sound System, suggesting the titles were from a re-release print.
The Big Parade had its world premiere in Hollywood, CA at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre on November 5, 1925. The film opened at the Astor Theater in New York City on November 19, 1925 and ran there for nearly two years. According to the Variety review of the film, some of the title cards featuring soldier "Jim Apperson" cursing in despair upon the death of his buddy "Slim" were dropped for the New York screening. A brief scene in which Jim touches a German soldier's face with a cigarette to ascertain that the German is dead was also reportedly deleted.
Pre-release sources list the film's length as 13 reels, 12,550 feet. In his autobiography, director King Vidow indicated that, following the film's Los Angeles premiere, New York distributors requested that he cut one reel to allow them to fit in additional daily screenings. Rather than remove any one scene, Vidor went through each of the film's thirteen reels and excised several frames throughout until he had removed 800 feet.
The Big Parade was written by Laurence Stallings, a veteran of World War I, who, like the film's hero, lost a leg as a result of war wounds. In 1924, Stallings co-wrote the successful war-themed play What Price Glory?, which was later filmed by Fox Film, Inc. in 1926 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). In his autobiography, Vidor stated that In 1924 he had asked M-G-M's head of production, Irving Thalberg for the opportunity to make a "serious" picture. The men agreed to search for an appropriate war story, and when Stallings' play caught Thalberg's attention, the writer was hired. Vidor added that after Thalberg approved Stallings' story synopsis of The Big Parade, Vidor prepared himself for the subject by screening numerous documentary films made by the U. S. Army Signal Corps during World War I. Upon viewing footage of a group of soldiers solemnly escorting a funeral cortege, Vidor was inspired to choreograph the filming of the American forces' march through Belleau Wood to the beat of a metronome amplified by a bass drum to heighten the sense of foreboding and death.
Vidor also stated that several American and British veterans hired for the film considered Vidor's directions of moving to the drum beat ludicrous. During the film's premiere at the Egyptian Theatre, Vidor requested that the orchestra remain silent during the sequence to allow the visual cadence to become apparent to the audience. The sequence went on to become one of the film's signature pieces and one of the most famous of the silent era. Vidor revealed that another of the film's most famous scenes, in which Jim teaches his French girl friend "Melisande" how to chew gum, was inspired by chance when playwright Donald Ogden Stewart visited the set just as Vidor was struggling with how to stage Jim and Melisande's first innocent love scene. Stewart was chewing gum and Vidor realized that gum would be completely unfamiliar to a French country girl.
According to Variety, electrician Carl Barlow died during the filming when he fell from a platform. Additional information from Vidor's autobiography indicated that the film was shot on location at Griffith Park, Elysian Park in Los Angeles and in Texas.
The Big Parade is frequently described as the most successful silent film of all time and according to information in the Eddie Mannix Collection at the AMPAS Library, at the time of its initial release the film earned over six million dollars, second only to M-G-M's 1925 production of Ben-Hur (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). New York Times placed The Big Parade at the top of its list of best films for 1925, praising it as "the top-notch photoplay of the year" and "unusually original in detail." The Variety review of the film called it "the best of the war pictures" and praised John Gilbert's performance as "superb" and a "triumph for [director King] Vidor." The review went on to commend the musical score by David Mendzoa and William Axt as rivaling that of D. W. Griffith's 1915 production, Birth of a Nation. An August 1967 Variety article indicates that Janus Films was to cut the 130 minute film down to 52 minutes for release to collegiate film groups. The viewed print ran approximately 124 minutes. In 1988 The Big Parade was one of the silent films selected by British Thames television to receive a new score composed by Carl Davis.
Released in United States 1925
Released in United States 1973
Released in United States on Video November 8, 1988
Selected in 1992 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States 1925
Released in United States 1973 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Great American Films) November 15 - December 16, 1973.)
Released in United States on Video November 8, 1988