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Monday, January 22, 2018

The Great War's Greatest Telling

How It Was Every Night at Broadway's Astor Theatre --- and For 96 Weeks

The Big Parade (1925) Puts Metro On The Map

Watch this and wonder how stardom got away so suddenly from John Gilbert, who'd have hit after resounding hit in late silent days, then come crashing to earth once talkies made him passé. Gilbert's may be a best performance of the whole voiceless era, being understated, dynamic where called for, a romancer after believable fashion of ordinary guys who'd be watching. Gilbert had rare capacity for coming down to earth when parts called for him to do so. Shave the mustache and he'd be you or me (Burt Reynolds managed a same thing much later). The secret may have been frankly ordinary looks the man had when bereft of dash or sash. You'd not be amiss confusing him with the Lion's Club chairman next door, this of course enabling Gilbert to play a range of characters wider than lead men elsewhere with more glamour to shed whenever conventional parts called.

The Big Parade was a smash that passed into legend; horse-backed police and bus drivers remembered well the 96 weeks it ran to capacity attendance on Broadway ... certainly Metro bookkeepers kept its record business among treasured souvenirs. The thing began more as a programmer, but was upticked to a super-special by Irving Thalberg once he saw potential for a hit after legit What Price Glory? example. Director King Vidor and star Gilbert got the fever too. By the time Big was done parading, all down to soldier extras knew it would do historic biz. War performed well so long as scale was large. Each of studios that could afford it seemed to be aboard with big-scale battle enactment. WWI was going on ten years' past and maybe wounds had healed sufficient to regard the scrap on entertainment terms. Agonies of war would herein be revealed, but only after first-half's serve of comedy enough to fill out any three of service knockabouts done by, for instance, Paramount, with their Wallace Beery-Raymond Hatton group.

In fact, it was laughter that propelled much of repeat march to Parade boxoffices. Audiences loved, and sent friends back to see, doughboy hijinks wherein newcomer Karl Dane made impression enough to spin off an entire series of comedies with diminutive George K. Arthur. Metro would even retread The Big Parade to extent of Buster Keaton and Doughboys, a hit feeding off good will from the bigger attraction. A simple scene of John Gilbert teaching French girl Renee Adoree to chew gum became one of those precious moments recalled into old age by filmgoers. The Big Parade's mood swing in its second half was what lent stature. We'd gotten to know these boisterous boys and so felt impact greater for their being hurled into combat. Random death is captured in long shot marching where we see casualties drop at a distance. It's all so casual and still has capacity to shock. Profanity comes thick and unexpected, goddamn this-and-that of trench warfare once we're past point of no return. Gilbert's shell-hole scene with a wounded German goes minutes without a cut, like crouching down among them. Maybe it's as well we had laughs coming in, as these battles can still put one through a wringer.

This then, was the big picture that qualified King Vidor for biggest pictures over a thirty year period to come. He'd been directing a long while before Parade, but from here he'd join a short list of men who could be trusted to paint large murals. Northwest Passage, Duel In The Sun, War and Peace, and finally, Solomon and Sheba, would look back upon The Big Parade and distinction Vidor brought to bear, but was he as committed to these? Vidor epics that followed The Big Parade were purest Hollywood, but then, so was The Big Parade, beyond what reality KV could wring from supervisory clutches. Thalberg fortunately trusted Vidor enough to allow scorched earth in battle scenes and Gilbert's character leaving a leg behind in France, these honesties what a huge public would respond to and reward in terms of attendance. The Big Parade may have got a greatest word-of-mouth among any of silent specials, its repute enough to warrant a reissue with sound in late 1931. Now it comes our way through Blu-Ray offices of WB, and from a recovered negative closest of any to what crowds saw in first-run.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The available version of the film is actually the 1931 reissue but without the soundtrack prepared at the time, which I only saw like 25 years ago. I actually prefer that soundtrack to Carl Davis score, which lifted a lot from the previous one.

The film is great, one of the not so many silents that I was able to see in a movie theater, but what it is forgotten is the fact that John Gilbert and Renée Adorée were already an established screen partnership that have been in movies since 1922 and continued for a few more. In fact, I feel that Renée was by far Gilbert's best screen partner, not to mention his most frequent.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

John, I can't help noticing in today's masthead photo that this ain't no ladies' matinee! Look at all the guys! BIG PARADE must have been the movie equivalent of a Soldiers' Home reunion. Probably a tough sell to wives and girlfriends.

2:39 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Here are some ignored images from its premiere in Brazil in early 1927.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Realist said...

Thanks for the informative observation of this important film. I remember showing it in college in 16mm in the early 70s with a large crowd. Unfortunately, there was no way to get a get a proper speed back then (16mm locked at 24 fps) and the film played more like a "fractured flickers" with everything speeded up. John Gilbert's rush to see his true love was greeted with gales of laughter by the audience. I'm glad it's been released with proper speed and color sequences intact.

4:39 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

The original cue sheets for THE BIG PARADE indicate a speed of 24 fps, which was pretty much a standard for feature films by 1925, slowing down the film below that is not "proper" in any way, shape, or form.


5:21 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I had a 16mm copy of THE BIG PARADE that was the sound-reissue. I liked the use of music and sound it it and in my 16mm BEN HUR. It's too bad those soundtracks were ditched as they are fine. The film ran at 24fps and worked fine.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Are you writing about a new Blu-ray version of THE BIG PARADE from a re-discovered print? I looked at my Blu-ray of the film just now. Ran the commentary throughout. The speed of the film was natural throughout. No sign either of exaggerated speed or slowed down speed (which is worse as it throws the timing off. Picture quality is superb. I would have liked to have been able to experience it with the score that had been on my 16mm print as at least an alternative as not only is that soundtrack excellent (as it also is on BEN HUR) it would also preserve the original SOUND of the film.

The added color (especially the Technicolor insert of the ambulance) was also very good. Thanks for drawing my attention to this. I bought it when it was first released on Blu-ray but had not watched it until today.

4:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The Blu-Ray is what I watched, and it is wonderful.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Yes, it is. Hope you and I are still here when THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and BEN HUR get the treatment they deserve.

4:45 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers John Gilbert and THE BIG PARADE:

I’ve always regarded Gilbert’s great popularity during the silent era as something of a phenomenon. As you’ve suggested, he was not classically handsome, with his thin, long-nosed face—as David Shipman wrote, he more suggests a weedy bank clerk than a great lover—and yet those eyes of his suggest such complete belief—in the utter, absolute beauty of the woman who’d captured his heart, or his utter, absolute need to win her—that you find yourself, too, believing that he must be the very apotheosis of romanticism. That is, if you don’t find him entirely absurd.
It’s interesting, then, that in “The Big Parade,” which was by far his greatest success, he plays someone who is seemingly not at all out of the ordinary and certainly not a “great lover.” His character doesn’t join the army out of some lofty ambition, he was simply caught up in the excitement of a parade and never realized where it was taking him, until it was too late. Courage, perseverance, passion: he was possessed of these qualities all along, but it was the war which would reveal them, with its violence and horror.
It also revealed deeper, more spiritual qualities, in the mercy shown a dying enemy, or the heart opened to a French girl, that would not take except what it would pay for, in the same coin. No doubt these were ideals the audience wished to find in the young American soldier he was playing, but many of those in that audience would have shared the same experiences, perhaps rougher or messier, as life often is, but not so very different, after all. In Gilbert they saw themselves, if not quite as they were, then certainly as they should have wanted to have been.
“The Big Parade” doesn’t shun its other revelations. Men fall to bullets in the forest, not dramatically, as though their lives had some importance, even to them, but with the surprised gracelessness of someone tripping over a tree root. A scene which ends with the wounded soldier at last safely in hospital leads to another, in which we’re shocked to see that the care we assumed would be sufficient was actually of no avail, and that he’s lost his leg. The homecoming is seen through his mother’s tears, as she remembers the boy he was and how well he ran.

It also provides us with moments of stunning rapture, when the girl is dragged behind a lorry, trying to hold on to him as he goes off to battle, or at the end, when he stumbles down a French hillside with that curious, heart-breaking gait, calling out to her.

What is it, then, that joins the Gilbert of legend with this character that so illuminated his stardom that its light lingered long after darkness settled upon his career? To my mind, he was alive as few other actors have been to the transcendent moment, when the obscuring curtains of the routine or commonplace are parted, the essential pattern is glimpsed, and nothing is ever again the same again. Inevitably, his character realizes that he can no longer live as he had, even when there no possibility of living in any other way in such a world as ours.

In his desire and woundedness, he would seek after the one thing without which he could not live, or any of us, and for which he would search endlessly, even when it was elusive and seemingly out of reach.

Always, in this film as in others, he sought this blessing, this solace, this one constant called love.

5:41 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

One of the things I realized watching this picture with the commentary was how much prohibition played into movie attendance in the 1920s. Unable to go to bars people went to the movies. This was mirrored in my own life during my screenings in the early 1970s. When the Province of Ontario lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18 I lost most of my audience. Nearly every coffee house in Toronto shut down. There have been many studies as to why the movies began to lose their audience but none have mentioned this all too obvious fact. During the period between 1915 (THE BIRTH OF A NATION) and 1927 over 65% of the population went to the movies on a regular basis. Today that figure is less than 10%. Bear in mind that for A pictures such as THE BIRTH and THE BIG PARADE people paid top Broadway prices. Those prices enabled the films to be seen with full orchestras, sound effects crews and the whole nine yards. Those prices also created a magic that reached right down to the small town cinemas where the films were seen with just a piano, violin and drums.

8:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I had not before before considered the drinking aspect of theatre attendance, but it explains a lot. Thanks for that very interesting insight.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Took me years to make the connection. Should have realized the end of prohibition killed everything then that lowering the drinking age in my time did.

11:01 AM  

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