June 30, 2010

The Big Parade (1925)
Grade: 63/100

Director: King Vidor
Stars: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Karl Dane

What it's about. The most commercially successful film of the silent era, The Big Parade combines romantic comedy and war drama and is set in France during World War I. It tells the story of Jimmy (John Gilbert), who begins the film as the spoiled and lazy son of wealthy but humorless New York businessman Hobart Bosworth. Jimmy is engaged to beautiful socialite Claire Adams, but enlists in the Army for three reasons: the influence of patriotism, the desire to impress his girl, and the need to satisfy his demanding father.

Because it is a movie, Jimmy adapts immediately to the privations of Army life. He is sent to France, where he romps in a pleasant French village with his two mischievous Army buddies, burly Tom O'Brien and lanky blue collar Karl Dane. Jimmy has no interaction with the rest of the outfit, and in fact spends much of his time with Melisande (Renée Adorée), a hottie brunette who speaks no English and is so country that she has never heard of chewing gum. Because it is a movie, Melisande falls so much in love with Jimmy that she must be ripped from his arms in their memorable and drawn-out farewell scene when Jimmy is dispatched with his outfit to the front.

Jimmy passes through a forest riddled with Germans who apparently have spent the last three years hiding in trees waiting for the Yanks to come. Finally, Jimmy and what is left of his outfit makes it to the trenches. Jimmy shares a foxhole with buddies O'Brien and Dane. They are given impossible orders to wipe out a German machine gun nest, which is accomplished at great personal cost through can-do heroism that makes Sgt. York look like an idler.

Meanwhile, back home, Claire Adams has given up the absent Jimmy for his dullard bespectacled brother, a wise choice since he is a certain heir and knows better than to volunteer for a distant war that could kill him. The war over, Jimmy returns home sans one leg, but after a teary confession to doting mother Claire McDowell that he loves Melisande, Jimmy goes back to the sleepy French village for a crowd-pleasing reunion of our two lovers.

The U.S. Army went to remarkable lengths to support this MGM production, perhaps spending more on the film than the studio. Per imdb.com, the Army loaned 200 trucks, 100 airplanes, and 4,000 soldiers, which allowed MGM to reproduce "The Big Parade" of men and supplies to the French front.

This was the third of six John Gilbert films directed by King Vidor. The movie made Gilbert a huge star, but his appeal faded with the advent of sound, and his career was finished by his untimely 1936 death, the same year as The Big Parade's wunderkind producer, Irving Thalberg. Both outlived the luckless Adorée, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1933. King Vidor was more fortunate, and remained a top director through the 1950s.

How others will see it. The record box office success of The Big Parade ensures its historical importance. It remains well received today, as its imdb.com user rating of 8.4 out of 10 attests. Women over 45 award it a whopping 9.6, as this demographic is apparently a sucker for true love romance between attractive young leads.

The only sour note is from those under 18, who give the film a mere 5.5 and probably believe that the film had to be hand-cranked to be shown in theaters, and would be more watchable if it had a Taylor Swift soundtrack.

How I felt about it. At the time of release, The Big Parade was regarded as anti-war. At one point, Jimmy exclaims in despair over his dead buddy , "What the hell do we get out of this war anyway!" Another pointed moment occurs when the "big parade" is in reverse, and a stream of Army trucks convey the dead and wounded from the front.

Still, this movie is no All Quiet on the Western Front, since that film is all anti-war sentiment, while The Big Parade includes much gung-ho bravado. A malevolent German airplane is shot down, to the presumed satisfaction of the theater audience, who can also relish the demise of the German sniper picked off by Karl Dane and the German machine gun nests blown to kingdom come by well placed American grenades.

The moral, then, is mixed. War is hell, but the Kaiser's evil henchmen get theirs, thanks to our Red, White, and Blue heroes. The other moral, the one that sold the greater tickets, is much more crystal clear: true love conquers all. Melisande will run for ages with her arms wide open to embrace Jimmy just once more, and in the finale, her eagle eyes can also spot her Jimmy from a mile away, even though he is the least likely character to emerge on the distant horizon.

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