THE BIG PARADE
Warner Home Video; Blu-ray, $27.98; DVD, $14.97; not rated
At this moment, there’s probably no better way of dispelling the tiresome myth that silent films were technically and dramatically crude than by directing skeptics to the radiant new Blu-ray of “The Big Parade” from Warner Home Video.
Directed by King Vidor and released by MGM in November 1925, this tale of three buddies caught up in The Great War was one of the most financially successful films of the era. It played for almost two years in New York and enjoyed similar success worldwide.
Today, the film remains a heartfelt but shrewdly judged blend of comedy, romance, action and tragedy – a movie that perfectly embodies the Hollywood ideal of providing something to appeal to every member of what, in the 1920s, was a public unsevered by demographic categories.
“The Big Parade” also happens to be one of the relatively few silent features for which the original negative still exists. That’s something of a miracle, since the more popular a film was, the more likely it is to have come down to us in compromised versions. It was common for projection prints to be made from the film that passed through the camera, which resulted in copies of great brilliance and detail.
But as those camera negatives were reused, they gradually disintegrated, which meant new prints could only be made by duplicating old prints. The result was a loss of contrast and definition, and the transfer of dirt and scratches from one generation to the next. What remains can often seem a dim, jittery, striated mess, often projected at the wrong speed. Such were the “flickers” so many people encountered on television.
“The Big Parade,” in this new edition, looks nearly as fresh and fully dimensional as a vintage print by photographers Walker Evans or Berenice Abbott.
Just three months shy of his 32nd birthday, when “The Big Parade” had its premiere in Los Angeles, Vidor was not much older than the cinema itself – a young man working in a young art form. Like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, Vidor was a member of the first generation to grow up with movies as an established narrative form rather than as a tent-show novelty. With this generation came the first hints of self-consciousness in regard to style; the problem was no longer how to tell a story but how to tell a story in your own voice.
“The Big Parade” follows a formula that is now familiar, if only because it has been imitated so often. The three main characters are drawn from different walks of life: Bull (Tom O’Brien) is an Irish bartender from the Bowery; Slim (Karl Dane) is a Scandinavian immigrant driving rivets atop New York skyscrapers; and Jim (John Gilbert) is a Long Island lounge lizard and mama’s boy, who lives in fear of his stern father (Hobart Bosworth). When the U.S. enters World War I in 1917, the men are swept up by patriotic fervor and deposited in a dusty training camp. Vidor skips over the training scenes that would later form the basis of so many military comedies, rushing his heroes straight to war-torn France, where they are billeted in Champillon, a village in the Marne.
And then, nothing. For its first half, “The Big Parade” is essentially a romantic comedy. Here, amid the mud and muck of rural France, they are brought into contact with the great transformative force of Vidor’s films: nature, in all of its sprawling, sensual beauty, poking its way into every scene and every shot.
The embodiment of that natural vitality is Melisande (Rene Adore), the wide-hipped peasant girl who captures Jim’s attention.
The boys find themselves at Belleau Wood, part of a line of Marines marching, at a steady, solemn pace, always from right to left, through a devastated landscape that is the hellish inversion of Champillon. Nature is now the vehicle of death, as snipers fire from the top of birch trees, poison gas rolls out over the fields, and the earth erupts, as shells land from all sides.
That Jim and Melisande will be reunited goes without saying.
The power and delicacy with which that reunion is staged is what movies are for. Spoken dialogue would only be an intrusion in a scene as precisely visualized as this, as Melisande recognizes a distant figure hobbling up a hillside, and realizes, against all reason and experience, that her lover has come back to her. It is a perfect silent-movie moment, overflowing with emotions that are bigger than speech.
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