The Big Parade, released 5 November 1925, is one of the all-time greatest films of the silent era, which I was thrilled to finally get to add to my master list at #928. It’s astonishing I had to wait that many years and that far into the list, since it wasn’t released on DVD till 2013, and when TCM finally broadcast it a few years before that, it was the first time they’d ever played it since I’d begun watching in 2004.
The film stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, neither of whom were long for this world. Jack passed away at only 40, and Renée was only 35. It’s really criminal how Louis B. Mayer (someone I have no kind words for) sabotaged dear Jack’s career in the early sound era and indirectly led to all those problems contributing to his early death. Jack had a lovely voice, and it really angers me when people perpetuate the easily-debunked lie about how he had a horrible voice and was a total failure in the sound era. This old myth is even perpetuated in Singin’ in the Rain.
Jack is one of my favorite male actors, and I named my Critter Piller (a neck pillow shaped like a dog) after him. I highly recommend his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain’s biography of him, Dark Star.
The film is based on Plumes, an autobiographical novel by Laurence Stallings, and its subsequent stage version by Joseph Farnham. In 1925, World War I was only seven years in the past, as compared to today, when it’s largely a forgotten war. World War II and Vietnam seem to be the most commonly depicted wars.
The film opens in 1917, the day the U.S. finally joins the war, and introduces us to Jim Apperson (Jack), an idle playboy; Bull O’Hara, a Bowery bartender; and Slim Jensen, a construction worker. Jim, our hero, tells his mother there’s no way he’s enlisting, but his fiancée, the oddly-named Justyn, has other ideas. When Jim bumps into some friends by a parade, he’s moved to enlist.
Jim’s father, who has no idea what just happened, rakes Jim over the coals for being lazy and useless, and says he’ll kick him out of the house if he doesn’t enlist or do something for the war effort like his brother Harry. When Justyn comes in, Jim is compelled into spilling the beans, and his father instantly changes his tune.
During basic training, Jim makes friends with Bull and Slim. Slim is played by Karl Dane, a silent star who also met a sad, premature end.
When Jim’s unit ships out, they’re stationed at a farm in Champillon, France, in the Marne. The three friends fall in instalove with Mélisande, the daughter of the woman who owns the farm. Mélisande rebuffs their advances, but she gradually starts to like Jim, in spite of neither knowing the other’s language. Their courtship is so cute and sweet, a refreshing contrast to modern films where couples often fall into bed immediately.
One day, Mélisande comes across Jim after he’s read his latest letter from Justyn. Mélisande quickly realizes the truth when she sees Justyn’s picture, and runs away in tears after kissing Jim goodbye. Jim has no time to decide how to fix the situation, since his unit is ordered to the front. When Mélisande hears all the noise, she runs back, desperately searching for Jim. They find one another in time to kiss and embrace goodbye, and have to be physically separated more than once. Their goodbye is one of the most famous scenes of the silent era.
I won’t spoil anything which happens after this point, but suffice it to say, it’s a harrowing, realistic depiction of what it’s like to be in battle, on the front lines, in the trenches. War isn’t a game or a grand, glorious adventure. It’s a frightening situation, with every single moment a matter of life or death. In another famous scene, we see the so-called enemy isn’t that much different, just someone who happens to be fighting for another side he was led to believe was right. Soldiers are never the ones who decide to make war.
The Big Parade was the second-biggest blockbuster of the silent era, with 18–22 million dollars all totaled. I’m thrilled it’s finally available on DVD, and remain baffled at how such an important film wasn’t properly released years earlier.
Every single second of this film is absolutely perfect, and I get chills thinking about many of the scenes. This definitely gets a 6 out of 5 stars.