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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

We’re number two! Thoughts on the Big Parade

We’re number two! Thoughts on the Big Parade

George Seminara

During the silent era, there were two big films! Massive films! Two movies earned such impressive money at the box office that most films pale in comparison. The exact figure isn't known, but it's a safe bet that both of these pictures earned over six million dollars at the box office. That's right, Six Million Simoleons! Six million smackers - more! We don't know exactly how much money because that's Hollywood bookkeeping for you.

The first and probably more successful film of this pair of box office titans is Birth of a Nation. Too much has been written about it, talked about it, thought about it. Yes, it's racist. Yes, it's also great. Should society bury it in a hole and pretend it doesn't exist? Absolutely not. It's an essential film for cinema and an important document for American history. Beyond that, I don't give a rat's ass about it or the controversy. The other half of the silent movie Boffo Box Office winners is The Big Parade.

In the aftermath of World War One, the world was in recovery mode. As a nation, we were coming to grips with the realities of the worst war the world had ever seen. And the art created during this time was reflexive of the experience. Author and former Marine Laurence Stallings lost a leg in the Trenches of France. He almost lost a leg in the trenches of France but begged the doctors not to amputate it. After two painful years in rehab at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital, he slipped on the ice in the late winter of 1921 and had to have the already damaged limb amputated above the knee.

His war experience led him to write a fictionalized memoir, Plumes. The book became a massive best-seller with more than eight printings within its first year of publication. It was, of course, adapted by Hollywood. King Vidor a legend and prodigious filmmaker who was nominated five times by the academy and was ultimately given a lifetime achievement Oscar for his 70-year career and over sixty feature films. Some of you might have encountered the original version of, The Champ, the genuine masterpiece Duel in the Sun, or maybe his bloated epic, Solomon and Sheba.

One of the great leading men of the silent era, John Gilbert, was cast to play the lead. After only Rudolf Valentino, he was the silent era's second biggest romantic lead. He appeared in over 100 films we know of and worked as a writer and director. Gilbert is a tragic figure in film history because of his inability to transition to talking pictures successfully. There are rumors galore that his voice was squeaky, high-pitched, and he had a lisp. None of which was true. He was a capable actor, writer, and director who was done in by studio politics, fame, and the demon rum. In the film, Singing in the Rain, there is a parody of the first nail in Gilbert's coffin. He was a leading man, but early scripts were half-baked at best and making a silent costume drama a talky was probably not the best idea. In 1929s His Glorious Night, there is a relatively lengthy scene of him kissing his leading lady repeatedly while saying, "I love you. I love you. I love you." The scene would play in a silent movie but provoked giggles in a talky. He began to drink heavily, his health shot, and he died of a heart attack. Skip His Glorious Night and enjoy Singing in the Rain.

Now you know two cents about John Gilbert. His co-star was Renée Adorée, an actual French girl playing a French girl. Go figure. She was an acrobat and dancer and could do both on an unsaddled horse riding around the circus ring at high speed. Cool. In the Big Parade, she plays Melisande, the poor little French girl and the romantic object of John Gilbert's aspirations. Ms. Adorée was well on her way to success in talking pictures when she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1933.

There are other actors and storylines, but at its heart, The Big Parade is a love story against a background of war and destruction. James Epperson (Gilbert), a spoiled rich kid, is forced to sign up by his father and friends and ships out. In Basic Training, he becomes pals with a Souther Hay-Seed, Slim, played by Karl Dane (a Danish comedian), and a Bronx tough guy of Irish extraction, Bull, Played by Tom O'Brien. (The Irish stereotype was, like many others, a trope of early cinema.) The three guys get to France, and they all put the moves on the lovely Melisande.

Of course, she warms to Gilbert's character. James offers her a piece of chewing gum in the big comic scene. Melisande is unfamiliar with the practice, and he shows her what to do with it. Melisande promptly chews and swallows it. Oh, boy, was that funny! My ribs hurt! This film is almost 100 years old, back then it was funny. Anyway, the three pals get shot in no man's land. Slim and Bull die, but James survives at the cost of his leg and a cigarette. He worries about Melisande as her town is where the most intense fighting is. He sneaks out of the hospital but cannot find her. Oh no! He collapses. Back home, he is miserable. He tells his mother that he loves Melisande. She encourages him to go to France and find her. He does. They meet, and it's one hell of a reunion. We know that true love has triumphed!

Now that I have gutted this film, that is still a vital reflection on the cost of war on a human level. Let me touch on that part of the film - briefly. The Big Parade is a war film that wears its heart on its sleeve. It contains some incredible battle sequences shot in and around Los Angeles, parts that are now Griffith Park, which continues to be a trendy location to film in even today. The complexities of the conflict, as seen from the viewpoint of the common soldier, are riveting. It speaks to the true-life experience of our one-legged author Laurence Stallings, who lent that authenticity to several other films and collaboration with Our Town playwright Maxwell Anderson for Broadway's What Price Glory? Which was so successful neither man ever needed to work a regular job again.

About the cast, John Gilbert died young, Renée Adorée died young, Karl Dane took his own life and died young, and Tom O'Brien died at 56, younger than me, so he died young too. (Damn! How did I get this old?) This high mortality rate was one of the tragedies of the silent era. Drink, Drugs, and the lack of antibiotics, basically wiped out a generation of film people who deserve remembrance. The Big Parade is a great silent movie, well worth the viewing.

I include several production images to show some little elements of making a film in those days. You came to work in a suit. No man's look was complete without a hat. That's Director King Vidor lording over the set. (And yes, that is his real name) Making a film was just like working on wall street. However, many crew members were in shirt sleeves, and I guarantee their jackets, ties, and hats were nearby, also, on the reverse of Melisandre and James canoodling in the dirt. In the far background, behind the camera and Mr. Vidor, you can see the small development buildings of what will one day be Los Angeles.

This year, for whatever reason, The Big Parade will be presented across the country on the big screen in the last vestiges of revival houses. In August, at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York. It is also on TCM, but it goes off as soon as I recommend it on that network. But it will come back, fortitude and patience.

On an interesting note, for me anyway, the film was primarily shot with a single Mitchell camera. Note the Mickey Mouse ears on the magazine. (That's where the film is.) However, two cameras are used in one scene to shoot James and Melisande chewing gum by the river. The oddly shaped object on the tripod is an Akeley Pancake camera. It's a revolutionary design, and its light weight made it perfect for use at hard-to-get-to locations. The "pancake" camera was used mostly to photograph wildlife and travelogue films. Its inventor was the Father of Modern Taxidermy, Karl Akeley. Okay, in New York's Museum of natural history, filled with dead animals. Amongst other corpses, it features an actual herd of Elephants standing in the center of the grand room. It is known as Akeley Hall. Karl Akeley's art is in many museums across the untied States. He developed the camera to allow his friends (and animal murderers), Film Maker and photographers Martin and Osa Johnson, to film gorillas in the high mountains of what was then known as the Belgian Congo, now Rwanda. Why they are using it here, on The Big Parade, I don't know. The camera never caught on, but the Arriflex Corporation of Germany would eventually expand upon its unique magazine system.

Karl Akeley died in the Virunga mountains of dysentery. More on the Johnsons in the future.

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