Favorite of the Month John Gilbert stars as James ‘Jim’ Apperson in the war drama, The Big Parade. This has to be one of the films John Gilbert is mostly remembered for. The film held a dual interest for me, for not only am I fascinated by silent film, I also have an interest in World War One. I was incredibly impressed and taken in by the characters and story line of The Big Parade. What interested me further was the fact that it was made when the horrors of The Great War were still very fresh in the minds of the people.
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The film won its place in The National Film Registry in 1992.
This is the highest grossing silent film ever. It made $22 million worldwide when released.
The gum chewing scene between Jim and Melisande (played by Renée Adorée) was ad-libbed. Adorée even swallowed the gum by surprise!
King Vidor lost out big time when he was talked into selling his take in the films profits. This was prior to him realising what a huge success the film was going to be.
MGM was loaned over 200 army trucks, 4,000 soldiers and over 100 airplanes to use for filming. All courtesy of the U.S War Department.
The film was based on the autobiographical novel Plumes written by Laurence Stallings.
The story begins just prior to America joining the war. James ‘Jim’ Apperson (John Gilbert), Slim Jensen (Karl Dane) and Michael “Bull” O’Hara (Tom O’Brien) are three men from very different backgrounds. But they form a great friendship when they all enlist to fight. These three men share the ups and downs of their experience including the peaceful times way behind the front line. But more prominently these men share the horrors of going into battle, the absolute uncertainty of the situation they will be faced with, the mustard gas, No Man’s Land, and death.
Life behind the lines in the village of Champillon starts off light-heartedly as the men make friends, and Jim even falls for a local French girl called Melisande (Renée Adorée). It’s wonderful to watch as Jim and Melisande fall in love and try to communicate despite a huge language barrier, but they manage by looking through a French dictionary together to try and find the correct phrases.
But Jim has a fiancé at home and is beginning to wonder what to do. When Melisande discovers Jim’s photograph of his fiancé Justyn Reed (Claire Adams), she is obviously broken-hearted but tries to act as if she understands. Suddenly the men are called up to the front and Melisande and Jim are desperate to find one another. Fortunately, they do, and Jim knows that Melisande is the one he really loves.
In battle, Jim, Slim and Bull fight side by side as they try to cross No Man’s Land. But as we all know this is something treacherously dangerous, and will result in the death of one of the trio.
The Big Parade is one to watch for so many reasons. In fact, I would recommend the film to those who wish to watch a silent film but do not know where to start. To begin with, the film is absolutely full of emotion, and not only has the power to make you cry, but also to laugh as there are scenes included where times were more peaceful way behind the enemy lines, and the men had a chance to have a laugh and make the most of things where they could.
The film captures so many aspects of The Great War. We see the initial reaction of Jim’s parents when they discover he has enlisted; pride on the part of the father and fiancé, and fear on the part of the mother. The enlisting parade itself shows how men were pulled into a feeling of elation and celebration at the prospect of going to war; fighting for a great cause, wearing a uniform and feeling important.
But the most prominent aspect of the film has to be the heart wrenching scenes of loved ones being separated, the battle across No Man’s Land, and the harsh reality of the fighting and confusion. John Gilbert gives an incredibly powerful and emotional performance as Jim. It’s no wonder The Big Parade is one of his most well remembered films.
Lest we forget.
Some photos courtesy of “DoctorMacro”