Big Parade, The (Blu-ray Review)14 Oct, 2013 By: Mike Clark
$14.97 DVD, $27.98 Blu-ray
Stars John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Karl Dane.
Befitting the movie that put MGM at the top of the map both economically and artistically for nearly a quarter-century, a 4K The Big Parade on Blu-ray is the format’s best silent treatment I’ve seen to date along with the All-Region import of F.W. Murnau’s City Girl. I’m told that Criterion’s recent rendering of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, which I haven’t yet seen, is in this ballpark as well, but I can reliably tout that an 88-year-old film that looks this good in a home format will be a no-argument revelation to many.
Filmed just a handful of years after the end of World War I, Parade was written (uncredited) by What Price Glory?’s Laurence Stallings, who’d lost a leg at Belleau Wood — an experience that finds its echo in the movie at hand, though let’s not get ahead of the story or into spoilers. We can argue over whether it beats The Crowd for the title of director King Vidor’s best, though I (with Vidor) much prefer the latter, which is my favorite silent Hollywood drama (with Murnau’s Sunrise probably excepted). But it is without too much argument the foremost screen achievement of lead John Gilbert, whose semi-bewildering fall from superstar grace and premature death have been chronicled again and again (though hating Louis B. Mayer as much as he did probably puts him on the side of the angels).
Gilbert plays a regular rich-kid joe (or dad, at least, seems to be loaded) who surprises everyone by enlisting in the army after getting caught up in the fervor of a patriotic parade, a motif that continues throughout the film and makes the title especially honest. From here, he’s thrust into France to discover the horrors of war and (fleetingly) even amour — the latter in the form of a village girl played by the impossibly named Renee Adoree, whose chewing gum scene with Gilbert is so famous that I read about it as a kid. But there are other famous set pieces here as well, including a perilous trek through the woods which, as with other sequences as well, was brilliantly choreographed to music during shooting by Vidor when a lot of people thought he was going bonkers.
Warner has gone all out with this 64-page Digipak release, starting with liner notes by Mr. Eminence himself: Kevin Brownlow. The 2½-hour commentary predominantly by historian Jeffrey Vance is very well prepared, artfully shoehorning in four fairly lengthy interview excerpts that Vidor gave later in his life (he was famously lucid well into his twilight years). A lot of detail is given over to the latter’s disagreements with technical advisors who wanted him to do it “this way” and with Irving Thalberg’s interference (obviously not fatal to the picture) that included a late and admittedly spectacular battle sequence — shot, in fact, by future A-lister George Hill — that was inconsistent with the look of the rest.
Vance is outstanding at covering the detailed bios of many actors here, though he might have mentioned that Gilbert’s last two performances — in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina and Lewis Milestone’s The Captain Hates the Sea — are easily good enough to refute the onetime common wisdom that the actor couldn’t have ever made it in the talkies. Ten years and change after Parade, MGM’s biggest male star of the silent era was dead at 38 of a heart attack, making it a movie that was in some way jinxed. Adoree died at 35 of tuberculosis, while Karl Dane (whose comic relief was a key component of Parade’s success) was dead by suicide by the mid-1930s as well.