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The Big Parade: Blu-ray Book Review

The Big Parade (1925) movie poster The Big Parade

Theatrical Release: November 5, 1925 / Running Time: 151 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: King Vidor / Writers: Laurence Stallings (story), Harry Behn (scenario), Joseph W. Farnham (titles)

Cast: John Gilbert (Jim Apperson), Renée Adorée (Melisande), Hobart Bosworth (Mr. Apperson), Claire McDowell (Mrs. Apperson), Claire Adams (Justyn Reed), Robert Ober (Harry Apperson), Tom O'Brien (Corporal Michael Olysius "Bull" O'Hara), Karl Dane (Corporal "Slim" Jenson), Rosita Marstini (Melisande's Mother)

The groundbreaking classic of love and war, The Big Parade, makes its Blu-ray™ debut on October 1st!
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Runtimes varied wildly in the early days of feature films. Some movies, like the first efforts of Alfred Hitchcock, wrapped up in just over or under an hour. Others, like the best-remembered historical dramas of D.W. Griffith, approached or exceeded three hours. The 1925 silent The Big Parade occupies the big gap in between, running the two and a half hours you'd expect
a war drama to at least run today.

Big Parade opens in the spring of 1917 and introduces us to its three male leads. Most prominent of them is Jim Apperson (John Gilbert), a privileged young man with no need or desire to work. Jim's father (Hobart Bosworth), a mill mogul, gives him an ultimatum: start doing something with your life or get out of his house. So, the idler enlists in the Army, which is what his sweetheart Justyn (Claire Adams) wanted. That decision fills Mr. Apperson with pride and Mrs. Apperson (Claire McDowell) with motherly concern.

Though the world may be at war, Army life in France is a complete laugh for Jim and his two pals, the short and stocky bartender "Bull" O'Hara (Tom O'Brien) and the tall, odd-looking tobacco-spitting riveter "Slim" Jenson (Karl Dane). Several minutes are spent on a scene of Jim receiving and sharing a cake baked by Justyn which is impossible to cut.

This intertitle from the beginning of "The Big Parade" poetically reflects on the ebb and flow of patriotism. French farmer Melisande (Renée Adorée) points to the part of Jim Apperson (John Gilbert) she has won.

Such material is entertaining, but unexpected given the film's cover art and dramatic classification. However, dourness is not a desirable quality now, nor was it back then, when even serious films featured comedic elements. The silliness continues with the introduction of Melisande (Renée Adorée), a French farmer who catches Bull and Slim using the shower that Jim built from a barrel. Predating the production code, male posteriors are briefly seen from a distance.

Despite the language barrier, which is played for some of the film's sharpest laughs, Jim romances Melisande, catching a frog for her, introducing her to chewing gum, and fending off his hapless cronies. This seems to set up a long-distance love triangle, with unanswered letters from Justyn reminding Jim they are engaged to be married (which seems to be news to us and a slight nuisance to Jim). Clearly, though, his heart belongs to Melisande.

Thus, it is with a heavy heart that Jim and company get their orders to ship out around the 90-minute mark. They've had their fun and romance, now it's time for an hour of serious drama. Jim vows to return and throws some of his belongings to his love as he drives off. The change in tone is abrupt and final, as the guys head into the fighting zone on foot and take on German snipers and "Flying Fritzie".

Sorry to those expecting waving beauty queens, costumed performers, and giant balloons, but this is the big parade the title refers to, one it announces with -- no joke -- a card that reads "Men! Guns! Men! Guns! Men!" These battle scenes feel more akin to modern action cinema and while they may be the main event to historians and war buffs, they're also more routine and less entertaining for the average viewer.

Impervious to knives and difficult to break by hand as well, this stale cake based and sent by Jim's hometown sweetheart is of extended interest to the film. Comic relief duties are shared by Slim (Karl Dane) and Bull (Tom O'Brien), who cancel each other out here with one promoted and one demoted.

Although the runtime is substantial and the final hour is devoted largely to just a few small tastes of combat, The Big Parade doesn't lose its way. Some effort is required for the 21st century viewer to stay invested, but the film rewards that. While the execution is dated, the story and characters remain accessible 88 years later. Predictable and more or less inevitable, the resolution is also sincere and heartfelt.
And it is what American moviegoers, in the peacetime between world wars, wanted to see.

The Big Parade was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. It's easy to imagine this film winning major awards, too, if it hadn't predated the Academy Awards by two years. The World War I drama Wings, which would become the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar, is clearly cut from the same cloth and not quite as effectively. Director William Wellman reportedly studied this over the course of thirty viewings before making Wings. The Big Parade won the Photoplay Medal of Honor, the first significant annual movie honor and a precursor to Oscar that later occasionally aligned with the Academy's top prize. Parade made it into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry back in 1992, as part of the fourth crop of inductees.

With twelve years of credits to his name, director King Vidor was already an established quantity in 1925. The film was sold as much on his name as those of the two leads. Vidor would continue to direct regularly through the 1950s. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame is that he finished directing the sepia-toned Kansas scenes of The Wizard of Oz, whose sepia Kansas scenes he finished directing replacing, sans credit, Victor Fleming. An epic 1956 adaptation of War and Peace, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda was one of Vidor's last and best-known works. It yielded his fifth and final fruitless Best Director Oscar nomination, leaving him to accept an honorary award a few years before his 1982 death.

Leads Gilbert and Adorée, each a veteran of the silent movie scene, would have productive but somewhat short-lived film careers following this. Each struggled to make the transition to talkies and died in the 1930s in their thirties. Gilbert, a one-time leading draw, suffered from alcoholism, which contributed to two heart attacks in close proximity, the latter fatal. Adorée battled tuberculosis, spending two years flat on her back in an Arizona sanitarium to regain her health, only to leave the facility and die six months later.

The Big Parade is one of the bigger silents whose absence has been noted and lamented by classic film fans. The movie seems to have been unavailable since its last VHS release occurred sometime around the turn of the century. Warner Home Video corrected that this week, with brand new, overdue DVD and Blu-ray Book editions, the latter of which we review here.

Watch a clip from The Big Parade:

The Big Parade: Blu-ray Book cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
2.0 DTS-HD MA (Score)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish Castilian, Spanish Latin American
Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: October 1, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $27.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Hardcover Digibook
Also available on DVD ($14.97 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

It might surprise you to find The Big Parade is not presented entirely in black & white. Like some others from this era, the film employs color tinting, turning outdoor night scenes blue and inside ones golden. It's a nifty touch to distinguish time and settings. The perfect preservation of that technique is one of many causes for celebration regarding this breathtaking Blu-ray presentation.

Upholding the film's original 1.37:1 Academy Ratio, this transfer is nothing short of stunning, with or without considering its age. The element is impossibly pristine and steady. The sharp intertitle cards, which also take on the tinting, look like they've just been printed. There's even one shot in which an ambulance's cross is seemingly hand-painted red (an effect tantamount to that girl's coat in Schindler's List).
Apart from a few grainy shots of combat, the element is entirely void of imperfections, something that defies everything you know about old films' modest production and storage methods.

The film's motion is a tad jerky, the product of hand-cranked cameras not capturing life exactly as it occurred. But you can tell every effort has been taken to make playback as smooth and dynamic as possible, while remaining true to the source. Missing frames and potential inconsistencies are ironed out and the frames are kept perfectly in place to heighten fluidity. I've been impressed with a few 1920s movies on Blu-ray, but this presentation ranks among the very best.

The fact that The Big Parade is a silent film actually gives us more than usual to say about its soundtrack. The film is treated to a score composed by Carl Davis in the 1980s and performed by the English Chamber Orchestra. This suitable score is presented in a rich and full-bodied 2.0 DTS-HD master audio track. It makes repeated use of variations on "The Band Played On" and "You're in the Army Now", enduring tunes that complement onscreen action and are even fitted with some original on-screen lyrics. The score even simulates sound effects at times: work whistles, gunfire, and explosions, a technique that's apparently true to what was done for certain big films back then. Optional subtitles translate the intertitles into French and two kinds of Spanish.

Still photographers proudly pose by their cameras in MGM's "1925 Studio Tour." The Big Parade's original theatrical trailer sets expectations sky high with its opening claim.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's extras begin with an audio commentary by historian Jeffrey Vance "and director King Vidor." Though Vidor passed away just over thirty years ago, he is included via four excerpts of his oral history recorded for the Director's Guild. Vance's screen-specific chat provides the bulk of the track and reveals him to be a fountain of information, about this film, its every maker, and even a little bit about World War I. He points out trims Vidor made, scenes he shot multiple times, a revision made for the film's 1930s reissue,
Los Angeles filming locations, and so on. Fans of the film will appreciate all that Vance has to say about it and the chance to hear Vidor reflect on the movie from beyond the grave.

Next up is 1925 Studio Tour (31:59, SD), an invaluable inclusion. This featurette provides a tour of MGM Studios, making it seemingly one of the first extended behind-the-scenes looks at filmmaking. After a brief, first-person tour of the grounds, we come to pay notice to the assorted departments that form this efficient, self-contained empire. Photographed and their work described in intertitles are writers, directors, actors, casting, extras, wardrobe, cameramen, still photographers, production manager, drafting and construction, orchestra, the power house, lighting, dancers, film lab, publicity, and the studio barbershop, restaurant, and hospital. What a great and perfectly relevant find this proud portrait of MGM is; Warner's archives must be a veritable treasure trove. The only minor drawback to this fascinating throwback is that it's completely silent and though that's okay, it seemingly wouldn't have been shown without some kind of live music, so a basic score might have been nice.

Also presented without sound of any kind is The Big Parade's original trailer (2:29, SD), which unfolds with text screens on their own and over clips. The most fundamental and essential extra all films should get, I wish Warner and other studios were better about including trailers on their new films.

The Blu-ray's basic menu repositions cover art elements. The Digibook that holds The Big Parade's Blu-ray features essays and reproductions of vintage marketing.

The plain silent, static menu adapts the cover artwork to fill the 16:9 screen.
Though not authored to set bookmarks, the Blu-ray kindly resumes playback to the same extent a DVD does.

The Big Parade's Blu-ray is held in a Digibook, stylish packaging that Warner has treated many of their classics to. The disc, whose label also nicely adapts the cover art, is held in a plastic hub on the final page of a terrific 64-page hardcover book. A smidge taller, wider, and thicker than a standard Blu-ray case, this handsomely illustrated book includes a tremendously-researched essay on the film's creation by Kevin Brownlow. It touches on many specifics of development, production, and reception, supplies brief biographies of key cast members, reflects on to the addition of Carl Davis' score and discusses the film's restoration from an unearthed original negative. The book concludes with reproductions of original marketing and press materials, including a synopsis, bios and an interview of Vidor.

U.S. Army soldiers Bull (Tom O'Brien), Jim (John Gilbert), and Slim (Karl Dane) hold a spitting contest to determine who among them gets to leave the trench to check out the situation.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The long trip back to 1925 needed to see The Big Parade will discourage some from checking this World War I drama out, but approaching its 90th anniversary, it remains an enjoyable trip worth taking. Dated stylistically, the film nonetheless holds your interest with comedy and romance elements that give way to slightly less scintillating war action without losing you.

It took Warner a long time to put The Big Parade on a five-inch disc, but the Blu-ray's dazzling restoration proves it was clearly worth the wait. Add to it a great handful of bonus features and the wonderful book and you have what is likely one of the strongest silent movie releases of this year and maybe any year.

Buy The Big Parade from Amazon.com: Blu-ray Book / DVD

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Paths of GlorySunset BoulevardWar HorseCavalcadeThe Great GatsbyHugo

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Reviewed October 3, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1925 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 2013 Warner Home Video.
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