Renee Adoree and John Gilbert meet.
The Big Parade, released just seven years after the armistice that ended the First World War, captured the imagination of the country with its potent combination of realism and romanticized nostalgia. It would become the highest grossing movie of the 1920’s and the second highest grossing silent movie after Griffith’s landmark Birth of a Nation. They would remain at the pinnacle until a little movie called Gone with the Wind would obliterate all previous box office records in 1939. Although both Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front are better remembered today, The Big Parade was far more popular during its time. At one Manhattan movie theater it ran for an astounding 96 consecutive weeks.
The movie stars John Gilbert as the spoiled son of a wealthy American family who gets caught up in the winds of war. He leaves behind the pretty girl next door and soon finds himself in the army marching across the French countryside. Many of the day to day trials and hardships of military life are shown. One day Gilbert rigs up an outdoor shower and as two of his platoon mates are showering he spots a lone French girl (played brilliantly by Renée Adorée) watching them in amusement. Thus begins a fateful wartime romance.
The final half hour or so has some well staged and exciting battle scenes of trench warfare. The most memorable scene, however, and one that you may be familiar with even if you have never heard of this movie, takes place when Gilbert’s platoon is called up to the front lines and he must say goodbye - for now at least - to his French lover. King Vidor masterfully directed this segment and it is one of the greatest 10 minutes in all of silent film.
First we see the lovers searching desperately for each other as the streets of the quaint French village fill with crowds of soldiers gathering and civilians rushing about saying goodbye. Finally the lovers spot each other, run to each other and exchange many passionate kisses. Tearfully they must say goodbye. Gilbert gets on a truck. She runs alongside, desperately, pleading with him not to go. She grabs his leg, then boot, then a chain hanging from the truck, until finally she lets go and collapses in the dust as dozens of soldiers pass her by without a glance. Vidor then shows a long shot of the big parade of soldiers disappearing into the distance. Then the final shot of the young peasant girl, still on her knees in the middle of the dirt road, only now she is all alone.
John Gilbert was a bigger star even than Rudolph Valentino in 1925. He was the undisputed king of the box office and would soon team with Greta Garbo and achieve even greater heights of success. We will never know if Valentino would have made the transition to the talkies because of his untimely death in 1926. Gilbert, however, had one of the most spectacular falls from the heavens of any great movie star. His high-pitched, somewhat nasally speaking voice did not fit his image. He would make only one memorable talking picture, Queen Christina in 1933 at the insistence of his old costar and one time lover, Greta Garbo. He died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 38.
The Big Parade represents a big part of his celluloid legacy.
Photos © Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (1925)