Wednesday, September 21, 2016

No Audio Audient: The Big Parade

This is the ninth in my 2016 monthly series watching silent films.

I didn't intend to choose a three-hour-and-eight-minute movie as my September choice for No Audio Audient. But once again, the ineffable running times of silent films have come in to play. Wikipedia says King Vidor's 1925 film The Big Parade is supposed to run for 141 minutes. Unfortunately, the two different copies available on YouTube ran at lengths that were not that. The shorter, and therefore seemingly more palatable, was 116 minutes. The longer, and frankly unimaginable that I would actually sit through, was 188 minutes. The fact that there was a second on there that was 187 minutes seemed to lend legitimacy to this as the more standard version, but I started to watch the 116-minute version anyway. I'm just a working dad with other priorities, after all.

Fortunately, this working dad is also right in the middle of school holidays, a time of year in which there is far less to do at his job. So little to do that one can watch a bit of a movie here and there while at work, if one does not feel too guilty about it and if the movie is available through a site like YouTube. So when the 116-minute version was improperly framed, leaving an unviewable area around all sides of the image, and even preventing a complete reading of the title cards, I switched over to the three-hour version. I thought, maybe this is really the 141-minute version and there are some additional 45 minutes of tangentially related content tacked on to the end.

It wasn't the case, but in the end I didn't care. I damn near loved this movie.

I knew nothing about it going in. In fact, only from the YouTube description -- "A young American soldier witnesses the horrors of the Great War" -- did I even know it was a movie about World War I. Indeed, it now seems to be to be one of the great sweeping wartime romances I've ever seen.

But first let me tell you how I even came to the movie in the first place.

Its director, King Vidor, directed a movie that I loved, that I now feel like I might love in spite of myself. That's 1949's The Fountainhead, an adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel. When I watched it, I had only a dim sense of who Rand was, and nothing of her political proclivities. That's probably just as well, because if I love a movie, I don't want preconceived notions of its political intentions mucking it up. I'd like to think that a good movie is a good movie is a good movie. I'd like to think that even if Rush Limbaugh made a really great movie I would recognize it as such, without Limbaugh's idiocy tarnishing it before I even got a chance to judge it.

So when I heard Vidor's name come up in an episode of the podcast You Must Remember This that was dedicated to John Gilbert, I decided to throw the related movie on to my list of films to watch this year. The movie was, of course, The Big Parade, in which Gilbert stars. The episode was devoted to talk about Gilbert's uneasy transition to talkies, as Jean Dujardin's character in The Artist is often thought of as based on Gilbert. In truth, we learn, studio politics had more to due with his decline than his inability to work with his voice, and, poor guy, he was dead of a heart attack by 36.

In this movie, Gilbert plays a spoiled rich kid who learns about responsibility by deciding to enlist in the Great War. That decision seems a bit strange for his character -- he's accused by his parents of being a layabout, and really, he is -- but you should never discount the infectious power of a parade. It's during such a display of patriotism and American righteousness in its cause in the war that Gilbert's Jim Apperton feels his toe start tapping, and undergoes the realization that it's his duty to serve his country. Leaving behind a girl next door who is for all intents and purposes his fiancee, he ships off to France with two from his same city that he befriends, a bartender named Bull (Tom O'Brien) and a riveter named Slim (Karl Dane), and begin the long wait for action in a small town called Champillon. (And I mean long -- these sequences consume well over an hour of the movie.) There he falls for a local girl, Melisande (Renee Adoree), despite the fact that neither understand a word the other is saying. Their relationship develops through a number of cute set pieces before Jim and co. are finally called to the front.

Two things about The Big Parade immediately disarmed me and put me at ease. The first was the straightforward approach to the material. The silent movies I've seen this year can be divided into roughly two categories: comedies, and films directed by D.W. Griffith. There have been a few others of course, so I'm exaggerating, but the point is that the dramas I've watched have seemed represented by Griffith. Griffith, I now realize, is incapable of being straightforward, at least not in his title cards. One of the annoying things about the two Griffith movies I saw were the flowery title cards, which seemed written with abstraction in mind. I now realize that my mind started to wander a bit because Griffith was more interested in trying to be poetic than tell a story. These title cards, on the other hand, were all business. They establish the characters, move the plot, and deliver you where you need to be. I felt like I was in good hands.

The other thing I noticed was how well Vidor uses nascent film grammar. I may be giving him too much credit -- I mean, people had been making sophisticated narrative films for ten years by then -- but I really appreciated the editing, how nicely shots continued on action, how fluidly the narrative was conveyed. He made effective use of the rare zoom or tracking shot, close-ups were employed correctly, and overall, the film just flows.

After moving pretty quickly in its first 20 minutes, though, the movie slows waaaaaay down. It became easy to see how a 116-minute version of this movie could exist without basically losing anything. I began to wonder how much of the material I was watching was considered unnecessary for later cuts. Rather than losing individual scenes, though, I imagined it would have been easy to compress them, just by shorting shots that were 45 seconds to 25, by cutting scenes that lasted seven minutes to three. Or scenes that lasted 15 minutes to seven.

All this said, the fat was lovely. It meant I got to spend more time with the swoony romance between Jim and Melisande. In these scenes I felt like I was discovering both of these actors, because, well, I was. I'm not conscious of having seen a John Gilbert film before, and though Renee Adoree has a certain "1920s silent actress appearance" that in some ways makes her interchangeable with numerous others, something about her really distinguished herself to me. Appropriately for her last name, I simply adored her (and was sad later on to learn that she also died young, of complications from tuberculosis, at only 33). The two of them together made me pleased as pie, and by spending so long with them, their terrific parting scene surely had more emotional weight for me.

So let's talk about that scene. Jim and company are finally moved out to the front, though he and Melisande have already unwillingly parted because she finds out about his fiancee at home. (And I should pause to mention that for a moment -- as lovely as all their scenes are together, you can never forget that Jim is essentially cheating on a devoted love interest at home, one who has sent him multiple letters and a cake she baked. This does get resolved in satisfactory fashion by the end, but I was never comfortable with the idea that he was stepping out on her, and that detail surely would not have made it into the movie if it were being made today. Either that or the love interest at home would be an obvious harpy he was too decent to dump.)

Sorry, got distracted there. The convoys are shipping out of Champillon and Melisande rushes out to try to find Jim. It seems hopeless as troops and trucks are flowing by in impossible numbers, a barely controlled chaotic military sea in which it will be impossible to find her one fish. The look of stress and desperation on her face as she searches for him is priceless. When they do finally connect, they pour affection atop each other and have to be drawn apart by other soldiers. I'm getting chills just writing about it now, it's so damn romantic. She hangs on to his leg as the truck is pulling away, then on to a chain hanging off the back of the truck. I suppose something like that could almost be played for comedy, but in this moment it totally works. He blows kisses and tosses her two different trinkets to remember him by, promising to return. She finally stops and just looks after him. An hour later, she's still rooted to the spot, though slumped down on her knees now, as the streets are empty.

This kicked off my favorite section of the movie, which also includes an incredible first battle sequence while walking through the woods. I was really impressed by how well the battle sequences are filmed here, especially this first one. Unfortunately, the film does slow down again considerably in its last hour, particularly during one scene where the three buddies are tasked with the responsibility of trying to take out a German machine gun post. There's some nice stuff in these scenes -- the bonds between the three men are also conveyed wonderfully -- but it does slow things down again. I was impressed, though, by how a movie that had been largely amiable to this point took a genuinely darker turn in the end.

The movie really has it all, the horrors of war promised in the YouTube synopsis and plenty of light set pieces, some of which almost play like Chaplin or Keaton -- particularly the scene where Jim and Melisande meet, and he's peering at her through a hole in a bucket over his head. Three hours of Griffith were not a joy for me to watch, but I'll watch three hours of The Big Parade any day.

I should mention also the music. Although this was obviously not the same music that was used when the film was played in theaters, it became sort of an essential component to my viewing, as trumpets and cannon blasts and the like were incorporated into the score in time with the images. I had considered watching the movie without music because I was at work for part of it, and having an ear bud in your ear tends to draw attention, even if people can't see your screen. But I was really glad I listened to the music, because it helped sweep me up in scenes like Jim and Melisande's parting.

Okay! We've finally reached the one month in this series where I knew which film I'd be watching way back when I started. For Halloween I will be watching Victor Sjostrom's The Phantom Carriage from 1921. Not only does it make a good themed viewing for the month of October, but I think it's also the first foreign-made silent film I've watched for this series (Sweden).

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