Blu-ray Review: The Big Parade

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One of the greatest commercial successes of the silent film era, The Big Parade (1925) has been granted a 4K digital restoration and issued for the first time on Blu-ray. The World War I epic was directed by King Vidor (with an uncredited sequence helmed by uncredited George W. Hill) and follows three very different U.S. Army recruits. Jim (John Gilbert) is the lazy son of a rich man. Slim (Karl Dane) is a construction worker who provides a great deal of comic mugging (exceptionally dated, stylistically, by modern standards) during the first half of the 150-minute film. Rounding out the trio of friends is a bartender named Bull (Tom O’Brian).

The film is divided into roughly two halves, the first of which takes its time to carefully establish the characters, leading into a lengthy sequence after they’ve been deployed to France. There’s some lighthearted clowning around (some of it centered on stale cakes that have been shipped to the “doughboys”—the WWI-era term for G.I.s—from home) and a healthy dose of romance. Jim, despite his engagement back home to Justyn (Claire Adams), falls in love with French farmgirl Melisande (Renée Adorée). The tone shifts abruptly for the final hour, when the troops march into action.

Big Parade old poster (199x300).jpgThe staging of the war footage still impresses for its verisimilitude, grittily brutal nearly 90 years later (not in the sense of explicit violence, but rather in the overall sense of authenticity of the mise-en-scène). John Arnold’s cinematography is black-and-white, but some sequences were tinted, either blue (generally to signify nighttime) or sepia (for some interior-set scenes). I’m not so sure the tinting was necessary, except maybe as an attention-getting gimmick upon the film’s original release. The stark, unaltered black-and-white looks best, especially during the daylight battle footage. Bringing to mind Steven Spielberg’s decades-later usage of a child’s red coat in the otherwise B&W Schindler’s List, the cross painted on a medic’s vehicle is brilliant red (the film’s only usage of item-specific color).

Most anyone interested in an 88-year-old silent film will be interested in the state of its audio/visual presentation. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Warner Bros. presentation is jaw-dropping. Rarely have I seen a film from this period so magnificently restored. The image is clean, sharp, and free of just about any age-related damage. Some shots exhibit a faint flicker. Some are notably grainier and/or soft-focus than others. Very occasionally, a shot skips due to a frame or two missing. But by and large, this is a staggeringly good restoration. The DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix offers a lossless presentation of Carl Davis’ score. Davis was commissioned (sometime in the ‘80s, it seems) to compose new music for The Big Parade

Commentary by a film historian can immeasurably assist in one’s appreciation of an older film, especially from the silent era. Jeffrey Vance provides just that, skillfully guiding viewers through the two-and-a-half hour running time. Portions of the film will undoubtedly try the patience of many who aren’t accustomed to the very different rhythms of a silent film. In a stroke of genius, the late director King Vidor is also present on the commentary through the use of vintage audio recordings. Vidor passed in 1982, but these comments sound remarkably like a modern commentary track and blend seamlessly with Vance’s comments. Warner has also thrown in a half-hour vintage short, “1925 Studio Tour,” that is basically a promo piece for MGM (the studio that originally produced The Big Parade).

If all that weren’t enough, the Blu-ray is housed in hardcover book that includes tons of information about the film and its principal participants. Some of the essays are new, while others are reprinted material from the film’s initial promotional campaign. Easily on par with any other restored release of the era, The Big Parade on Blu-ray is a valuable film history lesson.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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