28. The Big Parade

The Big Parade vlcsnap-2015-12-27-15h15m58s192.pngNovember 5, 1925
MGM
Directed by King Vidor

The Big Parade is the second war movie in this story, following The Birth of a Nation, and is the only movie in the Silent Age as financially successful. Its budget of $380,000 cost MGM a third as much as Greed and a tenth as much as Ben-Hur, but outstripped both those movies in profit and proved the major triumph the movie factory needed. Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had created something that, for an initial investment, would make money forever. No one could deny they were both geniuses.

The best scene in the movie is at the beginning of the second half. After spending the first half billeted in a French village and making life bearable for themselves, they are called to the front. After being transported by truck and strafed by enemy planes, they begin the real “big parade” – no proud march but a cautious tread through a forest with corpses on the ground, snipers in the trees, and machine gunners in remote trenches. As suspenseful as it is, the violence always happens at what seems to be an appropriate place and time. The shots and cuts are as even and rhythmic as the steps in a parade. There’s no sense of chaos, or even confusion. Slim dies only after executing a risky maneuver and in general acting like his life is already forfeit. Jim is wounded only after cursing the leaders and making the fateful decision to go after his friend.

As the first title reminds us, this was a movie made with the full support of the U.S. military. The footage filmed from airplanes with the land below in sparkling clarity must have inspired countless viewers to want to be a pilot. But this isn’t the militaristic propaganda of Top Gun. This is a movie about soldiers suffering and dying for a vague cause of “patriotism” that they obviously don’t understand.

But even as we see the senseless suffering, this is not really an anti-war film. War is hell, but there are opportunities for heroism. If not political heroism where one suffers for a country or cause, then at least where one can do good for his comrade. He can save his brother and even sacrifice for his brother. Actually, war provides the ideal situation for a man to show just how far he will go for his brothers. In his foxhole, Jim offers a cigarette to his German victim and refuses to kill him – focusing the entire conflict onto a relation between two humans. And at the end of the scene, it is the heroic action and sacrifice of Jim, Bull, and Slim that allows the Allies to advance through several lines, reproducing on a micro level the vital contribution of the United States to the end of the stalemate on the Western Front.

In The Big Parade, the individual is all. We see the war through the experience of the soldier, but we have no idea about the politics, or even the cause they are fighting for. We know it’s patriotism, sure, but why exactly are we fighting the Germans? Perhaps Mayer and Thalberg, whom we can’t deny are geniuses, saw no need to explain this to an audience only seven years into peacetime.

As of Christmas 1925, the all-powerful United States was in the middle of a fantastic boom period. Americans were content to follow President Calvin Coolidge without becoming too interested in politics. The major political dispute other than the six-year old Prohibition was the Scopes Monkey Trial, where the erstwhile tribune of the people William Jennings Bryan was reduced to a doddering fool defending the inerrancy of Bible stories against modern science. Aside from the booze question and the Bible question, Americans were politically disengaged. The Big Parade was a movie for a public that was ready to revisit the horrors of war and heroism war summons in men, but suspicious of the decadent Europe that had necessitated it, and not ready to think about the current events that might threaten its ugly return.

 

13. Foolish Wives

foolishwives

January 11, 1922
Universal
Directed by Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim was an Austrian of unknown origin who immigrated to America at the age of 24 under mysterious circumstances, and got a job working with D.W. Griffith, and then later found success playing Prussian bad guys on the stage in patriotic productions. He somehow contrived a meeting with Universal boss Carl Laemmle and convinced him to make his movie, let him star and direct, and give him whatever money he needed. Universal made genre movies without stars. Von Stroheim was to be his own star, developing his successful sadistic German character into more calculating and devious rapists. His first two movies were a huge success, and he was ready to write, direct, and star in his third and greatest movie, Foolish Wives.

Laemmle was unable to run both the California and New York units by himself, and he appointed his twenty year-old right-hand man Irving Thalberg to run the operations in Hollywood.  Irving Thalberg’s first big challenge was von Stroheim, who had by now far exceeded any conceivable notion of budget, and he showed no sign that he was going to stop filming. Thalberg removed his equipment and took the film to be edited with no further assistance from the master.

There were many hours worth of footage, which the studio cut to about three and for the premier. They cut it again for the road show and again for the release. The extant version is 2 hours 20 minutes, and it feels both too long and short. Most of the takes should go on longer, but the picture as a whole is not a complicated enough narrative to warrant an epic length. Crucial moments are crudely cut.

Constant crisis, building to its climax way too soon, before anyone is ready, hacked apart by the very capitalist process that is skewered so elegantly here. But many of the hacks were made not just by Thalberg and his men at Universal, but the censors demand to remove the most offensive material. The movie we have only hints at the horrible conquests and humiliations that are surely in the lost footage.

Prohibition was an incredible victory for the moralists, and once it was in place with the Volstead they pushed to new territory. Decency. They had a huge victory with Ulysses. A book with dirty moments so brief and opaque they could only bring excitement to the especially erudite, banned in the United States. Copies mailed from Paris were liable to be burned by the Post Office.

What remains of Foolish Wives is hilarious, disgusting, frightening, and misogynist. The Russian aristocrats fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, in exile living in Monaco. Like Capitalism in perpetual crisis, betting everything on an enormous bluff. already living in paradise, making money out of nothing, but always trying to get somewhere better. To conquer and move on to new territory.

Rapacious and cruel. We know even less about where they’re trying to get to than where they’re from, which is almost nothing. Trapped in their seaside villa where the ocean swells in the corners of the frame, with their servants and their fake money and fake lives. The cousins playfully tease each other, argue about who to fuck over next. Launder the fake money and move on. Leave no trace on the scene.

Cover your tracks.

Bibliography

  • Curtiss, Thomas Quinn. Von Stroheim. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Koszarski, Richard. The Man You Loved to Hate: Eric von Stroheim and Hollywood. Oxford University Press, 1983.