Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: Foolish Wives (von Stroheim), Here, Then (Mao Mao), Red River (Hawks), The Big Parade (Vidor)

An ongoing column that looks at some of the most intriguing of recent, under-the-radar releases

Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim, 1922)

Reading that the initial cut of Foolish Wives ran to 32 reels — i.e. nearly eight hours — you have to wonder: what was Stroheim thinking? So did someone back in 1921, who asked the director the same question. His reply was published in a January 1922, issue of Variety. “That is a detail,” Stroheim reportedly said, “I hadn’t time to bother about.”1

Even for a two-evening theatrical showing, the cut was impossibly long. Stroheim himself edited his film down to perhaps 30 reels, which the studio cut further . . . and then further . . . until Foolish Wives reached its premiere on January 11, 1922, in a version that lasted 210 minutes. This cut, which the director bemoaned as containing merely “the bones” of his original conception, was never seen again. The New York Censorship Board seized the film and slimmed it down further. Finally ready for the general public of 1922, the film’s running time was, at 10 reels, well under three hours, and, as it exists now at 143 minutes, Kino’s edition, mastered from a 35mm print of Arthur Lennig’s 1972 restoration, is only a tattered remnant of Stroheim’s final, rueful concession.

But then nearly all of Stroheim’s productions ended in one form of calamity or another, and his best films either don’t exist at all or in vastly compromised states. Irving Thalberg fired the director from The Merry-Go-Round (1923), replacing him with Rupert Julian; the eight-hour cut of his masterpiece, Greed (1924), was taken from him and cut to around 2 1/2 hours. Another potential masterpiece of impracticable length, The Wedding March (1928), was split unhappily into two films, the second of which no longer exists.

Headstrong is one word, denial or hubris are others, for Stroheim’s seeming inability to grasp the creative strictures of working in the Hollywood studio system. With all the outward appearance of aesthetic masochism, Stroheim engineered his own defeats by attempting repeatedly to fit sophisticated content, captured on dozens of reels of film, through Hollywood’s slender, moneyed slot. That the writer/director interwove his lengthy narratives with provocative sexual nuance, which included fetishistic practices considered aberrant (or even obscure outside of Kraft-Ebbing),2 only put more nails in the coffin that became Stroheim’s career as a director. Regardless any moral licentiousness about to bloom in the Jazz Age of 1922, America simply couldn’t take in his depictions of outré sexuality and call them entertaining.

Foolish Wives opens in a specific time, just after WWI’s armistice, in 1919, and in a very specific locale, Monte Carlo, the central city square of which the director has fabricated in its entirety on the Universal lot. Stroheim’s Count Karamzin is one of a trio of con artists that consists of the phony émigré Russian count himself (Stroheim) and his two female “cousins” (Maude George and Mae Busch). Alerted to the arrival of an American envoy to Monaco, accompanied by his young wife, the three immediately get to work on a plan to suck large sums of cash from the couple via Karamzin’s seductive charms. Once having ingratiated himself with the envoy’s wife, Helen (an actress listed, enigmatically, as Miss Dupont), Karamzin threatens the success of the mission by taking Helen’s seduction past its flirtatious stage and straight into sexual assault. After a couple of near rapes by Karamzin, Helen is retrieved safely by her husband (Rudolf Christians), and the grifters, most notably Karamzin, get their just deserts.

Even today the sardonic nihilistic core of Foolish Wives is disorienting, especially as we experience Stroheim’s Karamzin. If there’s ever been a film made since of such spiky bleakness, featuring a character of such unredeemed, preening awfulness, I’ve not seen it. Yet there’s a sly, rambunctious wit that peeks out through the nihilism and grins at us. It’s hard, for example, not to see something parodic in Karamzin’s projection of rapacious evil. Throughout, Stroheim is costumed in an immaculate form-fitting Prussian-style military uniform of the sort featured for satirical abuse in Viennese operetta; along with the ever-present monocle, Karamzin’s sartorial mask seems a fetish in itself.

As an accessory for seducing women, the outfit appears ludicrous — as it did, I suspect, to the 1922 American audience — but at the same time, Stroheim’s character is truly disturbing. When we get to the final reel, Karamzin’s sexual proclivities go over the top, quite literally, into the second-floor nighttime bedroom of an underaged retarded girl. Here he attempts, or succeeds, in raping the girl in her bed (censors or Stroheim edit out the act). After implicitly being discovered in flagrante, Karamzin is killed by the girl’s father, after which he stuffs the body, immaculate uniform and all, down a sewer. In Stroheim’s original cut, the corpse is swiftly flushed out to sea, where it’s eaten by an octopus.

Too bad that footage is lost: Karamzin’s cephalopodic fate is like something out of a Victor Hugo novel,3 but Stroheim is obviously having fun with such extreme, romanticized morbidity. But even without the octopus making a meal of it, the image of the count’s body being crammed into the sewer opening — along with a dead cat he’d killed earlier out of pure meanness — is mordant, not morbid. This is comedy at its blackest, and yet, because it’s juxtaposed with a more sober reconciliation scene between Helen and her husband — an intertitle here offers an aphoristic clincher that wags a finger at foolish wives mistaking counterfeit men for real men — Stroheim creates a confusing tonal clash, making it difficult to take the moral lesson, imparted for Helen and the audience, at face value.

Seeing Karamzin’s unpleasantness within the breadth of Lennig’s reconstruction, and with some knowledge of Stroheim’s own invented persona, we can realize the director/writer’s complex, satiric tone is one that, in modern parlance, has gone meta: the “about-ness” of Foolish Wives is framed within a frame that ultimately allows the film to evade a final moral or message. Simplistic enough is Stroheim’s framing of his own assumed identity in Hollywood — that of an émigré Austrian count4 — and, further, of the evil Hun typecasting he’d been locked into as a struggling actor. But within the film are more conceptual fun and games.

When Karamzin contrives a meeting with Helen, she’s reading a book entitled Foolish Wives, written, as it’s emblazoned on the cover, by none other than Erich von Stroheim. It’s a true meta moment, which the director extends by having Helen share what’s she’s reading with Karamzin, a chapter that describes how shallow Americans place “chasing the dollar” above honor and etiquette. By inserting a faux authorial self into the action, Stroheim alerts us to who’s in control here: the writer/director creator — and that the proceedings might not be all that they seem.

Within the film, Karamzin uses the book’s text to further dupe Helen into accepting his oily chivalry as genuine, but outside the film, the audience, who already knows of the count’s fraudulence within the picture, is only too ready to accept that Stroheim the person, the émigré Viennese auteur of a supposedly aristocratic background, might espouse the fake author’s dichotomy of honorable, chivalrous Europeans vs. crass, opportunistic Americans. He makes himself, after all, the author of the book that mirrors the title of the movie — could this anti-American slur be the theme of the picture?

Many offended moviegoers thought so back in 1922, and it’s true that Stroheim is not kind to his American characters. As played by Dupont, Helen comes across as dull and uninteresting; so too is her bumbling envoy-husband, who is remarkably slow on the uptake as to the dangers of the overt sexual byplay going on between the count and his wife. But the husband does show some spine near the end and, further, enough noblesse to welcome back his wayward wife, but the other, European side of the dichotomy is unmasked, discredited, and spit upon. Stripped of their ridiculous wigs, the cousins go to jail and the count gets eaten by an octopus. So much for European honneur/politesse.

But as much as Stroheim appears to be cynical about both cultural sides of the European/American duality, he backgrounds his vicious comedy of manners with the plight of WWI’s wounded and maimed, and this plight he seems to take seriously indeed. By allowing Karamzin’s twisted, sadistic form of male vanity to play out against the plight of an entire generation of damaged men from both sides of the ocean, Stroheim’s cynicism works toward a surprisingly soft-spoken acknowledgment of the devastations of that war. An American officer, revealed finally as a double amputee, turns out to be the real man of the picture, and he never says a word.

USA/1922/B&W/143 min./Silent, with original Sigmund Romberg score performed by Rodney Sauer/1.33:1 OAR. Released Kino Classics on Blu-ray disc in 2013.

Here, Then (Mao Mao, 2012)

Here, Then, the debut feature of Chinese director Mao Mao, made the rounds of European film festivals just last year, and it’s gratifying to have Second Run deliver this unusual film to home video because, frankly, it’s unlikely to touch down theatrically over here, or to ever secure a region 1 disc release. Efforts like this from companies like Second Run are the best chance for any of us to see the international art house cinema of today.

In the second half of the brief (11-minute) video interview with the director included on the disc, a friend and colleague of Mao Mao offers some well-intentioned criticism of Here, Then. Off camera he says he likes the film, but wonders if the elliptical nature of the storyline might prove difficult for viewers, making them loath to stay with the picture. Doing his best to not sound defensive, the director repeats his intent to simply capture “the relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit,” while declaring that “emotion is ambiguous.” At some point, as if acknowledging his inability to answer the question, Mao Mao throws up his hands and says that maybe viewers can create their own narrative.

Although I had my own difficulties with the film, I never once wanted to walk away from it and, once it ended, found myself deeply moved. But when the credits rolled, I was surprised to see that the main characters actually carried specific first names, such as Yangyang and Lily (although a couple more minor ones were tagged as “girl A” and “girl B”). Usually in a feature film, you learn the names of characters through spoken dialog, as in, “hi, Lily, where are you going?” but I remembered none of this identifying device happening throughout the show. Indeed, spoken dialog of any revelatory import whatsoever is virtually nonexistent here, nor does any dialog advance the plot.5

Exposition, character arcs, a propulsive plot — all the ingredients that we expect from a feature film — don’t work their magic in Mao’s picture. If anything, Mao demands stasis from each scene, an effect he stages by shooting the longest takes this side of Bela Tarr’s 1994 Satantango. Within these takes, the camera doesn’t move except, sometimes, to zoom, and, by placing us squarely in the “here” of the title, our viewing stance becomes contemplative. Throughout, Mao photographs most often within a very shallow depth of field, in which he can subvert further expectations as to what or who should be in focus. With the actors placed carefully within the frame, the play between what’s blurred and what’s in focus directs our meditative attentions on what the director insists is his chief intent: the relationship of individuals to the spaces they inhabit.

Worded like this, Mao’s stated objective sounds somewhat abstract, even non-objective, but what’s clear, in this most visual of films, is its focus on the emotional rootlessness of contemporary Chinese youth. Our contemplative gaze leads, then, not merely to a consideration of how clever Mao’s manipulation of film grammar might be, but past formal concerns and into our experiencing a cumulative but muted cry of despair. The final effect of the film, with its hushed emotive tone and the distancing it gives to cause and effect between characters — and between their “here and then” and even the spaces they momentarily inhabit — is chilling, like remaining naked in a bathtub as all the water drains out.6

The story, such as it allows us to read or even create it, begins and ends in an unnamed rural area near a seashore and wanders, in its midsection, into a large city, which is likely Beijing. The young men we see are footloose and toggle casually between Beijing and the provinces, but they appear to be steadily employed, whereas the less empowered women either struggle — as girls, really — in menial agricultural jobs, from which they migrate city-side to prostitution, or, in the case of one older but still very young, woman, maybe just start out as prostitutes or high-end call girls. “People don’t live or die/People just float,” Bob Dylan declares in his song “The Man in the Long Black Coat,” and that’s what Mao gives us here.

Well, that’s my narrative, anyway, gleaned from an extremely porous series of events. But as Warman points out, what counts in this film are images. And I agree with her that the stand-out among these may occur in a scene that begins with a couple of girls waiting at a bus stop for someone to arrive, so they may all board the bus (and depart for Beijing?). Mao Mao’s characteristic long take has us stand with the girls in awkward silence until, from an unseen diegetic source, a pop song with an insistent dance beat starts up, and the two of them slowly get into its groove, nodding and swaying to the rhythm. One girl, however, identified by Warman as Yangyang, detaches from her companion and sidles up to the camera, into which for a good part of a minute she impassively stares. It’s as if we’re standing inches from her behind a two-way mirror, and the effect is profoundly intimate.

Yangyang has a giveaway mole under her bottom lip, and when we see her later in Beijing, she’s part of a stable of prostitutes. Entering a small room, dressed in a snug black cocktail dress, she goes down on her knees to give a customer a blow job. Needless to say, as we recall the teenager in her childish T-shirt at the bus stop, the two scenes resonate, yet the earlier scene almost feels like a detachable set piece that would play quite effectively on its own on Youtube. In his interview, Mao Mao mentions that the inspiration for the scene came from when he was making a documentary and he spotted an isolated girl, at a bus stop, beginning to dance spontaneously to the beat of a pop song blaring from a car radio. He said the sight touched him, and as he clearly felt a strong connection to the girl — without, we assume, ever making contact with her — he expresses this connection in his film through the actress’s stare at the camera, during which the girl never acknowledges the connection in which we too are invested. Warman feels that the stare accuses us of voyeurism, which, okay, I agree, it does; but it seems also that it carries the specificity Mao’s real-life experience and to the fortunate and valuable voyeurism of the artist himself.

China/2012/94 min./Color/In Mandarin, with optional English subtitles/1.78:1 OAR; 16.9 anamorphic. Released on DVD (PAL) by Second Run in 2013.

Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

As a special feature, Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc contains a filmed “conversation,” between Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley, but this get-together, nearly an hour long, is actually less a conversation than a holding forth by critic and filmmaker Sallitt on the Hawks mystique, with Christley attempting valiantly to get his own word in edgewise, but relegated mostly to bobbing his head in agreement to Sallitt’s discourse.

Sallitt appears to be something of a Hawks scholar and, peppering his remarks liberally with the adjective “Hawksian,” is eager to pinpoint what qualities in the director’s films — with Red River naturally being his central concern —make him accepted as a Hollywood auteur. At some point, as Sallitt pauses to take a breath, Christley cautiously posits that Hawks was not an auteur like a Stroheim or a Welles. In response to this understatement, Sallitt smiles in benign condescension at the younger man, and Christley mostly shuts up for the rest of the video.

On my end, I’m no Hawksian scholar, but it’s easy to say that nearly every Hawks film I’ve seen, even decades ago, has proved to be memorable. I’d walk into a theater — or turn on the TV — expecting the familiar and the comfortable from a western or a comedy, or even a Hemingway adaptation, and as much as I’d assuredly get those qualities, I’d get something unexpected, or even jarring, as well. In each so-called genre, the handling of recognized narrative gambits was pushed, sometimes gently, sometimes raucously, past their familiar limits, so that the laughs, the tensions, the excitements were more intense. And just as often there was a sense of the actors having fun with each other, leading to a convivial climax, as in the finish of To Have and Have Not (1944), in which Lauren Bacall swings her shoulders to Hoagy Carmichael’s bumptious tune as the tight trio of buddies, Bacall, Bogie, and Walter Brennan, make their escape. Clearly Hawks loved making movies, but he loved his actors, too.

Whether or not Hawks really invented screwball comedy, has there ever been a better one than Bringing Up Baby (1938)? No one could’ve expected what Hawks did with science fiction in the truly ominous The Thing from Another World (1951) — or, with the sword and sandal spectacle in the eccentric Land of the Pharaohs (1955). But I’d be hard-pressed to isolate exactly what in these films makes their director an auteur, except, perhaps, that they’re well cast and well made? That Hawks demanded good scripts? That he used the same gag in Monkey Business (1952) as he did in Bringing Up Baby?7 Yes, it’s a lot easier to say why Welles’ foray into noir, Touch of Evil, is uniquely that auteur’s creation; that it is, in fact, a work of art in addition to a product to be mass consumed.

Welles — and god help us Stroheim — may have thought rules were there in Hollywood to be broken, but found out commerce demanded them and that commerce ruled Hollywood. Howard Hawks worked — apparently — quite happily within studio system restraints (which he may not have seen as restraints at all) and invested many of his films with characters, events, and gags that have a shine of newness to them. Far from being a mere studio journeyman, Hawks could also take chances.

But in making Red River, he wasn’t about to kill off John Wayne. When Hawks began shooting the film in 1946, he had a script by Borden Chase that was based on Chase’s own short story for The Saturday Evening Post. When Hawks went his usual merry way with the screenplay, changing and rewriting what he pleased, Chase became irritated, but then had a true fit of pique when the director decided to alter the climactic fate of the story’s main character, Tom Dunson, played by Wayne.

Intriguingly, for the Hawksian scholar at any rate, the director, by choosing to adapt Chase’s story, did in effect paint himself into a corner. Featuring at its center a darkly obsessed cattleman, Red River blends the qualities of the subgenre, the epic western (instituted by films like Ford’s 1924 Iron Horse (1924) and Walsh’s 1930 The Big Trail), with an intimately drawn intergenerational conflict, which itself seems head-bound for a tragic conclusion, a big departure from Hawks’s more dependable feel-good climaxes and not one expected by post-WWII audiences. Wayne’s conflicted, vengeance-bent Dunson prefigures his similar hero manqué, Ethan Edwards, in Ford’s The Searchers (1956), who likewise seemed hurtling toward a killing, until Wayne hoists Natalie Wood saddle-side and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” In spite of Wood being costumed like a high-school pageant Pocahontas, Ford’s bittersweet resolution is truly moving. But Hawks can’t perform similar magic with his material, onto which he grafts his own “let’s go home” ending that enjoins with a bit of comedy, so that you go home feeling warm toward all the characters, even the murderous Dunson, much like you did for Bogart et al. at the end of To Have and Have Not.

Wayne’s Thomas Dunson, a Civil War veteran fleeing an economically ravaged postwar South, sets himself up in Texas to raise cattle. When seven years pass, he’s ready to drive the cattle, all 10,000 head of them, north to Missouri, accompanied by loyal yeoman Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), his unofficially adopted son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), and assorted hired hands, including a notorious gunslinger, Cherry Valance (John Ireland).

Setbacks, involving Indians, dwindling supplies, and a costly stampede by the cattle, push Dunson into a harsh Captain Bligh mode that’s switched into high gear when several cowhands call it quits. Like Fletcher Christian, Matt Garth begins loyal and subservient to Dunson, and wants the drive to succeed, but not at all costs: when Dunson prepares to execute a trio of deserters, Garth intervenes to save the men’s lives, enacts a mutiny, seizes control of the drive, and leaves Dunson alone and in the lurch.

Facing down the more skilled Clift — whose astonishingly nuanced performance in Red River was his first in a feature film — Wayne proves his acting mettle throughout the film by forming within his familiar large-scale persona a psychologically wounded interior. Dunson’s outlook on life has been bent by the guilt and grief accrued when he’d abandoned a wagon train of settlers years earlier in order to strike out as an individual cattleman. Just hours after quitting the train, which had included the woman he loved and planned to marry, the group was attacked and wiped out by Indians, with a teenaged Matt Garth the only survivor. Adopted and raised by Dunson and Groot, the adult Garth, now in the form of the slender and inward-looking Clift, becomes a moral voice attempting to shout compassion and sense into the deaf ear of his obsessive father/boss.

Dunson views Garth’s seizure of the drive as monstrous betrayal, illegal, and punishable by death. But in spite of any perceived softness, Garth is not only more humane than Dunson but also more competent as head of the drive — and a good businessman, too, when the cattle are finally corralled in Abilene, Kansas, and a deal for their sale needs to be cut. Dunson remains implacable in his vengeance, however; and set against the goodness, courage, and forthrightness of Garth (he’s got a sweetheart now, too), it seems their inevitable clash must result in just one man left standing, the sensitive, clearheaded man who holds the promise of a better future America.

Wayne is pretty scary when he’s angry, but as Dunson’s confrontation with Garth devolves into a fistfight, you realize nobody’s going to die. When the two entangled guys crash into some pots and pans, the death hunt has more or less finished up as typical frontier horseplay. Garth’s girlfriend (Joanne Dru) tells them to stop all that silly fighting, and, turning on a dime, they do. All is reconciled and the two are partners again. Dramatically, the resolution may not make sense, but this is how Hawks likes to end a film, and you know what — it works for me.

USA/1948/B&W/133 min./1.37:1 OAR. Released on Blu-ray (Area B, locked) and DVD (Region 2, PAL) by Masters of Cinema (Eureka) in 2013.

The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)

“You get the true poetry, romance and atmosphere . . . you realize not only the deep personal feeling but also the queer sentimentality.”

— vintage comment, by King Vidor, on what a 1925 audience, with its 10-year prospective on World War I’s origins, might see in The Big Parade.8

The Big Parade, which I’d not seen until this release, turns out to be less about WWI than it is about two people in love who survive that war with their love intact. If this sounds romantic to you, I’ll say, yes, it is — something of the ne plus ultra of romantic, in fact. Vidor’s film features plenty of the horrors of the Great War, but falls short of making an antiwar, this-must-end-all-wars, statement, if that’s what you’re looking for. Instead, get the hankies out. I was unprepared for the emotional impact of The Big Parade.

The release gets one of Warner Bros.’ deluxe, prestigious treatments, with the disc housed in a hardcover book-like affair that also features a 50-page tribute to the film by Kevin Brownlow. It’s one of the meatiest written commentaries for a home video product that I’ve ever read; Brownlow adores The Big Parade and had met and interviewed Vidor (in the sixties). His overview of the film and its stars is loving and fact-filled. Back in 1997, it was film historian Brownlow who spearheaded the effort to restore The Big Parade‘s newly discovered original camera negative, resulting in a 2004 print that in high-def video startles the eye with its newness.

Brownlow begins his liner notes by bringing up Erich von Stroheim as the infamous wastrel genius who suffered the indignity of being fired twice by studio head Irving Thalberg. While firing Stroheim a second time as the director worked on The Merry Widow (1925), Thalberg green-lighted Vidor’s film of lovers torn apart by WWI, The Big Parade. Stroheim, reinstated, went on to complete The Merry Widow, but here Brownlow makes an astute contrast between Stroheim and Vidor as directors: unlike any of Stroheim’s frustrated masterpieces of personal vision, The Big Parade is a masterpiece of populist filmmaking.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the story takes its time to unfold, dividing itself rather neatly in half, with the first establishing its trio of doughboys plucked from contrasting social strata (two from the 99% and one from the 1%) of 1914 America, with Jimmy Apperson (John Gilbert), the wealthy layabout son of an industrialist, taking the picture’s lead as the boys find themselves billeted at a French farmstead, waiting to be called up to the front.

Once the guys settle in, there’s plenty of what’s become familiar in war movies, such as overweening male camaraderie expressed in buffoonery, wisecracks, slapstick, and fistfights. None of this seems funny or endearing anymore, and in spite of the production values and the elegant cinematography, the testosterone-fueled, mostly comic proceedings can be a chore to watch. It doesn’t help either that Carl Davis’ newly recorded score, which otherwise is quite excellent, pummels us scene after scene with the tune of “You’re in the Army Now” — a song I’d rather not hear ever again — but in Davis’ defense, the boys (and the intertitles) sing it more than once, so, what’s a composer to do?

But it’s here, too, in this first half that Jimmy falls in love with the farm girl, Melisande (Renée Adorée), and the pastoral scenes featuring their budding romance, some clearly improvised by the actors, establish the film’s emotional core. Ably partnered by Adorée, Gilbert is, as always, silent film’s male lover sine qua non. He’s got those bedroom eyes, but he’s got vulnerability, too, and the combination’s unbeatable: in the mid to late 1920s, he was cinema’s gift to women. Above all, though, Gilbert was a fine actor, and with Vidor favoring long takes in these scenes, he and Adorée, as they push and pull at each other, emerge as a real couple finding themselves deeply in love, a realization they only get to acknowledge to each other when, abruptly, Jimmie and his company are pulled out to the front.

Moving far from the tight intimacy of the love scenes, Vidor stages a virtuosic crowd sequence when the American troops must suddenly march out of the French village to load onto the transport trucks that will relay them to the front. Midst all the movement, dust, and near chaos, a separated Jimmy and Melisande desperately seek each other, and when they finally come together and lock themselves in an embrace, the director captures one of the greatest romantic movie moments of all time.

But Vidor isn’t finished: when an officer separates the two and forces Jimmie onto a truck, Melisande simply won’t let go of him. As the truck starts moving, she wraps herself around Jimmie’s dangling leg — the same leg he will lose several reels later — and then grabs a chain at the vehicles rear, which drags her along in the dirt for a while. Watching her land prostrate in the road, Jimmie begins to throw personal items toward her: a watch, his dog tags, and one cleated boot, this last item seemingly an odd choice for a lover’s objet du souvenir. But the boot is really a token of Jimmie’s near comic desperation at securing Melisande’s trust that he will return to her; after all, he only has so many mementos at his disposal. It’s also possibly an example of Gilbert’s ability, mentioned by Brownlow, to ad lib bits of business not specified in the rather skeletal script.

Visually, the lovers’ protracted farewells create a spectacle of outsized emotion that would play as risible in a sound film. But to clarify: if we can say that, by 1925, film acting had lost its theatricality, and actors knew how to telegraph inward states through the eyes — a naturalism that began with Griffith a decade earlier and is furthered by Gilbert in his easygoing but detailed performance here — we can agree that the emotional grandeur of The Big Parade has nothing to do with overwrought acting; the film’s sweep, its rush of feeling, is in the image, which contains the acting.

By the mid to late ’20s, just on the cusp of the talkie, silent film had reached the height of its sophistication in projecting states of feeling. The addition of sound (then color) to movies would ratchet up their realism, while lessening their reliance on image, and would eventually enhance our ability to suspend disbelief in their fundamental illusion. Silent films, then, are more openly abstracted equivalents to reality that, as they depend on image to communicate (and the viewer’s agreement to actively participate in the process), allow for hyper states of emotional display like these scenes in The Big Parade, which, if carried through by the skill of directors like Vidor and actors like Gilbert and Adorée, can strike deep emotive chords.

Carl Davis’s score comes into its own in this long sequence — more than lending support, the music collaborates with the heightened emotions of the action to powerful effect. As the troops march out, with Melisande searching hither and yon among them for Jimmie, Davis begins with “Over There” (a tune I can live with) but then combines the march with the sentimental, 1922 waltz tune “My Buddy,” in counterpoint no less! The clash of one song’s martial joviality with the other’s fragile melancholy is a stunningly effective parallel to the lovers’ private dilemma midst the immense indifference of war, not to mention the ironic specificity of all the flag-waving and last-minute smooching between the troops and fraternizing French girls. In contrast to the latter, the love between Jimmie and Melisande is no casual wartime hook-up, but the real thing, that mythological union of souls, and when the two are at last torn asunder, Davis’s score continues with “My Buddy” alone, rising in emotional pitch as our tear ducts quicken.

Jimmie’s experiences at the front are superbly paced by Vidor, with each sequence carrying a different species of war-spawned terror unfolding in its own rhythm. Within the Belleau Wood battle recreation, the director had his actors perform the “walking charge” toward German snipers and machine gun nests to a drum beat pre-measured by a metronome, a pulse recreated in Davis’s score to harrowing effect.

When, at last, during an allied assault on the German line, he’s wounded in the leg and taken out of the war, he finds himself in a French hospital just a few kilometers from Melisande’s village, which he learns has been besieged multiple times. In a frantic attempt to rescue her, Jimmie flees the hospital only to find the village in ruins and Melisande’s farm deserted. It’s easy enough to infer that this further desperate act of love exacerbates the morbidity of Jimmie’s wound and results in the amputation of his left leg below the knee.

Thus, the amputation is not only Jimmie’s badge of courage but his badge of undying love. Now there’s no way for us not to expect the inevitable (Jimmie’s return), but the scene is so freshly visualized that it has us feeling as if we hadn’t. What underscores this reunion of souls, along with Davis’s music, is the lyrical pictorialism of the scene’s photography. Melisande spots a tiny silhouetted figure traversing an improbably round hill far off in the distance. Here the camera’s focus is selective, but the tiny figure is sharp and clear (especially in this Blu-ray presentation). Jimmie doesn’t have to get closer; Melisande knows who it is, and she scrambles down hill and dale to meet him. The sight of Jimmie, limping down a road of dappled sunshine and coming to rapturous embrace with Melisande, is the film’s final grand cadence of joy.

USA/1925/151 min./B&W, with tinted sequences/Silent, with newly recorded orchestral underscore by Carl Davis. Released on Blu-ray disc by Warner Brothers in 2013.


1. Lenning, Arthur. Stroheim. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky; 2000. p. 136.

2. Count Karamzin clearly has a foot fetish, which he gets to indulge in a heavily censored scene where he has the body of the unconscious Helen at his disposal. On the back of the disc’s case, Kino, rather unfairly, has placed a still of a leering Stroheim smooching the actress’s feet, but this portion of the scene was excised by censors. In the film, we only see Karamzin pulling Helen’s socks back on, while an old crone laughs at the count’s proclivity. She’s seen it all before.

3. An octopus kills a bad guy, and attacks the book’s hero, in Hugo’s 1866 novel Toilers of the Sea.

4. The fact that Stroheim’s nickname among friends and associates was “Von,” betrays a lack of seriousness behind the fake identity, at least after he’d established a foothold as a director. Had the illusion outlived its usefulness?

5. Yet “freelance film journalist” Harriet Warman, in her essay about the film printed in the release’s booklet, has no trouble pointing to this or that character by name. Did the screening she attended come with a program and a face chart of the cast? Regardless, Warman’s essay was helpful to me in somewhat coming to grips with who is who, but, as to exactly what happens to whom, that may have to wait for a second or third viewing.

6. Metaphor copped from Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

7. In each film, a scene features the female star — in 1938 Katherine Hepburn, in 1952 Ginger Rogers — being unaware that, backside, a piece of missing wardrobe has her undies exposed to the public; in both films it’s Cary Grant who scrambles to cover the woman’s exposed derriere.

8. Taken from director’s remarks on The Big Parade in the original 1925 souvenir book, which is reprinted in its entirety by Warner Brothers in the booklet accompanying their Blu-ray release.