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King Vidor tells of working on ‘The Big Parade’

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Jul 7th, 2013
2013
Jul 7

FILM HISTORY

King Vidor tells of work in filming ‘The Big Parade’

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King Vidor, who produced The Big Parade, wrote scenes for the film and would map them out to the click-click of a metronome, varying the tempo according to the action. Vidor was methodical. He was under the spell of motion pictures since he was a boy of 12. He believed that there was a chance for a new art through the medium of the camera so he took up directing because he wanted to be engaged in something new. He was a man of vision, not only so far as the possibilities of the screen were concerned, but one who is quick to see beyond that which he is actually engaged upon, whether it was a film or a scene.

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About The Big Parade, he was rather proud that virtually all the scenes of this production, with the exception of a few that were made in Texas, were photographed on a tract of land that was about a block square. What seemed to be miles of woods and vast stretches of shell-shorn ground were filmed in this limited area.

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One day in 1926, Vidor sat comfortably in a chair in a room in the Ambassador Hotel and shared some thoughts about the making of The Big Parade:

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“I have just finished La Bohème,” Vidor said with a smile, “the period of which is 1880, and I am next going to make Bardelys the Magnificent, by Raphael Sabatini, which is even an earlier period. I have not much fear of criticism of what is put forth in these productions. But there are 2,000,000 critics of The Big Parade. I did all that was humanly possible to insure accuracy in this picture. United States officers helped me constantly, and I studied miles and miles of Government film, taken by the Signal Corps of the United States army during the fighting. These pictures were made on all sectors of the lines, so it was quite possible for any individual who concentrated his attention on the results as thrown upon a screen being able to leave the projection room after days and days of study with sufficient knowledge of what the fighting front looked like, so as to be able to put it on canvas or on the screen, possibly more accurately than a man who had been on the fighting front. Nevertheless, as I said, to safeguard against errors and to insert special ideas we fortunately had with us United States army officers, but even these men could not know everything that happened at the front, and an interesting point is one on which I lost a wager. I said that I thought that I had seen in the Signal Corps films American troops marching in columns of twos. The officers insisted I was wrong, so I paid my bet. But some time afterward I discovered no less than five reels of Signal Corps film in which our men marched in columns of two. To get my little revenge I made everybody look through these five reels when they were ready for dinner.

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“You will notice that in The Big Parade there are very few interiors. Some of our most successful scenes were inspired at the moment before the camera. You have told of the chewing gun incident and the last cigarette given to a dying German, but did you know that Slim’s chewing and spitting only flashed across our minds after we had started on the production? Karl Dane, who portrays Slim, used to report for work sucking a bit of licorice, and it suddenly occurred to us to devote two or three scenes to having him an inveterate tobacco chewer. You will remember that he expectorates when he is on a skyscraper girder just before joining up. Then he spits out the candle when the troops are leaving the farmhouse, and finally there is the contest in the shell hole to see who shall go over the top to silence the ‘toy’ gun.”

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Vidor said that he began the film by taking the scenes of the shell hole, and, to have the principals look as if they were muddy and dirty, there was a special hole half filled with mud in which the actors soaked themselves before they went before the camera. Vidor believed in a human hero, one who ducks when shells are whining by, one whose physiognomy shows the contact with mud and grime.

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An enlightening feature of The Big Parade concerns the farmhouse. It had to be depicted in the latter scenes torn and rent with shells, great holes in the roof and the walls. It naturally might be supposed that Vidor would have taken the farmhouse set and shot it full of holes, so that the original setting would be realistically damaged. This was too risky, for the all-perceiving eye of the camera is a nuisance at times, and a nice new studio wall might have been seen through one of the shell holes. To obviate such a thing, Vidor employed a special backdrop artist, a man who painted the damaged farmhouse in a day. His work looks far more like a shell-torn farmhouse than if the setting had been ripped with explosives.

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In the scene in which Renée Adorée is searching for John Gilbert, Vidor pointed out that he had three distinct tempos, besides different tempos in parts of the scene. The incident starts off with sad crying, then there is the bugle call, after which everything is hushed. Then comes the 1-2-3-4—1-2-3-4, and gradually the pace quickens. Adorée is made to seem to be running as in a dream through the difference of tempo in the heroine’s pace and that of the soldiers. Hence Vidor believed that the basis of a successful scene is tempo, and that it is the underlying secret of the screen.

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