Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The NFR Project: 'The Big Parade'

The Big Parade

Dir: King Vidor, George W. Hill

Scr: Laurence Stallings, Harry Behn, Joseph Farnham, King Vidor

Phot: John Arnold, Charles Van Enger

Ed: Hugh Wynn

Premiere: Nov. 5, 1925

151 min.

America’s entry into World War I was a super-patriotic affair. After nearly four years of declared neutrality, the nation’s push to war in early 1917 was aided and abetted by a vast propaganda campaign. Participation in the war was cast as a crusade for democracy against the savage “Hun”.

Films that treated the subject were either gung-ho (“Yankee Doodle in Berlin,” 1919), comedic (Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms,” 1918), or full of pathos (D.W. Griffith’s “Hearts of the World,” 1918). An early critical look at the conflict came in “The Big Parade.”

Director King Vidor went to MGM head Irving Thalberg with the request to make a realistic war film. Thalberg turned to scenarist Laurence Stallings, a veteran who lost a leg in the Battle of Belleau Wood. (He was famed due to his co-creation of the hit anti-war play “What Price Glory?” in 1924.) Stallings produced a script that closely matched his own experience in the war.

The film that resulted was the most profitable one made before “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. It tells the story of a carefree young man Jim (John Gilbert) who joins the Army in a fit of patriotic passion. He is sent to France, where he bonds with two buddies and falls in love with a French girl (Renee Adoree). Their relationship was cemented with a now-famous scene in which he introduces her to the joys of chewing gum.

Jim’s unit’s progression into the front lines is a horrifying one, moving from sunlit fields through woods infested with German snipers to the churned-up mud and trenches of the battlefield. 

The sequence is filmed with metronymic precision – Vidor beat a drum to which the actors moved in unison. In a harrowing night battle scene, the hero loses both his friends and is wounded in the leg. Jim loses it, but does not let it deter him from returning to France and reuniting with his sweetheart.

“The Big Parade” played for over a year in some movie houses, instead of the usual week most films experienced at the time. Its success inspired a spate of films about the war, including “Wings,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Lost Patrol,” and “Journey’s End”.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Clash of the Wolves’ and the phenomenon of Rin Tin Tin..



Monday, June 28, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Ben-Hur' (1925)


Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Dir: Fred Niblo, Charles Brabin, Christy Cabanne, J.J. Cohn, Rex Ingram

Scr: June Mathis, Carey Wilson, Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell

Phot: Clyde De Vinna, Rene Guisssart, Percy Hilbrun, Karl Struss, Paul Kerschner

Ed: Lloyd Nosler

Premiere: Dec. 30, 1925

151 min.

Ben-Hur was always a big deal. (Hey, the life of Christ is a subplot.) The 1880 novel by Lew Wallace from which this film was adapted became one of the most popular books of all time. From 1895 through 1920, the book’s lavish theatrical version commanded massive attendance. Though we remember the Oscar-winning 1959 film adaptation the best, it behooves us to remember this earlier production, one of Hollywood’s first attempts at creating an epic.

No expense was spared to bring this project to life. The film’s budget totaled out to $3.9 million, the largest of the silent era. A million feet of film was shot; thousands of extras animated the big scenes. The religious sequences were shot in two-strip Technicolor. The production started out in Italy, but was moved back to California for completion. The director’s role went through many hands. Despite obstacles and setbacks, the undertaking was completed, and with it MGM had a blockbuster.

For those not in the know, Ben-Hur is the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is unjustly betrayed by his former Roman friend Messala, who sends him to the galleys and his mother and sister to imprisonment. Through luck and perseverance, Judah achieves his revenge, then converts to Christianity.

It is remarkable now to see the inventiveness of this production. The grand sea battle and the iconic chariot race are just as compelling as in the 1959 version – in fact, much of the chariot race is duplicated shot for shot. (1959 director William Wyler was one of many assistant directors on this production). Ramon Navarro is fine in the title role, and Francis X. Bushman hams it up magnificently as Messala. Bushman was loath to take the role until William S. Hart, who played Messala in the original stage version, told him it was the meatiest part in the drama.

Despite its massive success, the movie did not turn a profit until its 1931 re-release. It would be over 30 years until Hollywood attempted its like again.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Big Parade’.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Body and Soul' (1925)


Body and Soul

Dir: Oscar Micheaux

Scr: Oscar Micheaux

Phot: unknown

Ed: Oscar Micheaux

Premiere: Nov. 9, 1925

93 min.

We first encountered Oscar Micheaux with the appearance of Within Our Gates (1920) on the National Film Registry list. The self-taught filmmaker made movies for an African American audience, cranking out at least 42 films over a 30-year period, working well outside the mainstream. Body and Soul continues his examination of the Black experience.

In the film, a criminal masquerades as a preacher in order to exploit the faithful. He defrauds a widow, rapes her daughter, and escapes. The End. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well with film censors. Micheaux was forced to tack on an “it was only a dream” sequence at the end to counteract the darkness of the story. Micheaux was extremely wary of the exploitative possibilities of religion.

This film marks the screen debut of the great Paul Robeson, who played both the fake preacher and his good twin brother. Later in his career, Robeson chose not to recognize this and two other small acting jobs in front of the camera as his first work on film, preferring to cite his leading role in The Emperor Jones in 1933.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time:  ‘Ben-Hur’.