I must admit, I was skeptical of my husband’s interest in silent films.
I had never seen one, but I thought I knew what to expect. Silent films equaled the jangle of organ-grinder style music, makeup resembling cake icing, and overacting reminiscent of the comedic scenes with Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain.
With such low expectations, the Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd films he played for our family were a pleasant surprise. The comedy bits were engaging and creative, and the music was well-orchestrated. Best of all, the kids found the movies fascinating- this was something we could ALL enjoy!
By the time I unwrapped The Big Parade, I was prepared to give silent films the benefit of the doubt. Still, King Vidor’s serious film was a departure from Keaton’s comedic Steam Boat Bill Jr. How would a film about an American soldier’s experiences in France during World War 1 play out as a silent film?
I didn’t expect to find a new favorite movie.
The leading man, John Gilbert, plays a wealthy American with no real idea of war, who grows into a protagonist we can root for and weep for. Renee Adoree plays his love interest in France, and the two of them pull the viewer inexorably into the story until one can almost forget that in the entire film they haven’t spoken a word.
While a silent film must lean heavily on the skills of its actors, creating one must have also posed interesting challenges for the writers. I wonder how much time it took to distill the text to its barest elements, highlighting the key points of the story without bogging down the pacing. Text that fit the situations would have to be chosen carefully, to tell the story, but also to avoid a fuss from the censors. (For instance, I suspect that the words to the song “In the Army Now” may have been edited for the film. “Rich” and “Son-of-a-gun” don’t quite rhyme…) However long it took, it was time well spent.
The attention to the story shines through the filming of each scene. One of the most powerful sequences is Gilbert’s introduction to battle. The following quote from imdb.com describes it very well.
“King Vidor recalled, “I timed the march of the US youth into battle and possible death as a slow, measured cadence with the muffled beat of brass drums heralding doom–a metronome to simulate exactly the gait of the soldiers”.
The sequence is eerie and tense and tragic, without the need for flashy special effects or gore. The story carries the emotional impact, even through a black and white movie made 92 years ago.
Another nod to the skillful writing of the film- it manages to be anti-war without diminishing the courage and the sacrifice of those involved. I could go on, but as The Big Parade demonstrates, sometimes fewer words make more impact!
Writers, Readers, and Movie Viewers: Have you found other areas in writing and filming where ‘less is more’?