In 1924, three companies merged to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The new studio’s first original production was He Who Gets Slapped (1924), starring Lon Chancy and two actors who soon became bright MGM stars: John Gilbert and Norma Shearer. That same year, director King Vidor made two films for MGM starring Gilbert: His Hour and The Wife of the Centaur. But it was Vidor and Gilbert’s third MGM film together, The Big Parade (1925), that moved Vidor into the top rank of directors and proved John Gilbert was more than just a matinee idol.
King Vidor had been working in films for nearly a decade and had even run his own small studio. His champion at MGM was the young production chief Irving Thalberg, who was dedicated to producing quality films. Frustrated with making pictures that played for a week and vanished, Vidor told Thalberg he was ready to tackle bigger films and more important subjects. He wanted to make films about the three things he believed had built America: “war, wheat, and steel.” Thalberg felt that enough time had passed since the Great War and Americans might be ready for a film that realistically examined conflict.
So “war” it would be. Thalberg hired playwright Laurence Stallings to work on a story with Vidor. Stallings’s What Price Glary? had recently opened on Broadway, and was hailed as an honest look at war. Vidor wanted The Big Parade to show war through the eyes of an ordinary soldier. “He was neither a patriot nor a pacifist,” Vidor said in a 1970s interview. “He wasn’t a hero. He was just a guy who went along, and watched, and observed, and reacted.” To play this Everyman soldier, Thalberg suggested John Gilbert, whom he’d personally signed for the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.
Gilbert was born John Cecil Pringle in 1899 (sometimes listed as 1895 or 1897). His father was the producer and his mother the leading lady of the Pringle Stock Company. The couple soon divorced, and Cecil, as he was then called, went on the road with his neglectful mother. When Cecil was eight, his mother married a man named Gilbert, who adopted the boy and gave him a new surname, as well as the nickname Jack. The marriage didn’t last long. His mother died of tuberculosis when Gilbert was 13 and his stepfather gave him ten dollars and a ticket to San Francisco. Gilbert spent two years at odd jobs, then, in 1915, drifted into work as an extra and bit player at Thomas Ince’s Film studio in Santa Monica. Within a year, he was playing feature parts. By 1919, Gilbert was working with such respected directors as Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown, and Sidney Franklin. By the time he met Thalberg, Gilbert was a veteran of dozens of films and was under contract at Fox. At MGM, Gilbert’s dashing good looks soon typed him as the studio’s romantic leading man, and, in 1925, he played Prince Danilo in Eric von Stroheim’s lavish adaptation of the Franz Lehar operetta The Merry Widow.
King Vidor, however, was not looking for Prince Danilo but for Ordinary Soldier Jim, and he didn’t like Thalberg’s casting choice for The Big Parade. The director and star had clashed on their previous collaboration, The Wife of the Centaur. Vidor was an autocratic director and Gilbert, who had earlier written and directed films, had his own ideas. Vidor even went so far as to claim that Gilbert, who was being touted as the screen’s Great Lover, “had never played a role where he got his fingernails dirty.” But any concerns evaporated once production began. As Vidor later told film historian Kevin Brownlow, the two were so attuned that “I actually remember moments where I didn’t say a thing. I’d just have a quick thought, and Gilbert would react to it.”
French actress Renée Adorée costarred in The Big Parade as the farm girl Gilbert romances. Adorée came to Hollywood in 1920 and had already made three films with Gilbert when she was cast for The Big Parade. In a 1925 interview, Vidor said he found her input invaluable. “We achieved a truthful presentation not only by her acting, but by her constant suggestions to the minute domestic details.”
Among Vidor’s innovations in The Big Parade was a technique he called “silent music.” In a scene where soldiers are marching into battle, Vidor wanted to establish an ominous cadence in the march. So he choreographed their movements to the beat of a metronome. As there was no amplification on location, he used a bass drum to beat out the metronome’s rhythm and set the soldiers’ pace. Vidor would use this rhythm-marking technique in subsequent films, perhaps most memorably in Our Daily Bread (1934), for a scene in which farmers dig an irrigation ditch.
The Big Parade was an enormous hit with both critics and audiences. It was MGM’s highest-grossing silent film, earning somewhere between $18 and $22 million. Vidor and Gilbert followed this success with two more hits, La Bohème (1926) and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926). Both films added to Gilbert’s growing reputation as the screen’s Great Lover. But it was his next film, Flesh and the Devil (1926), with the new Swedish star Greta Garbo, which cemented it. Their chemistry fired their love scenes with a blatant eroticism that blazed through two more silent films together and an offscreen affair that lasted for several years. By 1927, John Gilbert was an idolized superstar.
Vidor, meanwhile, was adding to his reputation as a director of prestige films, most significantly with The Crowd (1928), which many consider his masterpiece. It was another story of an ordinary man, distinguished by superb performances, breathtaking visual inventiveness, and a humanistic point of view. Vidor easily made the transition to talkies, demonstrating not only his mastery of the camera, but also experimenting with sound to achieve dramatic effects. He made his last film, Solomon and Sheba, in 1959, and died in 1982.
Gilbert’s transition to sound was less successful. For many years, the myth persisted that Gilbert’s voice was thin and high, and at odds with his romantic image. The truth is more complex. His voice was a light baritone and perfectly adequate, according to reviews of Gilbert’s first talkie, His Glorious Night (1929). The problem was the film’s silly dialogue, consisting of “I love you, I love you, I love you!” endlessly repeated and over-precisely enunciated. As a 1930 Photoplay magazine article commented, “The same amorous techniques that made Jack adored and famous in the dear old days is inclined to raise a storm of titters in the new.” Gilbert remained under contract to MGM until 1934, but the choice roles went to a new breed of actor, like Clark Gable. The loyal Garbo insisted that Gilbert play opposite her in Queen Christina (1933). Although he received good reviews, the film was not a success. Morose and drinking heavily, Gilbert’s health deteriorated. He died of a heart attack in 1936, at the tragically young age of 36. Sadly, his Big Parade costar and friend, Renée Adorée, had died of tuberculosis more than two years earlier. She was just 35 years old.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Chris Elliott on the Mighty Wurlitzer