Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's The Big Parade (1925) held the record as MGM's largest grossing picture for fourteen years, until the release of Gone With the Wind in 1939, earning somewhere between $18 and $22 million, depending on the figures consulted. The film regularly shows up on 100-best lists, despite the fact that it is now eighty years old. Starring John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, the World War I film of an ordinary American doughboy and his French sweetheart tells a simple story that touched millions and turned its director, King Vidor, into the studio's most bankable commodity. Despite its popularity, though, the film's original negatives were for decades thought to have been lost. This article, then, describes the process by which the original negatives were not only found but also restored to their original glory, allowing for the striking of new 35mm prints. [End Page 140]
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When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was formed in 1924, it immediately became one of the most powerful studios in Hollywood, having the backing of the giant distribution and exhibition network of Loew's, Inc., as its parent. Marcus Loew had acquired Metro Pictures in 1920, but it was with the merger with the producer-distributor, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation on May 16, 1924 (minus Sam Goldwyn, who had been voted out in 1922) that Loew's became a powerhouse. Although Metro brought such important directors as Rex Ingram to the company, the Goldwyn merger netted directors Marshal Neilan, Erich von Stroheim, and King Vidor, the Goldwyn lot in Culver City (originally built by Harry Aiken for Triangle), as well as a distribution contract with William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures. This last, of course, was a real prize, since the new company could now count on abundant press coverage throughout the Hearst newspaper empire. But there were also headaches attached, including the unfinished and floundering, money-hemorrhaging productions Greed and Ben-Hur. To bring in fresh blood for the new combine, Marcus Loew bought the independent studio of Louis B. Mayer, who brought with him his own management team consisting of Irving Thalberg and attorney J. Robert Rubin. Mayer was allowed to put his name in the production company's new moniker, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Mayer group's contract stipulated that they receive 20 percent of all profits received, a deal that would gall Nicholas Schenk, Loew's partner, for years.1
One of the first pictures to go into production was He Who Gets Slapped, directed by Victor Seastrom and starring Lon Chaney, who had left Universal and was to become one of MGM's biggest stars. A supporting role in that film was given to another performer who was at the cusp of stardom at Fox in 1923 and was now one of the first to sign with Thalberg after the merger: John Gilbert. The star's first assignment at MGM was the Elinor Glyn production His Hour (1924), directed by King Vidor.2 Gilbert appeared in four more pictures during the first year of the new company, including the well-received von Stroheim film, The Merry Widow (1925), but it was to be his next project in 1925 that made him a superstar.
Wanting a war story for director King Vidor, Thalberg hired Laurence Stallings, the author of the Broadway stage hit What Price Glory, and brought him to MGM from New York. Stallings wrote a five-page treatment, "The Big Parade," which used nothing more than a few details from his bestselling war autobiography, Plumes.3 The draft was then given to writer Harry Behn to expand into a full-fledged script with the participation of director King Vidor, who wanted to make a film about the ordinary foot soldier, neither a hero nor a coward. Vidor and Behn also made other substantial changes, including creating the role of the hero's mother, allowing James Apperson to appear initially as somewhat of...