Although most of The Big Parade (1925) is set in the war-torn villages and battlefields of France, the acclaimed World War I drama also provides historic views of early downtown Los Angeles and Orange County. Told from the soldier’s point of view, the epic movie directed by King Vidor follows a trio of men from different walks of life brought together by combat.
Set in the Spring of 1917, the movie intertitles describe America then as a nation occupied in peaceful progression. Mills were humming with activity while buildings climbed skyward, monuments to commerce and progression.
The three male leads are introduced by their professions. Construction worker “Slim” (Karl Dane) is one of labor’s millions, building a nation, Bowery saloon-keeper “Bull” (Tom O’Brien) is a man of another trade, while idle “rich man’s son” James Apperson (John Gilbert) scoffs at ever taking over the helms of his father’s mill. Together these unlikely friends bond through the horrors of war.
The effect of Karl Dane working high in the air was created by building a simple construction set on the terrace overlooking the south portal of the Broadway Tunnel. The camera captured the city streets far below in the background, but cut off the bottom of the set standing on the terrace. This technique was used repeatedly during the silent era, especially for stunt climbing comedies. At the time downtown Los Angeles had five major tunnels; the “upper” Hill Street Tunnel that ran under Fort Moore Hill between Temple and Sunset, the “lower” Hill Street Tunnel that ran under Court Hill between 1st and Temple, the 2nd Street Tunnel, the 3rd Street Tunnel alongside the Angel’s Flight incline railway, and the Broadway Tunnel that also ran under Fort Moore Hill from between California Street (near Temple) and Sunset, as shown here. The south portal of the Hill Street Tunnel is where Harold Lloyd filmed three of his stunt comedies, as described in this post. Other posts shows how the tunnels are situated to each other, and how they fit in with film noir classics such as Criss Cross (1949). The Broadway Tunnel was demolished in the 1950s. Only the 2nd Street and 3rd Street Tunnels remain.
The movie kicks into gear when John Gilbert’s character James witnesses a parade around his home town square. Caught up in the fervor, tapping his feet to the militaristic music, John is easily persuaded to enlist by a group of his enthusiastic friends. The parade scenes were filmed in the heart of Orange County at Plaza Square in Orange, California, marking the intersection of Glassell Street and Chapman Avenue, named for the two founders of the city.
The Big Parade would prove to be one of the biggest hits of the silent-film era. Although remembered for humanizing the tragedy of war, it also preserves a bit of Southern California history as well.
For more images of the square you can visit Nathan Masters’s post How the City of Orange Circled Its Towne Square. The Big Parade (C) 1925 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Color street images (C) 2014 Google.