The movie was a huge hit. When MGM discovered that a clause in director King Vidor's contract entitled him to 20% of the net profits, studio lawyers called a meeting with him. At the meeting, MGM accountants played up the costs of the picture while downgrading the studio forecast of its potential success. Vidor was persuaded to sell his stake in the film for a small sum. The film ran for 96 weeks at the Astor Theater and grossed $5 million (approximately $50 million in 2003 dollars) domestically by 1930, making it the most profitable release in MGM history at that point. Said Vidor, "I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera."
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".
After director King Vidor complained to MGM production chief Irving Thalberg that he was tired of shooting pictures that played in theaters for just one week, he told Thalberg about a new kind of realistic war movie he had envisioned. Thalberg was enthusiastic about Vidor's vision, and tried to buy the rights to the hit Broadway play "What Price Glory?" co-written by Maxwell Anderson and World War I Marine veteran Laurence Stallings. Since the rights to the popular anti-war play had already been acquired, Thalberg hired Stallings to come to Hollywood and write a screenplay for the new, realistic war picture that Vidor had dreamed about making. Stallings came up with "The Big Parade", an anti-war story that dispensed with traditional concepts of heroism, focusing instead on a love story between a Yank soldier and a French girl. After Vidor completed principal photography (at a cost of $200,000, approximately $2.1 million in 2003 dollars), Thalberg took the rough cut and previewed it before live audiences in Colorado. The audiences responded favorably, and Thalberg decided to expand the scope of the picture, as Vidor had created a war picture without many scenes of war. He had Vidor restage the famous marching army column sequence with 3000 extras, 200 trucks and 100 airplanes. After Vidor moved on to another project, Thalberg had other battle scenes shot by director George W. Hill. The result was a major hit that proved to be MGM's most profitable silent picture.
The famous scene in which Jim (John Gilbert) teaches Melisande (Renée Adorée) to chew gum was improvised on the spot during filming. Director King Vidor observed a crew member chewing gum and later recalled, "Here was my inspiration. French girls didn't chew or understand gum; American dough boys did...Gilbert's efforts to explain would endear him to her and she would kiss him...[It was] one of the best love scenes I ever directed." Gilbert also claimed that neither he nor Vidor expected Adorée to swallow the gum, which proved to be the scene's comic highlight.
Officially, MGM stated that studio electrician Carl Barlow had died during production when he slipped and fell off a platform. However, what actually happened was that a shelf collapsed above him and he was crushed to death by lighting equipment.
In an ironic turn, this film that dealt so intensely with the death of young men was plagued by the deaths at an early age of several people associated with it. Star John Gilbert died at 38 and Renée Adorée died at 35. In addition, the movie's uncredited, though legendary, producer Irving Thalberg died at 37, and co-star Karl Dane ("Slim") died at 47.
The army unit portrayed is the 42nd Infantry Division (Rainbow Division), as determined by the three-color (red-yellow-blue) rainbow patch (long version) worn on the upper left sleeve of the uniform. Casualties were so high that after the war the patch was cut in half and worn on the forward half of the sleeve instead of centered because "we left half our rainbow in France." During the transport scene the tailgates of the trucks are all painted with "42" and then the truck number. The credits thank the 2nd Division (Indianhead), so painting the "4" prior to the pre-existing "2" may have facilitated that. The 42nd Division was later a New York Army National Guard unit and you could find units in Syracuse, Geneva, etc.
Due to Hollywood censorship of the time, title-writer Joseph Farnham had to tone down the salty dialogue of the American soldiers. For example, he was required to substitute "b------s" for "bastards". Yet in another scene he was allowed to have John Gilbert shout (in all caps) "GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!"
The doughboy costume worn by John Gilbert in this film was at one point housed in The Crocker Museum in Hollywood, the first museum dedicated to props and other artifacts from American films. The museum was started by actor Harry Crocker, circa 1928.
Four years after making this film, King Vidor re-staged one of its most famous scenes--Jimmy going off to battle and leaving Melisande behind--in Show People (1928), a comedy starring Marion Davies as an actress trying to become a Hollywood star. In "Show People" Davies and William Haines played the parts originally played in "The Big Parade" by Renée Adorée and John Gilbert.