March 26, 2020
Cavalcade – UK, 1933
Unless you’re the director, producer, writer, or star of the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, the winner matters little in the long run. The most we can hope for is that the victor is a high-quality film that both speaks to the moment and ultimately stands the test of time. At the very least, we hope the winner doesn’t leave us with the notion that the Academy lost their collective mind. At the sixth Academy Awards in 1933, the members of the Academy had to choose between ten films: Cavalcade, A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive of a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Thru, and State Fair. Not having seen most of these, I am not in a position to be able to say which one should have one; however, I’m fairly certain that the best of the nominees was not Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade, that year’s eventual winner.
Cavalcade is the kind of film that, were it made today, would likely be called Oscar-bait; it’s also the kind of film that usually takes home awards primarily because many Oscar voters seem to appreciate effort over results. In other words, Cavalcade is an attempt at greatness. It is a film made by serious filmmakers and acted in a manner that makes one think that the cast were aware of the potential power of their words and thus delivered them as if they were on stage reciting Shakespeare, and by this, I mean turning to the camera and talking directly to the audience instead of the person they are actually conversing with. The film also has a scope befitting of a great film, and it touches on issues that few could reasonably argue are not worth contemplating for two hours. Alas, there are simply too many of them. The result of this is a pace that often feels rushed. Characters go off to war, only to return victorious ten minutes later. We learn that two characters have fallen in love, only for tragedy to remove them from the picture a few minutes later, and if you think that the film will take a moment to allow the other characters to reflect on their loss, you’d be sorely mistaken. Instead the film just jumps ahead in time to the next tragic period of time.
The film begins on New Year’s Eve in 1899. Our protagonists are a British husband and wife named Robert (Clive Brook) and Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) who are tremendously happy. We know because in their first scene, they tell us, which is more often than not an ominous sign. Sure enough, war is imminent. Robert, as well as the family butler, Alfred (Herbert Mundin), is about to be sent to South Africa to fight in the Second Boer War, a duty that neither one of them has any reservations about. Jane hopes the war is over before Robert gets there, but acknowledges that Robert would hate that, and Alfred explains to his wife that England occasionally has to have wars in order to demonstrate who the “top dog” is. Neither of them comes back with a different opinion, though their gung-ho nature has been slightly tempered.
The film’s conscience is Jane. A mother of two, she is horrified by the rapturous reactions that greet the commencement of armed conflict, and if you’re not clear where she stands, just wait. Eventually, she’ll do something to let you know like kicking her children’s toy tanks or wondering aloud just how many of Britain’s sons will come back alive. She is a pacifist in a time of Hawks, and unfortunately the war in South Africa ushers in a century of military clashes, death, technological change, and cultural loss.
Cavalcade has its share of nice moments. In one, Robert is asked by his sons if he killed any Boers, and his reply is a complete reversal of a remark he made prior to leaving for the battlefield. In another, a brass band plays on, and revelries continue despite a man lying dead from a tragic accident, and there’s a sweet moment in which the youngest son, Joey, sneaks backstage to see a childhood friend whose become a singer and accidentally sees her begin to undress. The way he looks away and then tries to exit the room undetected reveals an admirable level of decency and speaks of a more innocent time.
Unfortunately, such moments are undone by a pace that rarely allows the story to breathe. Leaps in time occur suddenly without any discussion of the changes that have taken place in the ensuing years. Some characters are introduced and then discarded; others reappear at an older age, yet the film devotes so little time to them that they don’t resonate. There’s also the film’s annoying habit of telegraphing disaster by having characters discuss how they would accept death because they could never imagine being as happy as they are at that moment. In one scene, a newlywed utters these sentiments before walking off screen, the camera remaining in place to linger on a lifebuoy with the word Titanic on it. Isn’t that convenient?
Soon it’s 1914; then 1918 in a chaotic and ineffective montage of marching troops and falling soldiers; then the Roaring 20's, during which we see a performance of Noel Coward’s “20th Century Blues,” a song that seems appropriate for the film but inappropriate for the venue in which it is sung; and finally New Year’s Eve, 1933, where we see Robert and Jane getting ready to crack open the champagne. The film has come full circle. However, its ending, with its somber reflection on the social impact of World War I and the subsequent cultural decline that occurred in the 1920’s, comes out of nowhere. This is a film that has been about a single family and the tragedies that befall it over the years. The children are generally respectful, and they grow into well adjusted adults. There is no sign of PTSD, and whenever one of them utters a remark that could be seen as slightly classist or egotistical, they quickly see the error of their ways and apologize. In other words, they are not affected by the changes that the film riles against in its final act. Thus, they are the wrong people to deliver a condemnation of 20th-century life. Actually, they’re proof that not everyone has changed.
Cavalcade is not the worst Best Picture winner. After all, stinkers such as Around the World in 80 Days, An American in Paris, and Midnight Cowboy are much less watchable. And Cavalcade does have some nice moments. Its opening scene, in which its characters celebrate a new year being ushered in with the commencement of a war, is well written and moving. I was also saddened by the fate of Alfred, the only character whom the war seems to have had a psychological impact on, and scenes detailing the aftermath of the First World War, some featuring blind soldiers learning to read Braille and weave baskets and others showing nearly empty churches, are quite effective at conveying the crises that gripped much of the world after the trauma of World War I.
However, too much of the film comes across as manipulative. Instead of letting the audience react to events naturally, characters look straight at the camera and tell viewers what they should be thinking. It’s annoying, and the fact that the makers of Cavalcade resorted to it says a lot about their confidence in the final product. Luckily for them, the Academy came to their rescue, ensuring Cavalcade a place in history, In doing so, however, they did serious damage to its credibility as an authority on quality. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars