Cavalcade (United States, 1933)

January 03, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cavalcade Poster

Cavalcade, which is based on the Noel Coward play of the same name, became the third anti-war movie in the Academy Awards' first six ceremonies to win the Best Picture Oscar. If nothing else, this reveals something about the lingering power of World War I on the national and international psyches during the era. Yet even as Cavalcade was accepting the honor of being named the top motion picture of 1933, storm clouds were again brewing over Europe. It was during 1933 that the Nazi party took power in Germany and, by the time the Academy Awards ceremony was held in 1934, Hitler was already Chancellor and on his way to becoming President. As deep as the scars were from The Great War, few lessons had been learned except how to more efficiently kill people.

Cavalcade tells the "Upstairs/Downstairs"-style story of two British families across the years from December 31, 1899 to December 31, 1932. The "Upstairs" clan members are the Marryots: father Sir Robert (Clive Brook), mother Lady Jane (Diana Wynyard), and sons Edward (John Warburton) and Joe (Frank Lawton). The "Downstairs" family consists of manservant Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin), his wife, maid Ellen (Una O'Connor), and their daughter, Fanny (Ursula Jeans). As the movie opens, both Robert and Alfred are preparing to fight in the Second Boer war. Both distinguish themselves in combat. Upon their return, Robert is knighted and Alfred is able to leave service and set himself up as the owner and operator of a London pub.

The story moves forward by leaps, occasionally pausing to depict the impacts of a real historical event upon these fictional families: the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and the start of World War I. Once that conflict is over, the film spends its waning moments in the Jazz Age, wrapping up stories and offering a somewhat over-the-top yet oddly prophetic message about how the demagogues of the era represent a clear and present danger to the common man's hope for a dignified peace.

Unlike previous Oscar-winner Cimarron (which captured the Best Picture award two years before Cavalcade), this movie manages to effectively present a story that spans a significant period of time. The film's transitions are mostly smooth (although the montage that bridges the years from 1914 to 1918 is inelegant, featuring a constant looping of the same few sequences), and there are no jarring jumps. It's easy to believe the characters in the later time frames are older versions of the ones we first get to know. Cavalcade features some sequences with complex logistics, such as the massed crowd when the soldiers depart on a steamer to participate in the Boer war, but there are also some curious instances of cost-cutting. When Queen Victoria's funeral procession travels beneath the balcony from which the Marryots are watching, the passage is marked by the characters turning their heads from right to left - we never see what's in the street.

Cavalcade's anti-war message is presented with more subtlety than that in Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front. The story is more concerned with the potential of death than it is with actual tragedy - how those left behind live in a constant state of anxiety, never knowing if their loved one is going to appear on a casualty list. (One of the most moving scenes occurs when Jane and Ellen go to a central location to read the names of the latest dead and wounded soldiers.) The movie also touches upon the common theme of how wasteful and irrational war is - it is referred to as a way for men to earn their stripes and for nations to flex their muscles.

Although the source material is Noel Coward's play, the movie owes as much (if not more) to director Frank Lloyd than it does to the original author. Although some of Coward's witty, penetrating dialogue remains, Lloyd has opened up the settings enough to make this seem more like an original production than an adaptation of a stage-bound show set primarily in drawing rooms. Three actors reprised their roles in the movie: Una O'Connor (as Ellen), Irene Browne (as Margaret Harris, Jane's friend), and Merle Tottenham (as Annie, a maid).

The two leads give the most accomplished performances. The one with the most screen time is Diana Wynyard, since the story is told primarily from Jane's perspective. This was only the second screen appearance for Wynyard, who had an extensive previous stage resume, and it impressed critics and viewers sufficiently for her to be nominated for an acting Oscar (she lost to Katharine Hepburn). Although Wynyard would continue to appear in films for another 20 years, she did so sparingly, preferring live performances. Cavalcade represented her only Academy Award nomination.

Better known and more prolific than Wynyard was Clive Brook, whose sure, confident portrayal of Sir Robert is one of Cavalcade's pleasures. Brook is excellent, equally at home delivering Coward's lines and settling into more serious moments. At the time he starred in Cavalcade, Brook was in the midst of a long and prosperous career, which began in 1920 during the silent era and extended into the mid-40s. In that span, he made about 100 movies, including three pre-Basil Rathbone appearances as Sherlock Holmes. Brook was never nominated for an Academy Award, in part because a significant portion of his career occurred before the Oscars existed.

Director Frank Lloyd won an Oscar for Cavalcade - his second such citation in three years. In 1930, he had the distinction of capturing three of the seven directing nominations (he won for The Divine Lady). Curiously, none of those three films were nominated for Best Picture. Following Cavalcade, Lloyd would be nominated once more, for 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty, which was that year's Best Picture; Lloyd lost to John Ford. Like his leading actor in Cavalcade, Lloyd had a long and productive career behind the camera, moving freely back and forth between the U.K. and Hollywood. He started in 1914 and was mostly retired by the mid-'40s (although he came back in the '50s to make his final two features).

Cavalcade was widely hailed upon its 1933 release; its positive critical reception boosted its Oscar credentials. The film was financially successful, grossing more than seven times its estimated budget over two releases (it was re-issued in 1935). Today, the film still stands up relatively well, playing as a restrained melodrama but is more valuable for its insights into how people during the early 1930s viewed the previous three decades. Perhaps the most interesting concept to glean from viewing Cavalcade is that the rapid advance of technology and industry made those living in the early 20th century feel overwhelmed by the inexorable advance of history, with the calm certainty of the Victorian era being shattered as the sun set on the British Empire. Cavalcade remains one of only two Best Picture Oscar winners as yet unavailable on Region 1 DVD (the other being Wings). However, it can be found on VHS and occasionally shows on cable movie channels.

Cavalcade (United States, 1933)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1