Cavalcade is definitely one of your lesser known Best Picture winners, and after watching it, that doesn’t really surprise me. It’s a film that deals with the turmoil of British society from the turn of the century to now (meaning 1933 when the film was released) and one family’s determination to carry on through it all. It’s not bad, but the interest for me is more anthropological, in seeing the hardships felt by pre-WWII society. It’s quite humbling to see all the misfortune befall this family, knowing that the rise of Hitler happened in the very same year (unbeknownst to them I suppose).
Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) is a wealthy English woman whose husband Robert (Clive Brook) has just gone off to fight the Boer War in Africa with their butler, Bridges (Herbert Mundin). His wife, Ellen (Una O’Conner), a servant of the Marryots’ as well, is beside herself as Jane is. They wait a long year for their husbands to return, Jane despairing over her own sons’ eagerness to follow their father to war. Robert returns unharmed, along with Bridges, who was left a pub by another soldier and with Ellen leaves the Marryots’ employ in order to run it. Ellen mourns their loss of respectability and her husband’s sobriety. Bridges dies around the same time that Queen Victoria does, and the two families watch her funeral procession from the Marryots’ balcony.
The film’s method is to trade off between person tragedies and national ones, all the while showing a regrettable loss of respectability.
This trend continues, as Jane’s elder son, Edward (John Warburton) and his new wife Edith (Margaret Lindsey), are lost on board the Titanic. WWI then breaks out, and both Robert and Jane’s younger son, Joe (Frank Lawton), are fighting. During the war, Joe reconnects with Ellen’s daughter, Fanny (Ursula Jeans), and they fall in love despite their class difference. Just as Ellen is seeing Jane for her help to break them up, her efforts are rendered moot by the news that Joe has died on just about the last day before the armistice. Jane and Robert are left to witness the continual degradation of their society in their old age, though still stubbornly maintaining hope for the future.
One almost wonders why by the end of this film. I must think that anybody who has the occasion to watch this film after WWII would feel nothing but pity for Jane and Robert at the end of the film. They’re old, maybe they’ll die before any of it affects them too much, but my God they haven’t seen anything yet. They’ve seen two wars go by, both of their children dead before them, and still they look toward the future with hope. They have no idea “The War to End All Wars” did nothing of the kind, only started a bigger and even more horrific one. Jazz nightclubs are the least they have to worry about.
It’s pretty humbling to think that the passage of history that Jane and Robert are witnessing would only become more tragic in the next decade. That’s what mainly gives this film power, how it makes you contemplate the tragedies that unfolded at the beginning of the 20th century and the modern audience’s knowledge of what was still ahead for the rest of the 30s and 40s. However, as a film on its own, I’m not quite sure Cavalcade does a great job at structuring the story or helping you get to know the characters. I suppose this structure is intentional; it truly is a cavalcade of events marching past poor Jane. She doesn’t really do much besides watch them go by and try to maintain her own attitudes about them. The script doesn’t make any observations on the cause and effect of history itself, or how the characters move within them. The characters just seem passive observers, and the events driven by a separate and unfathomable engine of their own.
Of course, this film is 84 years old so perhaps I’m judging it a bit harshly. I didn’t mind watching it, and while I don’t imagine I’ll watch it again it was fine to see it once. Especially of interest were the period details, something about coming from a time after WWII is that one often doesn’t see films focusing specifically on a society pre-WWII, especially not with its own viewpoint. It was interesting to see the costumes and hear the music, and observe the class distinctions throughout the film.
The filmmaking techniques were also interesting, and seemed pretty typical of early talkies. During dialogue scenes it’s hard for them to move the camera, but in some scenes (including the death of Bridges) it’s clear it was done mos. The film also used a lot of super-impositions common to the silent era, though I thought that maybe they could have dialed back a little but I still enjoyed them during Fanny’s performance of “20th Century Blues.” It didn’t do much for the film in terms of personalizing the plot, but it was interesting to almost abandon Jane and Robert’s literal perspective and see what they saw in a bit more fanciful way. (They’re getting pretty old and detached at this point, so I doubt they ever made it into any of those jazz nightclubs.)
As I said, I don’t think Cavalcade will become one of my favorites, but it was interesting enough when I was watching it. I wish it had managed to make the Marryots a little bit more active players in history, or characterized history in a more compelling way than just a parade that passes one by. Nevertheless, the film did end on poignant note especially now that we are in the start of our own new century now.
Cavalcade was up for 4 Oscars for the year of 1933, and was able to take home 3 of them. It won best picture up against a whole slew of films, most of which I haven’t seen. I just don’t feel I know enough about the year or what films were doing in general in the 30s to really offer an opinion on the Oscars that year. I will say this though, Cavalcade strikes me as an old British version of 1994’s Forrest Gump, for whatever that’s worth. Frank Lloyd also won best director that year, beating out Frank Capra and George Cukor (who would both come back to win in later years). The film also took home best art direction, but Katharine Hepburn took home best actress for Morning Glory beating out Diana Wynyard here (haven’t seen that Hepburn performance but Wynyard doesn’t do anything here to make me doubt Hepburn deserved it). I can’t presume to say what should have won that year, but Cavalcade was an interesting enough watch this time around, and seems to fit into the Best Picture mold.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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