Witney Seibold has been watching every Best Picture winner in chronological order, and commenting on each of them in a series of brief essays on Nerdist. In week six, he watches Cavalcade, one of the forgotten ones.
I know a lot of film buffs, and have talked to many, many film critics in my day, and I have heard exactly zero references to Frank Lloyd’s 1933 Noël Coward adaptation Cavalcade, the sixth film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I have to be honest: I was eager to start the Best Picture project partly to discover some of the more obscure films in the Academy’s canon, hoping to reveal and enjoy some great films that you and I may not be familiar with. Cavalcade, sadly, is not one of the greats. Indeed, with its broadly melodramatic characterization, emotional cheap shots, and mismatched tonal tilt-a-whirl, I’m tempted to call this one the worst yet (although it does face competition from the static and unengaging Cimarron). I can only glean that Cavalcade‘s obscurity is owed largely to the fact that it’s just not that great a movie.
Cavalcade is another inter-generational epic (the second to have won Best Picture after Cimarron) that spans the time between the beginning of the Boer Wars in England (late 1899) all the way to end of the first World War in the late 1920s. Its main characters are the wealthy Marryots (Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook) and their children and servants. Their head maid Ellen is played by the immortal Una O’Connor, whom you may remember from The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. The film follows them all as significant historical events shape their lives. The men are called to fight in the Boer War in South Africa, and only some survive. Ellen’s husband become an alcoholic as a result. Everyone is sad when Queen Victoria dies. Later on, Edward Marryot (John Warburton) ends up taking a fateful voyage on the S.S. Titanic. Eventually, the entire family (not to mention the whole of England) is shaken up by the commencement of World War I.
To its credit, Cavalcade is gorgeous to look at. Thanks to the great expanse of settings (battlefields, reading rooms, ships, theaters, bars), there is an appealingly alive sense of visual variety. The crowd scenes are theatrically large, and the sense of historical scale is palpable. You really get a sense of more than just the plights of the characters. You get a sense of the actual history at stake. This is something that will be perfected and greatly expanded in Gone with the Wind, which I’ll get to in due course.
But the drama and the characterizations seem out-of-place. The film was based on a play by Noël Coward, and if you know anything about the famed playwright, you know that’s he’s well-known for his dry wit, declarative artificiality, and glorious comic camp. It may help to point out that he was a contemporary of P.G. Wodehouse. In an historical epic, these broadly fake, near-comic characters create an uncomfortable tonal clash. Are we meant to be giggling at their mannered foibles, or mourning their inevitable perhaps-bloody fates? The drama becomes awkward and mawkish. A great tragedy often rolls right into an upbeat musical number. To draw a perhaps-apt allusion, it would be as if Dog Day Afternoon were enacted by Wallace & Gromit.
And just when you think Cavalcade is supposed to be a dark comedy about the ironic and tragic consequences of history on the people who are out of its control (hence the constant use of the stage and musical numbers), it begins throwing a series of dark montages at you, changing the message altogether.
The final message is, to give the film some credit, incredibly powerful. The montages are gorgeous abstract mosaics of British life during the war, and how World War I was such a violent, dark, and devastating event in the history of the world, that people pretty much lost all faith, hope, and happiness. World War I, the film seems to argue, broke any and all social contracts with the people, leading to a new modern age of advanced technology, bustling sensual devotion, and a bottomless pit of existential despair. The war destroys everything, abroad and at home. Cavalcade ends with a toast to peace amidst what seems to be the new world order: Pain, confusion, and chaos. It’s an excellent ending to a largely stodgy movie.
I’m learning this from the Best Pictures: The cinematic universe was just as preoccupied with World War I as it would come to be with World War II. There are now more WWII films than there ever were WWI films, but that doesn’t mean the Great War was any less horrible.
Join me next week for It Happened One Night.