Note: this review contains spoilers.
Celebrated English playwright Noel Coward was no stranger to Hollywood. During his lifetime, more than a dozen adaptations of his popular plays were made into films, including the pre-Code comedies Private Lives (1931) and Design for Living (1933); he also dabbled in film acting, especially later in life. That’s not to say that Coward was a fan of Hollywood, however; when it came time to sell the rights to his 1941 play Blithe Spirit, Coward almost refused, claiming that the American films based on his plays (particularly calling out MGM’s version of Private Lives with Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery) had been bastardized to what he considered an alarming degree.
Though arguably best known for his witty comedies, Coward was equally adept at drama. In 1931, he embarked upon his most ambitious drama to date, a decades-spanning examination of British history called Cavalcade. The play explores history through the lens of the class system, focusing on upper and lower-class characters as they wade through the events of the early part of the twentieth century, beginning with the year of Coward’s own birth, 1899. Cavalcade was a massive dramatic undertaking, requiring a cast of hundreds and unwieldy sets that needed to be moved via hydraulics. Because of the scope of its production and the large number of cast and crew necessary to pull it off, Cavalcade is rarely staged these days; when it is, it’s done on a much smaller scale, as a severely edited-down version of the original.
While its lavishness presented difficulties on the stage, the play was ripe for a cinematic adaptation. Still, even with the advantages of film, the director of the 1933 film version of Cavalcade, Frank Lloyd, had a mighty task–to take more than thirty years of British history and relate the major events of that time, seen through the eyes of two families: the wealthy and aristocratic Marryots, and the Bridges, who serve in their home. In preparing his own production, Lloyd relied on a filmed version of Coward’s play, which had been recorded in London during Cavalcade’s run there. The final product does not seem to lean too heavily on any theatrical crutch, however, as for the most part, Lloyd succeeds in excising any sense of staginess from the film, utilizing the artfully-composed sets to full effect, particularly in the numerous crowd scenes. The end result was touted in advertisements as the “picture of the generation,” and it indeed would become one of the biggest box-office hits of the year.
The film opens on New Year’s Eve 1899, as the household begins to ring in the new year. Patriarch Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) is due to ship off to Africa in the morning to serve in the ongoing Boer War, much to the dismay of his wife, Jane (Diana Wynyard), and to the contrary delight of his two young sons, Edward and Joey. Their butler, Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin), is also set to go off to war the next day, leaving his wife, maid Ellen (Una O’Connor) and newborn daughter Fanny behind. Though Jane and Ellen are both worried sick about their husbands, life goes on until both men return safely. Upon his return, Alfred announces that he is leaving the Marryots’ home to manage a pub, and he and Ellen optimistically embark on their new future with the blessing of their former employers.
Nine years later, Alfred has become a drunkard, threatening the pub’s success. After Alfred embarrasses Ellen during a visit from the Marryots, Fanny (Bonita Granville) runs out into the street to escape her father’s drunkenness, and when he runs after her, he is killed by a speeding coach. Meanwhile, the Marryots enjoy the recognition that comes from Robert’s recent knighthood, and their son Edward (John Warburton) falls for his childhood friend Edith (Margaret Lindsay), daughter of Jane’s friend Margaret (Irene Brown). As the film’s timeline moves forward, Edward and Edith marry and take a long-awaited honeymoon on a most luxurious ship … which is soon revealed to be the Titanic.
Three years later, in the wake of Edward’s death, his younger brother, Joey (Frank Lawton), eagerly heads off to the burgeoning world war in France. He goes to a club with some friends and encounters Fanny (Ursula Jeans), who has become a popular singer and dancer. By 1918, the two have fallen in love, and Joey professes his desire to marry Fanny, though she tells him they’ll talk more about it after the war. Edith, who has taken on a more worldly persona in light of Fanny’s success, meets with Jane and professes her concerns about Joey and Fanny’s affair. Edith, who has begun to view herself as being Jane’s equal, raises her former mistress’ ire when she asserts that Joey should marry Fanny, but the argument becomes moot when bad news arrives in the form of a telegram from the war department.
By the end of the film, when New Year’s Eve 1932 rolls around, Robert and Jane are set to relive their annual tradition of toasting the new year. But this scene, which bookends the opening tableau of the film, reveals just how much has changed in the ensuing three decades. Gray-haired now, both of their children long gone, the Marryots are alone, centered in their big, empty living room, which dwarfs them and makes them appear almost stooped in their older age. The lights are dimmer, the prospects more so, even compared to the film’s first New Year’s Eve, when Robert made ready to head off to war. In the present day, Jane indulges in an almost dire holiday toast, bemoaning what the world has become, longing for a more peaceful and hopeful year ahead. It leaves the film on a downcast note, where these two people–loving though they are–are left with only their memories and each other for company as they move into the uncertain future.
Cavalcade functions as a series of vignettes, loosely constructed according to major events in British history during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Because of this, the narrative structure of the film relies heavily on multiple montages to move the action along in non-notable years. Additionally, at random points in time, the action slows due to a performance being shoehorned into the film–a theatrical play that goes on far too long, dance and musical numbers from adult Fanny. The clumsy addition of such scenes not only makes Cavalcade feel like it is dragging at times, but also tends to remove us overmuch from the emotional heft of the narrative.
Cavalcade won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Lloyd, and Best Art Direction for William Darling. Wynyard was also nominated for Best Actress, though she lost to Katharine Hepburn, who picked up the first of her eventual four trophies for Morning Glory (1933). Still, Cavalcade remains one of the least-known Best Picture Oscar winners. In large part, this may be due to how dated the film seems to us now. At the time, it was wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, inciting a kind of nostalgic yearning for the “good old days,” particularly in light of the harsh realities of the Depression. But the movie has not aged well, and its grand, sweeping, epic style does not engage the attention of modern-day audiences in the way other cinematic historical epics such as Gone With the Wind (1939) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) tend to do. Further, though the performers are universally sound (particularly O’Connor and Brook), there are no truly appealing characters to capture the imagination; Wynyard is especially prone to sometimes hysterical overacting of the sort that would film well in a silent picture but comes across as needlessly overdone in many of her scenes here.
Though the film has not held up as well as other movies from the time period, Cavalcade nonetheless remains a relatively entertaining, if overlong, curiosity. The movie’s innate structure may have its flaws, but the vignettes themselves are well-composed, utilizing a cast of thousands in certain scenes. It’s interesting to see some of the historical events of the early twentieth century brought to life; the depiction of Queen Victoria’s death, and the subsequent mourning of her subjects, is particularly intriguing. The movie also boasts a notable soundtrack, featuring music of the period interwoven to great effect throughout the picture.
After years of being unavailable on home video, Fox has finally released Cavalcade in a combo pack that includes both the Blu-ray and the DVD versions of the film. The high-definition transfer is relatively crisp and clear; the standard definition of the DVD, not so much. Though the extras are surprisingly paltry, considering Cavalcade’s position as an Oscar winner, this release does include a commentary track by film scholar Richard Schickel and a Fox MovieTone newsreel relating the movie’s success at the 1933 Academy Awards.