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Cavalcade (Best Picture, 1933)

I wish I had been able to watch this one in its proper place in the lineup.  However, until a few months ago, it had never been released on home video, in spite of the fact that it was not only the first Fox movie to win Best Picture AND the second most popular film of 1933.  Due to the number of write-in votes, Fox finally released it on Blu-Ray and DVD last year, in honor of its 80th anniversary.

CAVALCADE is a grand sweeping epic that follows two English families from the relief of Mafeking in the Boer War in 1900 to New Year’s Eve, 1932.  One family, the Marryots, is clearly of high society, and indeed become titled partway through the film.  The father (Clive Brook) has no identified career other than soldier, fighting in the Boer War and World War I, while the mother, in a notable performance by Diana Wynyard, stays on the home front to worry and occasionally contribute to the war effort.  Wynyard has particularly expressive eyes.  This is useful for her character, who is both prone to despair and given many real reasons to experience despair in her life.  Her elder son begins his honeymoon on the RMS Titanic, so we all can predict how THAT ends, while the younger survives four years in the trenches of WWI only to die in the final hours before the armistice.

The second family is lower-class, beginning the film as butler and head housemaid to the Marryot family.  I’d just like to point out here that it’s unusual to find a period story that has two servants married to each other – not unheard of, but unlikely, you might say. That said, the story wouldn’t work as well if Coward had been strict about historical accuracy, and it’s always possible that there were more married servants than is generally known. The Bridges family comprises a father, Alfred, who goes to the Boer war and returns to run a pub and become a drunk who dies in a street brawl, a mother named Ellen who is kind of a stereotypical strong common woman who comes up in the world, and the daughter, Fanny, who has a gift for the performing arts and becomes a singer/dancer/actress.  Naturally they continue to cross paths with the Marryots even after leaving service, and Fanny and the younger Marryot son have a love affair during the war.

It’s not that this movie is heavy-handed, though it is, and it’s not that it’s a bummer, which it is as well. As I watched, I was trying to figure out exactly WHY this movie had never yet been released for home consumption.  It was the only Best Picture winner left unavailable, after all.  It’s no worse than CIMARRON, and it’s certainly better than BROADWAY MELODY.  What I read back when I was originally trying to find the film implied that though wildly popular when released, it aged badly very quickly. I’m not talking about the physical film reels!

There’s a style of acting distinctive to the late 20s and early 30s, and in this respect CAVALCADE bears a strong resemblance to CIMARRON in particular. It’s a grand epic spanning several decades and featuring a weak-but-strong woman at the center of the story. Unlike CIMARRON, however, Lady Marryot’s husband isn’t a complete waste of space. But I digress.

This acting style is somewhere in between utter melodrama and the broader, declamatory style of the stage in Noel Coward’s day.  In some of the scenes of the film, you can hear Coward’s distinctive rapid-fire dialogue, but this film is based on one of his dramas, not a comedy. I can see how maybe it works better on stage – perhaps I should say “worked,” since according to the IMDB trivia page it’s never been revived.  In the film format the style is extremely dated and comes across as somewhat fake.  I’m reminded a little of a bit in one of British comedian Eddie Izzard’s shows in which he mocks the stilted style of British films.  I suspect (though it’s unlikely he’s seen CAVALCADE) that he’s basing his mockery on films like this one.

So yes, it’s dated, and yes, it’s not going to be as wildly popular now as it was when it first came out.  But then, neither are most of the Best Picture winners. When was the last time you heard someone talking about WINGS* or CIMARRON or TOM JONES? I still haven’t figured out why its release took so long and so much pestering of Fox.  Hollywood loves an epic, after all, and this film involved 15,000 minor characters, 25,000 costumes, and one scene had 2,500 extras. And while I wouldn’t list it among my favorites of the lineup, it’s really not that bad.

So why did it take eighty years to return to audiences?

Next Up: Twelve Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)

*If you ask me, WINGS really ought to come up more. It was fabulous.