Release Date: April 15th, 1933 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Frank Lloyd Actors: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook, Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin, Beryl Mercer, Irene Browne, Merle Tottenham, Frank Lawton, Ursula Jeans, Margaret Lindsay, John Warburton, Billy Bevan
his is the story of a home and a family … history seen through the eyes of a wife and mother whose love tempers both fortune and disaster … ” begins “Cavalcade,” an epic adaptation of Noel Coward’s celebrated play. At the end of 1899, England is losing the war with the Boers in South Africa. As the twentieth century looms, the aforementioned London family, sheltered through two generations of Victorian prosperity, will soon have to worry about governmental affairs instead of lavish parties and material possessions.
Robert (Clive Brook) and Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) are celebrating New Year’s Eve, but their thoughts are on Jane’s brother Jim, engaged in the fighting, and Robert getting called off to join in the cause. Butler Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin) and his wife Ellen (Una O’Connor), the maid, are similarly concerned with the country’s conflict. “We have to have wars now and then just to prove we’re top dog!” Cooks (who toast bread by waving it over the fireplace) and other household employees also fret over the increasing number of soldiers contributing to the casualties, though grand send-offs still celebrate the various military men leaving for Cape Town to reinforce failing positions.
As an interesting contrast, Bridges departs at the same time as Marryot; in Coward’s depiction of the war, the upper class isn’t exempt from the sacrifices of the working class. And the anguish of worrying over lists of the deceased isn’t exclusive to any social status, either. Family friend Margaret (Irene Browne) keeps her chin up, hoping to distract Jane with fine dining and the theater (a war-themed display, whose singing and dancing eat up screentime) – but this is no time for frivolities. Jane is inconsolable. The Marryot children, Edward and Joey, insist upon playing with cannons and engaging in mock battles, which further irritates their mother.
The hostilities eventually come to an end, with both Alfred and Robert returning home. But the rejoicing is marred by Queen Victoria’s faltering health. After the queen passes, Robert is knighted and Alfred becomes the proprietor of a pub. By 1908, Edward Marryot is a young man (played by John Warburton), former maid Annie (Merle Tottenham) is married to a successful retailer (Billy Bevan), and Alfred has been drinking his business into the ground, causing both Ellen and daughter Fanny to hang their heads in shame.
“Cavalcade” moves slowly, focusing on the evolution of families as the children mature, the parents grow old (with commendable makeup effects, like those seen in “The Life of Emile Zola” four years later), and the times change. Romance and little bits of comic relief pop up as historical people and accomplishments and tragedies weave through the lives of the Marryots and the Bridges. Around the middle of the film, some of the attention shifts onto two young lovers (Edward and his new bride Edith [Margaret Lindsay]) honeymooning at sea, contemplating the future and pondering how affections always tend to fade. In a particularly startling sequence, they move away from the railing to reveal a life preserver stamped with the name “Titanic.” And in the next couple of scenes, as 1914 flashes onscreen, war against Germany is officially declared – which excites Joe (Frank Lawton), now an adult, who naively yearns for action.
Just as “Cimarron” did before it (and “Mrs. Miniver” would do years after), “Cavalcade” serves as something of a history lesson, narrated by generations of fictional characters interacting with real places and events (“Giant” and “Forrest Gump” would also borrow this technique, with their personas moving through the yesteryear). And Oscar clearly favors this type of large-scale saga, awarding all of those aforementioned productions the Best Picture Academy Award. Though the concept is an amusing way to educate, it isn’t the most effective at diversion; the relationships lack genuineness and depth (several scenes dispense with dialogue, as if specifically trying to avoid emotional content – or powerful revelations), while the structuring of the film is devoid of much creativity. Perhaps its intention is to be informative rather than artistic (despite being curiously cynical at times), but its notes on history are bound to be lost when its minimal entertainment value makes for an ultimately forgettable product.
– Mike Massie