The video version of this review (which was created in February 2015) can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehbAXFTjJxo
There is a danger in Hollywood, and in all creative professions really, of making something for the wrong reason; a danger of producing something for the glamor and awards that it might receive. This is almost always, if not always, the death knell for a movie, and while I can’t be entirely certain it factors into this case, I do feel it had a part to play in the final product of today’s film, Cavalcade (1933).
Cavalcade was the first Best Picture win for the Fox Film Corporation (founded by William Fox in 1915) and the only one it would receive before its merger with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935. The original intention was to film this very British movie with a very British story in the U.K. but plans changed and it was shot entirely in California. It did, however, have a Scottish director and a mostly British cast, its two stars (Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook) being huge actors during that period. Cavalcade was nominated for four awards that year – Best Director (for Frank Lloyd, who would later go on to direct another Best Picture Winner, 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty), Best Actress, Best Art Direction, and, of course, Best Picture. It won all but one, Best Actress, which I find justifiable given the performance of the lead actress – something we’ll get into in a bit.
We have yet another film based off something else, this time a 1931 play by famed stage-writer Noel Coward. The play was later adapted again into the 1971 British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, which followed the going-ons in a well to do household through the lives of a family and its servants. These days you can see echoes of it in the hit BBC show Downton Abbey. Cavalcade tells the story of a late 19th century family, the Marryots (the mother played by Diana Wynyard and the father by Clive Brook), and their housekeepers (led by Una O’Connor and her character’s husband played by Herbert Mundin) who must now face the different and constantly changing times of the 20th century. Not a bad premise at all, but, as will be discussed, not executed all that well.
One of the first failings of the film is that the characters are not terribly likable nor are they well portrayed by the cast. This is particularly important considering this is a character driven film. While there are cast members who do a decent (or at least not bad) job, many times they come off as overacting, melodramatic clichés of British citizens rather than actual fictional people.
There are a few good moments here and there. In one scene, Mrs. Marryot, who I generally thought was performed by the worst offender in the overacting category, is trying to be happy and celebrate the New Year, but can’t because of a recent tragedy in her family. Watching the mother trying to put on a smile and enjoy the festivities, like everyone else around her, is heartbreaking. This, however, far from makes up for the general unsatisfactory character choices throughout most of the film. Wynyard, for example, is still insufferable as the mother. There’s her overacting, but ignoring Wynyard’s pension for overdoing it, Mrs. Marryot’s default emotions in this movie are worried and sad. Yes, a character is allowed and expected to get upset when horrible events are happening all around, especially when the character’s spouse and kids are occasionally involved. But when that side of a character is the only one I see, it can get tiring fast. It doesn’t help that her character is passive to the point of not doing anything at all but worrying. When Mrs. Marryot isn’t crying or anguishing over the possible fates of her family, she is acting like a stuck-up upper-class woman who I couldn’t stand. (There are some scenes between her and her kids at the beginning of the movie, though, that are a little touching and made me sympathize with her.) The other actors fair about the same. They’re rather not funny when they’re supposed to be or their overacting so much during dramatic scenes that I can’t take them seriously. You try not to giggle at some of Una O’Connor’s ‘dramatic’ line deliveries.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on the actors because the script does them no favors. Like the Best Picture winner from a couple years prior, Cimarron (1931), Cavalcade covers a great many years, 1899 to 1933, in its 110 minute run time. It covers many of the important wars and tragedies of that 34 year period, like the second Boer War, the sinking of the Titanic, the death of Queen Victoria, and World War I. This film goes one step further than Cimarron by not only jumping around in time but also in character point of view. Through these different POVs we see the pivotal moments in the lives of all the main characters (that being the Marryots, their children, and their servants). These important events in turn affect the lives of everybody else in some way.
What the script writer was unsuccessful in creating was a balance between these different spans of time and character moments. Often, too brief a time is spent on each character, with a lot of jumping around and scenes coming across as almost pointless vignettes. After serving in the Second Boer War, Mundin’s character opens a bar, becomes a drunk, problems ensue and something bad happens. Edward, one of the Marryot sons played by John Warburton, grows up, falls in love, gets married, and then something bad happens. Joe Marryot, Edward’s younger brother played by Frank Lawton, grows up, falls in love with a childhood friend, joins the army during World War I, and then something bad happens. The Mundin storyline, all the stuff after the war anyway, lasts only 10 minutes; Edward’s romance goes on for just under 12 minutes, although there is some time dedicated to it in the Mundin storyline; and Joe’s is a respectable 25 minutes. This structure is not only repetitive but rather problematic from a character point of view because as a viewer I never got too invested in anybody because not a lot of time was given for each character to be established and grow. I see the point of jumping around for the story and themes but it just doesn’t do justice to the characters, even if they are poorly written.
Also, too many of the historical events are treated with an ironic twist of some kind, such as two characters talking about how they’re looking forward to spending their whole lives together before its revealed they’re on the Titanic or other characters commenting on how World War I will be a short war that will only last a few months. Moments such as those do not occupy every moment of the film but it happens enough that the tone becomes too corny, which undermines the film’s theme and messages and is the reason I also call it Irony: The Movie.
The theme, in theory, I actually quite like. How much the world changes when going into the 20th century and how the world continues to change, it seems every second, is an idea not often explored in movies. The movie tries way too hard, though, to get this message across. I feel as if the writer desperately wants to come off as deep and smart. This is ultimately the writer’s downfall.
To the film’s credit, it does get a little better once they get to World War I and beyond. The Great War is shown primarily through a montage of soldiers marching as the background slowly gets more battered, soldiers continue to fall by greater and greater numbers, and the music gets progressively darker. This scene is quite effective and successfully shows the escalating disaster that was the First World War. There’s another montage near the end of the film where one character sings over a slew of images of how dark the world is becoming in then-present day 1933. I honestly can’t remember most of what they show, but it works as a montage. Like the good acting bits I mentioned before, however, these well executed moments don’t come close to saving the film but instead stand to show the promise of what the film could’ve been under better hands. The montage is also underminded by when it starts with Mr. and Mrs. Maryott staring off creepily into the distance and ends with them still staring off creepily into the distance, which creates an unintentional comic moment in this very dark and serious scene.
I am almost certain that the main cause for all these problems was the writer, director, the actors, or someone trying too hard to make this a great film, an Oscar winning film. In its efforts to be smart, to be impactful, it mostly becomes none of that. It becomes a movie I mostly can’t recommend. Is it as bad as The Broadway Melody (1929)? Not quite, but only by a few small margins. Its still pretty bad but in different ways than that previous Best Picture winner. That it beat out movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933) starring Paul Muni and Frank Capra’s flawed but still entertaining Lady for a Day (1933) astounds me.
From what I’ve read, the film seemed to be well regarded at the time, but over the years, has fallen in worse favor. I have to agree. It’s sad because the movie looks stunning with it’s beautiful sets, costumes, and overall production value, offering great looks at things like an old-fashioned ball with gorgeous dresses and the Titanic. But such great technical and design skills are wasted in this subpar film. I will say one good thing about this movie. It serves as a reminder of why filmmakers should never set out to make an important film or a movie they think will be praised by everyone. Instead, directors, writers, and etc. should just try to make the best film they can, and if awards follow, then all the better.