The Best Picture Project – Cavalcade (1933)

 Cavalcade (1933)

Directed by Frank Lloyd

Based on the play by Noel Coward

It’s kind of a cliché when people say things like, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” as if somehow in the good-old days everything was better. Unfortunately, in the good-old present we know that most things in the past were kind of crap and bad for you: lead paint, chemical run-off in rivers and groundwater, asbestos in schools. This is never more true that with the Best Picture winner of 1933, Cavalcade, because honestly, if this movie is a good example of what the Academy thought a Best Picture winner ought to be – and now, after seeing three of the first six, I’d say it is – then I’m only too happy they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

The movie, as it is, is multi-generational survey of the major events of the early parts of the 20th century as seen through the lives of two families in a grand British home: the Marryot’s, the master’s of the home, and the Bridges, the servants. Over the course of the film we see the up-and-down fortunes of both families played against the backdrop of some of the biggest hits of the time: the Boer War in Africa, in which both master and servant fight; the death of Queen Victoria, whose funeral procession passes right by the homes front door; the sinking of the Titanic, which claims the lives of roughly 25% of the main cast; to World War II, which claims another 12.5% of the cast; until finally, there is the rise of the Jazz age and the end of the film.

My first impression is to call the film some sort of historical survey but watching it I wasn’t reminded of the history of the world but actually of Woody Allen’s Zelig, a movie in while a non-descript somehow slithers his way into every important world event. Then, reminded of Zelig I moved on to thinking of Forrest Gump, which is basically the Hollywoodized-big-budget take on Zelig. It occurs to me that if one were going to have a film festival of like-minded films, these three would make an interesting night of viewing, as all three share that same sort of ‘on the doorstep of history’ narrative. However, I would make sure Cavalcade went first, because while Forrest Gump is merely mediocre, and Zelig is sublime, Cavalcade is kind of blah.

While it won Best Picture, Cavalcade is far from the most deserving Best Picture in history. Base on a play by Noel Coward – who is supposed to be some super-muckety-muck of the theater – and directed by one of the original Academy founders, Frank Lloyd, the movie had all the makings of greatesness. Instead I found the direction uninspiring, the writing pathetic and the effort needed to soldier through both a bit laborious.

Certainly, the film has its virtues, in that some characters rang true. I especially liked Joey, not just because he shares my name, but because he was intensely charming and thought the best scene in the film was the one in which he snuck into Fanny’s dressing room to surprise her, only to be surprised when she – knowing he’s there – suddenly stars undressing. The look on his face when she drops her dress and stands there in her underwear is fantastic. Unfortunately, while some characters were compelling, others, like Diane Wynyard (left) played Lady Jane Marryot, the snobbish mistress of the house, rang so false they were practically tone deaf. Unlike the more naturalistic – and charming – performance of Frank Lawton as Joey, Wynyard is stylized to the extreme. Her performance is so overwrought, and prone to speechifying on important topics as she stares off dramatically into space that, by the end of the film, it was a bit bummer she wasn’t one of the 65% of the main cast who wasn’t dead. Alas, maybe that was the message of the film – beyond the anti-war sentiment: it’s always the good ones who die. Worse was knowing that she received a Best Actress nomination for this film.

Worse than hit or miss acting was the writing. Noel Coward might be a big name but the real drawback of the film was the desire to capture 30 years of British history in a 110 minute movie. Because of all the compression there were wild time shifts that left the film a bit jittery. For instance, in practically back-to-back scenes we see Mr. Bridges in 1899, just at the end of the war, a happy-go-lucky type who’s just bought a pub and can stop being a servant, only to turn around moments later in 1908, when Mr. Bridges is a sloppy drunk, failing in business. I’m not suggesting it was necessary to spell out every bit of his decline, but zipping from one mood to the other as fast as that is jarring.

And if it’s not the time-shifts that jolt, it’s the intention of the filmmakers to craft an important and deep film in the most obvious way imaginable that sinks the piece. Consider that, after two of the characters are married – Edward and Edith – they go on an ocean voyage. We only see one scene from this trip, a little conversation they have on death and happiness at the rail of the ship, the ocean stretched out behind them. It’s a bit of corny dialog they have, and also kind of sweet, but the moment they stepped away from the rail to reveal the life-preserver behind them emblazoned with the word Titanic – yes, the Titanic – sucked all the importance right out of the conversation and kind of made me want to vomit.

What makes the win for Cavalcade all the more amazing is knowing there were some pretty heavy-hitters in the race. There was I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang – which I have on DVD and need to watch – Lady for a Day from Frank Capra, and my personal favorite of the nominees, The Private Lives of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton.  However, the real Best Picture of 1933, and the one with the longest level of cultural impact, wasn’t even nominated: King Kong.

Trivia:

Frank Lloyd was your Best Director winner this year but his win was something of a humiliation to Frank Capra.  At the ceremony, both were nominated and Capra really wanted to win and when Will Rogers opened the envelope and said, “Come on up and get it, Frank,” Capra stood up triumphantly.  Nothing like having what would be your greatest triumph turn into “the longest, most shattering walkin my life,” as Capra later wrote in his autobiography.

Of all the Best Picture winners, there are two not currently available on DVD: Wings, the very first Oscar winner, and this film, Cavalcade. This probably explains why I was forced to see Cavalcade on Fox Movie Channel. It also explains why I will probably have to start scouring the internet for a VHS copy of Wings.

You can find the list of winners, including those watched and those to go, by clicking here.

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