A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933)

There are lots of forgettable best picture Oscar winners: Who today watches The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard, 1936), The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 1937), or Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)? But Cavalcade may be the most forgettable (and forgotten) of them all. Based on a play by Noël Coward adapted by Reginald Berkeley and Sonya Levien, it's the saga of 33 years in the lives of a wealthy London couple, Robert (Clive Brook) and Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard). Its portrait of their lives and the lives of their servants may have inspired the popular British TV series Upstairs Downstairs, and through it the even more popular Downton Abbey, both of which cover pretty much the same time period. In Cavalcade, as in the two TV series, the families suffer losses from the sinking of the Titanic and from World War I, and experience the social upheaval of a changing class system. But Cavalcade tries to cram it all into less than two hours, and tends to be more blatantly nostalgic about the passing scene. Unlike the creators of the later TV series, Coward and his adapters didn't have the benefit in 1933 of seeing what effect the events of the first third of the twentieth century would have on Britain and the world. It settles for a bit of prophecy in the form of a montage in which various talking heads rant about disarmament, communism, atheism, Christianity, and other ideologies, including a rather corny scene in a louche night club where same-sex couples seem to be on the verge of making out. (The film is pre-Code, so the strictures against depicting homosexuality haven't kicked in yet, though it's clear that the film -- despite Coward's own sexual orientation -- disapproves of it.) In addition to the best picture Oscar, Cavalcade also won a second Oscar for its director, Frank Lloyd, who had been the first director to be so honored, for The Divine Lady (1929). Wynyard also received a nomination for best actress, losing to a newcomer, Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933). Wynyard had a more successful career on stage than in movies. In Cavalcade she tries to register emotion by staring meditatively into the middle distance, which often looks like she has spotted something troubling on the wallpaper. The rest of the cast includes Herbert Mundin and Una O'Connor as the Marryots' servants, and Frank Lawton as Joe Marryot, the younger son, all three of whom would be reunited in a much better movie, David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935). For the record, some of the films that Cavalcade beat for best picture include 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy), and Little Women (Cukor).