1933: Cavalcade

  • Production Company: Fox Film Corporation
  • Year Released: 1933
  • Directed by: Frank Lloyd
  • Starring: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook, Una O’Connor
  • Expect to pay: $10-13

Cavalcade, billed as “The Picture of the Generation,” was the first co-production film to ever win Best Picture. The production team at Fox filmed this in London. While it was not the first such co-production in Hollywood history, it would set a precedent for the Oscars, as many other co-productions would eventually take home Best Picture. Cavalcade, based on the 1931 play of the same name by Noël Coward, chronicles the lives of two families from New Year’s Eve 1899 up to New Year’s Day 1933. During this time, we see the horrors of the Second Bohr War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Jazz Age and Great Depression that follows. It’s a cavalcade of the 20th century, as it were.

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Image Courtesy of DoctorMarco.com

The film presents itself well, and it is very well paced.However, the characters and the plot are lacking. I won’t give away many details in regards to the plot. But while a great many things happen, the actual events were not as developed as well as I would have liked. Sure, the pace was brisk, but that pace squanders several chances for real depth and character development. After the eldest son of one of the families dies on the Titanic, one would think that we’d be able to see some of the grief that the family goes through. Instead, we get a timeskip to 1914 and the beginning of World War I. I wanted to like these characters more, but I couldn’t simply because the film wouldn’t let me spend more time with them. It all wraps up with a toast to the future and a prayer for peace that is frankly chilling and oddly prophetic in retrospect. But we’ll talk more about that at the end of this review.

While I didn’t get a chance to learn as much about these families as I would have liked, what we do get in the confines of the script is great. There is something compelling and satisfying about seeing a little boy and a little girl fighting over toys only to get older, fall in love and get married.

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“What do you mean they’re going to remake us in Downton Abbey?”

And yes, while all of this is delivered through some spotty dialogue, the acting on display more than made up for it. Unlike Grand Hotel, the director of Cavalcade, Frank Lloyd, knew how to get the best performances from his cast. Of particular note is Una O’Connor as Ellen Bridges, the maid of the upper-crust family that takes center-stage for the majority of the proceedings. So while this film lacks character development, it’s not the cast’s fault.

What this film lacks in the way of character development, it makes up for in cinematography. There are a lot of moving parts in Cavalcade, and Lloyd knew exactly how to capture it all. There are a great deal of panoramic shots, and the sets and the costumes are all nicely detailed and fit the time period the story is in well. In addition to Best Picture, Cavalcade also won for Best Art Direction. Despite the meticulous attention to detail, Lloyd was not afraid to employ some avant-garde techniques in his film. All of World War I is shown through one giant montage of shouting and destruction. It is a blur, takes a few minutes and can only described as nightmarish. For the people that lived through World War I, it must have surely felt that way when World War I happened. These montages are put into great use once again to show the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, with everyone trying to explain what has happened after World War I and why things are the way they are. Cavalcade, through its use of montage, sums up quite a lot of information and feeling and sentiment without ever saying a word. It’s master-stroke and proves that Frank Lloyd earned his Best Director Oscar for this movie.

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Una O’Connor rocks in this movie.

Cavalcade also uses its soundtrack to great effect. Throughout the entire film, the song “Auld Lang Syne” gets played at important parts of the story. This is a technique used in opera called leitmotif. The term was invented by Richard Wagner, and this is the first talkie Best Picture winner to use it to such effect.

But getting back to why it was so prophetic. People were trying to get away from the mess of the world. The world’s economy was in the crapper and brutal regimes were cropping up left and right in order to play on people’s fears in a grab for power. 1933, the year Cavalcade was released, was also the year Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. With the Japanese invading Manchuria two years earlier, it can be argued the first grumblings of a second World war were already being heard. All the same, no one could have predicted the magnitude and long-lasting consequences of World War II. So this innocent and heartfelt appeal for calm and for peace in the world seems prophetic to us now. It’s almost as if they knew it was coming and they wanted to do everything they could to stop it from happening. In our own uncertain times, that message resonated greatly with me as a viewer. For all of its merits as a piece of entertainment, it also encapsulates the fears and anxieties of an entire generation still trying to make sense of how the old order could swept away so quickly. As the film itself says, time changes things, and how we react to those changes is entirely up to us.

Overall, with its attention to detail and its acting, along with the overall direction, Cavalcade was not the total snooze-fest I was expecting it to be. If anything, it proves that critics can be wrong. While Grand Hotel is held on a pedestal, actual good movies like Cavalcade have to languish in obscurity.

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“HELLOOOOOOOOOOOO, NURSE!”

This movie is far from perfect however. The characters could have used more development, and it really is more like a set of loosely connected events than a cohesive plot, but I’m starting to realize that was a popular method of film storytelling at the time. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but considering I had such low expectations, I came out feeling surprisingly positive about it. I think you will, too. Though I don’t think this is the best movie that was nominated in 1933, I see why the Academy chose it, so I will say that I agree with their choice.

Now, the next film up is 1934’s It Happened One Night. I have high hopes for this one, so I hope it doesn’t disappoint. See you all then.

Order Cavalcade here.

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