Cavalcade (1933, Frank Lloyd)
!! CAUTION !!
The 1930s as seen through the funhouse-mirror perspective of the relevant Academy Award winners were certainly a contradictory time, but one theme that emerges as a near-constant in all but two of them up to this point is the long shadow cast by the Great War. Cavalcade is along with Cimarron the runt of the early litter — a really awful movie, in other words, but it’s fascinating in this respect. The entire film, the anti-modernist sentiment and brash prejudice protruding from it, speaks from an almost fascistic nostalgia, courtesy of playwright Noel Coward. Cavalcade was his ostensible big Statement about the way of the world in Britain during the first three decades of the century. “Twentieth Century Blues,” sung toward the finale, defines succinctly his perspective upon the world going to shit. That’s not an unfamiliar generational perspective at all, but Cavalcade wallows so deeply in it that it’s well-nigh impossible to believe it’s meant to be serious. Start, for instance, with the fact that the lament in question is sung by a character posited the film as a symptom of the immoral horrors of so-called progress — a nightclub singer who dares hobnob with one of Our Boys.
So it goes in this laughable but never boring epic-scale photoplay of a wealthy family’s lurching journey through the years, centering mostly on the loss of their two sons. Nearly everything written about the film that you can find posits that it tells parallel stories of upstairs-downstairs families, but apart from one sequence that delves into the sordid subsequent life of the Bridges, the bar-owning former servants of the stuffed-shirt Marryots, this is exclusively a lengthy rant of the Haves against the Have-Nots and all their barbarism and frivolity. In the groan-inducing style of a proto-Forrest Gump, the movie’s bookended by two wars — Boar and the big one — and somehow finds time to kill off a character on the Titanic and wax extensively about Queen Victoria’s death pageant. For all its rampant elitism, it’s really a rather simple-minded entertainment, as extremely confined and closed off as you’d expect for a filmed play, and though it tries for tearjerker subtext, it’s really a flat and emotionless film that only lapses into the easiest kind of sentimentality when it bothers at all.
The Bridge family only returns, once patriarch Alfred is killed in an accident, to provide the automatically disapproved love interest for war hero son Joe Marryot, something for Mrs. Marryot to roll her eyes and faint over. The Marryots are portrayed with stunning incompetence by Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook, the latter in a fit of run-of-the-mill bad acting but the former in one of the most horrendous performances I’ve ever seen on film. Wynyard’s idea of getting inside her character’s head is to constantly appear to be losing her mind, like she thinks she’s in a Eugene O’Neill instead of this greeting-card pap, but worse yet her method of appearing to lose her marbles is a kind of flailing Ed Wood horror-show fused with sheer nose-raised nastiness. By the end, after she’s exposed the entire world and the audience to her low opinion of virtually everything about modern society and especially the lower classes, it’s retroactively laughable to recall her warmly inviting the Bridges to have a drink and ring in the new year with her and her husband.
During the later scenes, Wynyard’s got so much disdain for Mrs. Bridges (Ursula Jeans, one of the film’s few bright spots) she can’t even explain how disturbing and awful the idea of their children marrying is — it’s supposed to be obvious, a Marryot just doesn’t fuck that kind of riffraff. Coward somehow expects us to take this at face value. The characters’ worldview is presented as a matter-of-fact function of our own, and of course it was a different time, but there’s simply no way this anti-humanism could have flown with the same audiences that fell in love with All Quiet on the Western Front and It Happened One Night. One assumes that even upon release, Cavalcade was something of a relic.
Its tropes and fill-in-the-blank shorthand recollections of the outer world of the time it inhabited are the entirety of Cavalcade‘s content. Not one of its characters makes a lick of sense, and we never have any deep knowledge of any of them. Even the grandest and emptiest of MGM’s big productions of the early ’30s gave some hint of a sense of life within its occupants and had the decency to take its characterizations seriously. Fox’s Cavalcade is in such a hurry to present pop-historical context and wag its finger at the Youth at every turn, it doesn’t bother to even try to give the Marryots or Bridges any weight or value. They aren’t people, they aren’t even archetypes, they’re just chess pieces used to make Coward’s various weak points.
Director Frank Lloyd is given nothing to do here, so of course he does nothing. He manages to keep the picture moving and steady, and mercifully short (well under two hours), and during a montage about WWI and the ’20s he gives the great William Cameron Menzies an opportunity to try out some dizzying visual effects that would be perfected in head-rush Technicolor on Gone with the Wind. But there’s simply no elevating material this empty. Cavalcade isn’t as bad as Cimarron (though it does give the latter a run for its money in terms of offensiveness, in this case classism rather than racism) but it’s even less excusable because it conceals no sense of even failed showmanship, it’s just a long and dull rant about nothing much. Its disappearance from legend and availability is no loss.