Is there a more obscure Best Picture winner than Cavalcade? It was the last winner to get a solo DVD release, it has less than 3,000 user votes on the IMDb (the fewest of any winner), and when is it ever mentioned, outside of Best Picture lists? To be fair, most of the early winners save All Quiet on the Western Front are scarcely mentioned, but Cavalcade is almost conspicuously forgotten.
And there’s a reason for that: it’s not very good. I don’t know if it’s the worst film ever to win–there are still quite a few winners I’ve never seen–but it may have the least of any winner to offer a modern audience.
In brief, it deals with the Marryot family, an aristocratic London family headed by Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Robert (Clive Brook). It begins on New Year’s Eve, 1899, with the family and their servants ringing in the new year and new century while Robert and butler Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin), prepare to ship out to serve in the Boer War. They make it back just in time for Queen Victoria’s passing.
Robert receives a knighthood, while Alfred and his wife Ellen (Una O’Connor) move out to take over a pub, but Alfred’s alcoholism and poor management skills lead them to ruin, and he is killed when a fire engine runs him over. Ellen, meanwhile, nurtures the singing and dancing abilities of their daughter Fanny (Bonita Granville).
Time passes; the Marryots’ sons Edward (John Warburton) and Joe (Frank Lawton) grow up, and Edward marries Edith (Margaret Lindsay), his childhood playmate and the daughter of Jane’s friend Margaret Harris (Irene Browne). Their honeymoon has them sailing on the Titanic, and Edward dies in the sinking (no word on whether Edith survives).
World War I breaks out, and Robert enters it as an officer, while Joe does so as a soldier. Before he leaves, he goes to a nightclub and sees Fanny (now played by Ursula Jeans) performing, and reconnects with her (in a rather creepy manner) backstage. They become close, but Fanny reacts dubiously to Joe’s proposal of marriage, and when Ellen goes to speak to Jane about it, she is likewise unenthused, but the point is rendered moot when word comes of Joe’s death in action, right before the Armistice is announced.
Years pass. Fanny becomes a major star, the Jazz Age flourishes, and the film ends with Jane and Robert celebrating New Year’s (now for 1933–the Great Depression is never mentioned), as Jane offers a prayer to Great Britain’s peace and stability in their turbulent times.
Cavalcade was based on a play by Noel Coward, one which has never been revived owing to its logistical demands, but which also seems not to be one of his greatest works; in Changing Stages Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright call it
…a jelly-boned giant of a play which charts the decline of British values largely in terms of the growing insubordination of the working classes…The reign had begun of Coward the true-blue playwright laureate. (114-15)
Oddly enough, the classist themes Eyre and Wright speak of aren’t very clear in the film; Alfred bristles a bit when in his cups about accepting any charity from Jane, and Ellen accuses Jane of letting class distinctions come between their children, but beyond that the film is ideologically rather vague. That may have been partially because such themes would’ve had less meaning to an American audience, but that’s the best guess I can offer.
Certainly Eyre and Wright hint at more memorable a drama than the film provides. What stands out most to me is how hollow it feels. At film’s end none of the characters are much better developed than at the beginning, and rather than achieving some sense of the sweep (or cavalcade, if you prefer) of history), we basically get a few patchy glimpses of life passing by, with a few historical signposts to let us know about where we are.
I think one could best call Cavalcade a boring British equivalent of Giant, right down to the hamfisted final scene of the protagonists, now elderly, reflecting on the “adventure” of their years together. Giant, though, is a great film otherwise, one which has compelling characters, strong direction, and striking cinematography. (I’m actually in the middle of rewatching it. Not a flawless film, but so much better than this one.)
Cavalcade has flat characters, mostly stagy direction, and not much cinematography worth mentioning. There are some well-handled crowd scenes, but the best scene in the film wasn’t even handled by director Frank Lloyd; it’s the great WWI montage, layering chorus girls singing patriotic jingles over scenes of carnage and destruction. It’s masterfully done, but it was the work of the great William Cameron Menzies, a far more distinctive artist than Lloyd ever was.
Nonetheless, Lloyd won Best Director, leading to a famous incident where Will Rogers called out “Come and get it, Frank!” at the Oscar banquet and Frank Capra, having received his first nomination (for Lady for a Day), leapt to his feet, prepared to accept his prize, only to be humiliated as the spotlight fell on Lloyd. (Though, since Capra won Best Director three times and Best Picture twice, and has been far better remembered than Lloyd, one might argue he had the last laugh.)
The film also won for Best Interior Decoration, and while the sets aren’t overly memorable, it was not a bad choice. The only other nomination was for Wynyard, but she lost to Katherine Hepburn for Morning Glory, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why. Wynyard is generally overwrought in the role, her mannerisms reflecting the stage more than the screen, her face often stuck in a look variously meant to suggest horror, shock, anxiety, or concern…but which really only suggests how hard Wynyard is trying to make an impression. And O’Connor is even worse; she created the role of Ellen on stage, and it’s genuinely hard to tell at times if she’s playing for laughs or pathos. She gets the laughs in any case.
Brook is passable; he only has to be affably stiff. The only other performance worth mentioning is Lawton, whose manner is really quite creepy. Granted, the scene where he goes to Fanny’s dressing room and watches her change before announcing himself would be hard for any actor to salvage, but Lawton just comes off as a pervert.
Most of Cavalcade doesn’t really work as intended; there’s a blunt obviousness to a lot of it which is more off-putting than affecting. The reveal that Edward and Edith are on the Titanic is so telegraphed by the conversation leading up to it (“How would you feel if you died tonight?”) that it’s laughable–and the film fucks up by listing the Titanic as being registered in Liverpool, when it was registered in Southampton. Not a major point, but one that should have been easy to get right.
Nothing, though, tops Jane’s final prayer for Britain, one which seems to indict the modern age, with its jazz music and homosexuality (there are scenes of gay and lesbian flirtation which mark the film as decidedly Pre-Code–was the gay Coward responsible?), as a source of distress for Merrie England, and doesn’t sound for a word like anything a human being would say. Jane and Robert then face the camera and a montage plays, including Fanny again singing Coward’s “Twentieth Century Blues”; after the montage, we return to Jane and Robert, still standing and staring. It’s so laughably fake it nearly undoes the whole film then and there.
Not that Cavalcade was much to begin with. Sluggish and undercooked, it somehow isn’t terrible; it’s never really unwatchable, either. It’s just hard to imagine what anyone today would get out of it, besides ticking it off their Best Picture watchlist. It really is about the least interesting film ever to win.