Cavalcade (1933)

This review contains SPOILERS!
It's no huge shock to find out that "Cavalcade" was one of the first Best Picture winners—it has all the telltale signs of an Academy darling: the love stories, the jokes amidst the tragedy, the boldness (for the time), and the semi-happy ending. If you don't believe me, just look at the most recent winner "Argo" and the similarities have stayed true over eighty years.
This isn't to say that the Best Picture Oscar hasn't gone to worthy movies—on the contrary, it's a high honor that only a few films can claim as their own. But to say that all Best Picture winners are beyond compare is, frankly, a little insulting. At first "Cavalcade" seemed like one of the movies that has been honored by the Academy that I would despise, yet when the film was over my opinion had shifted.
This film is smarter than it appears.
The story begins in 1899 in England where two families are ringing in the next century. You have Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard, who steals every scene she is in) and her husband Robert (Clive Brook) and their maid and butler, Ellen and Alfred Bridges (Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin respectively).
The dialogue is sugary sweet with a touch of sarcasm and dark humor occasionally flitting around—through all the happiness and almost nauseatingly cuteness, we find jokes about alcoholism and references to pregnancy outside of wedlock (gasp!).
Jane and Robert have two sons Edward and Joey, who are polar opposites. Joey seems like the poster child for ADHD and Edward is the perfect angel, but Jane is the good mother and doesn't love one more than the other.
The Marryots are truly the ideal family, the wife is always loving and never backtalks the husband—the husband never wants anything unreasonable from the wife...they really love each other. Though the one complaint could be that one of their children is a little hyper, for the most part they've got it pretty good.
The Bridges are equally as lovable, though in a more caustic way. Ellen is more prone to break down and sob and Alfred is more likely to make fun of her for it...still small fries comparatively.
If you know your history, you know what's coming next: two big helpings of war.
First, the Boer War, which sees Robert and Alfred going off and their wives staying at home and helplessly watching.
The Boer War, though crucial to the plot and development, doesn't get that much screen time and it's only ten minutes later that both husbands are returning from war.
Yet we still have the 1910s to go through, and more heartache to face.
I mentioned the signs of "Cavalcade" being a Best Picture winner—here's one more sign: the topic of war. The Academy loves war sagas and none are better than the pictures made around the time period that the world wars were raging. There is no escaping that the movie is anti-war—you can get that feeling at the beginning with the sweet overacting and the typical household look.
Something bad is going to happen...yet, I was not expecting "Cavalcade" to be as ruthless as it was.
Drowning, being trampled to death by horse, dying in the war, lost love, lost children, lost husbands—all of these are because of war and its side effects.
When Joey grows older he becomes somewhat obsessed with war, and he can't wait to fight in one—guess what? He gets his chance.
It's easy, for what the film is saying, to guess what will happen to Joey; but it's still effective to watch.
An interesting thing to note is the breaking of the fourth wall—that is, the looks directed right at the camera. Several times we have Jane looking right into the viewer's eyes and saying sentences (like "Peace and happiness to all") that reflect the movie's point.
The movie is based on the play by Noel Coward, which makes sense because it has a "stagey" feel to it.
"Cavalcade" is not contrasting two families whose lives are ripped apart by war; nor is it (as its title might imply) about putting on a facade and dealing with grief—it is about the ugly nature of war itself.
Yes, it's really preachy and not at all perfect...that's why we have the lovely little family as the subject for our cruel tale.
It plucks all the right strings, but perhaps not with enough strength or in the right order.
Still, for the time it was made and the risks that it took, it is remarkable in its own way.

Score: 2 and a half stars out of 4

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