AND THE WINNER IS... CAVALCADE
Updated: Feb 20
THE SYMBOL OF A NATION
Cavalcade from 1933, is the 6th film to take home the Best Picture honor.
The film was photographed by Earnest Palmer, produced by Frank Lloyd and Winfield R. Sheehan - and distributed by Fox.
Cavalcade was a true Fox film, made before the merger with Darryl F. Zaunck’s 20th Century Pictures company. It premiered in New York, in January 5th 1933, and was released nationwide April 15th.
The budget was $1,18 million, but the film only returned $1 million at the domestic box office. It was international sales that made the film profitable, coming in at $3.5 million at the worldwide box office.
Directed by Frank Lloyd, with a screen play by Reginald Berkeley and Sonya Levien – credited as continuity. “Cavalcade” is based on Noel Coward’s 1931 play of the same name.
NOEL COWARD’S PLAY - TO HOLLYWOOD MOVIE
In his heyday Noel Coward wrote witty – sophisticated – sardonic - plays that often satirized post Victorian British life.
Cavalcade focuses on social progress - the never-ending cavalcade - and the inevitable change in morals that accompany that progress.
The original West End production the Noel Coward play had a cast of three hundred, and used six hydraulic lifts to move people and scenery. Consequently – it never came to Broadway - or went on tour. The production was far too big to be replicated.
The play opened October 13, 1931 and ran for 405 performances. There are several British stage stars - in the film, but no well-known Hollywood actors in the cast at all.
Fox took care to be faithful to the play, sending Movietone cameramen to London to film the production for reference. Coward was a flamboyant British playwright, composer and actor. His plays are known for their biting wit and satire - Private Lives, Design For Living, and Blithe Spirit, are still performed regularly today.
Coward had a cameo role in Best Picture winner Around The World In 80 Days.
THE CAVALCADE STORY
The film Cavalcade, is funny and tragic, and there’s a real sense of impending doom. The story begins on New Year’s Eve 1899 – and illustrates the beginning of the decline of the British Empire.
There’s a shot of soldiers packed on a ship headed off to the Boer War in Africa.
The scene recreates a photo Coward saw in the Illustrated London News – and it was that photo that inspired Coward to write the play.
DIRECTOR FRANK LLOYD
Frank Lloyd was born in Glasgow, Scotland - 1886. He started out as an actor in musical theater, and worked his way to Canada, then L.A. where he wrote and directed silent films. He won Best Director for his work on Cavalcade. He also directed another Best Picture winner – Mutiny On The Bounty, in 1935.
Lloyd was a founding member of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the organization that hands out the coveted Oscar®statue.
Lloyd – being British - was aware of - and careful in - his depiction of class divisions in Britain. There’s a clear upstairs downstairs element to the film. Lloyd - born in the Victorian era – used a clever series of shots to visually reveal the culture of the time.
Sand sculptures at the beach – and sidewalk drawings, (remember Mary Poppins) were a typical British amusement of the nineteenth century.
He used period music – “Girls of the CIV,” could have been transplanted straight from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. He also showed dance contests at the seaside, only a native Brit would’ve known to use those visuals in telling this story.
By story’s end – to demonstrate the passage of time, and the American influence on Britain - the scenes are set in sophisticated night clubs listening to jazz and blues. The world has visually, and culturally changed.
THE HOLLYWOOD CONTROVERSY
Some people were confused as to why – a story about British life – helmed by a British director and based on a play by a British playwright – was being made halfway around the world in Hollywood. But it all worked out in the British press. “The Daily Express,” the largest circulation newspaper in the world - called it a triumph of authenticity – noting there wasn’t the slightest hint of an American accent.
Coward himself said -
"Of all my plays, only one, Cavalcade, had been filmed with taste and integrity."
The female lead is played by British actor - Diana Wynyard. Wynyard was a famous Shakespearian actress whose career lasted into the 60s.
After Cavalcade, she chose a West End career over Hollywood. Wynyard received a Best Actress nomination for her role in Cavalcade but lost to Katharine Hepburn’s performance from Morning Glory.
In 1954, she was awarded a CBE by the Queen, and was a member of the British National Theater Company. She was in rehearsals with Michael Redgrave and Maggie Smith when she died in 1964. Wynyard’ was also the first British actor to put the prints in the sidewalk at Graumann's Theater in Hollywood.
Wynyard’s performance in Cavalcade, is emotional – a contrast to the stiff upper lip – most people associate with the British, and a stark contrast to the rigid performance of her co-star Clive Brook.
The son of an opera singer and a writer, Clive Brook is best known for playing opposite Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express.”
He once compared Hollywood to a chain gang, where actors lose the will to escape. The chain links weren’t forged with cruelty however, but with luxuries. Brook ultimately took his family back to England in 1936, partly due to kidnapping threats aimed at the British movie colony.
THE BRITISH MOVIE COLONY
During the heyday of the studio system, a community of British actors had taken up residence in Santa Monica, where they gathered in a re-creation of Britain. They established pubs, tea rooms and shops selling typically British items.
Perhaps the most recognizable face in the film is Una O’Connor. O’Connor came to Hollywood to recreate her role from the stage version of Cavalcade. O’Connor is immediately recognizable as the prudish and judgmental maid in Christmas In Connecticut, with Sidney Greenstreet, and Barbara Stanwyck.
O’Connor appeared in eight Best Picture nominees, including The Bells of St Mary’s, and Witness for the Prosecution.
Four of her films – The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein, The Informer and The Adventures of Robinhood are part of the National Film Registry.
THE FILM ISN’T WILDLY LIKED TODAY
Cavalcade, is often criticized for having scattered, hard to follow plot. It really does seem more like a play than a movie, comprised of a series of vignettes that never really connect up into a cohesive story.
The lead characters – a married couple Jane and Robert Marryot don’t change throughout the film – except for aging – which we all do – so the lead character's journey doesn’t seem that remarkable on the surface.
The passing trolleys create a visual depiction of the rise in decadence during the first third of the 20th century. At the beginning of Cavalcade – in 1899 – the sponsor board on a passing trolley is for Lipton Tea – by the story’s end – 1933 – the trolley ad is for Dewar’s Scotch – a direct comment on the advancing decadence of British life.
There is another more subtle symbolism throughout the film centered around the butler’s daughter - the dancer Fanny Bridges.
We first meet the Fanny Bridges character as a baby, then see her again as a child. She’s always in white – in stark relief to the surrounding cast - who are all in black. She dances obliviously in the street, in her nightgown - even as her father is killed.
With the exception of the seaside scene, Fanny stays in white – largely mawkish wardrobe until – World War I – when a bit of black begins to creep into her dress – notably from the bottom up. By the end of the war - she’s on a nightclub stage singing jazz in an all-black evening gown.
Her wardrobe literally symbolizes the move from white innocence - to black decadence – from childish night clothes to mature evening dress. The Empire is growing up, and becoming more and more worldly.
Even though her clothes evolve, like the other characters, Fanny Bridges stays basically the same throughout the story.
Cavalcade is rich in social commentary. First we see Robert Marryot going off to fight the Boer War. The Boer War – played out in Britain the way Korea and Vietnam did in America. It wasn’t popular. The butler character survives the war – only to be killed as a result of his own success. It appears to be Noel Coward making a comment about the lower classes being unprepared to join the middle class.
The question is… was he being satirical - or was he serious in the same way actor John Wayne suggested that African-Americans needed education and experience before being allowed full membership in American society?
Is Coward’s comment class motivated? Is he upset that current events have erased a thousand years of class structure in Britain?
The second major point of social commentary - the death of Queen Victoria - dramatizes passing the torch to the next generation. At the same time the throne passes to King Edward - Britain begins to pass her standing in the world - to her descendant America.
With that social and political move the American century was born.
THERE’S NO TRADITIONAL PROTAGONIST IN CAVALCADE
Following the theory that the protagonist of a story is the character – or characters - who change the most… this film doesn’t seem to have a hero at all – not one we’d recognize today anyway.
There’s no Luke Skywalker going from farm boy to Jedi Knight. There’s no Hamlet going slowly insane after seeing his father‘s ghost in a westerly wind at midnight.
There’s little or no arc for the lead characters. They’re essentially the same at the end, as they were in the beginning. The characters that change the most on screen are the servants.
By the end of Cavalcade the servants have entered the middle class, become business owners, married money, etc… Their children develop and enter relationships with the Marryot sons. It’s all very democratic. It's demonstrated on screen when - Ellin – Jane’ Maryott's former maid calls on her to discuss the relationship between their grown children. She’s no longer downstairs - but on the sofa - in the parlor.
There's also an argument to be made that the character that changes the most in Cavalcade, is the British Empire.
BRITISH EMPIRE AS PROTAGONIST
At the dawn of the 20th century, the British Empire touches every corner of the globe, by the end of Cavalcade, (1933) she’s getting smaller and losing influence – everything has changed. There’s even a line of dialogue – saying “It’s all changing.”
Robert Maryott’s final toast in the film is on New Years Eve 1933 – is to the future of England.
It’s very Cowardesque – that the writer would bury the protagonist beneath the story, as a satirical comment on the decadence of progress in the 20th century, making Cavalcade, a morality play.
THE PARADE OF HORSES
Another thing that leads credence to the idea of Britain as protagonist, is the recurring cavalcade of horses – passing behind title cards telling us the date of the coming scene.
Many people have criticized the passing parade – as having nothing to do with the film. But considered from the perspective of – Britain as protagonist - and the passage of time and progress. The cavalcade suddenly seems to fit better.
Since Cavalcade is the title of the film. that can't be a coincidence.
As Britain enters World War I – the horses which have always passed on level ground - begin a distinct downhill move, and continue in that direction for the rest of the film. The British Empire as the protagonist of Cavalcade, just seems to be the best fit. The UK clearly changes the most, and from that viewpoint – the film makes much more sense.
The impression that Cavalcade, is a mediocre movie, is missing the point that there’s much more under the hood. It’s just subtly disguised in the drama.
Cavalcade, is clearly a commentary on class structure; on the British empire; and the impending 20th century.
That commentary is so subtly doled out that it’s almost impossible to see at first glance. But it’s there – and once you know it - it’s clear.
And, it’s the genius of Noel Coward.