For the past year, I’ve been on a kick to discover and rediscover films of the 1920s and 1930s. I’ve been seeking out films that are award winning and star notable actors and made by notable directors. I’ve been aided slightly by Netflix and helped greatly by feature nights on TCM. The release of films from this era on DVD and Blu-ray is more rare. The release of Cavalcade by 20th Century Fox brings a 1933 film to home video that won three Academy Awards. I set down to review the film as compared to films of its day and how it compares to other Best Picture winners.
Cavalcade was initially a Fox Film Corp production before they merged with 20th Century Pictures. Like many of the films of this era, it is based on a successful stage play. This one has good pedigree in that it was a play by the famous Noel Coward. His plays are famous for his dry wit, flamboyance, and funny, lyrical songs. The film follows the good and bad times of a British family from New Year’s Eve in 1899 to New Year’s Day 1933. The title “Cavalcade” is a word that is defined as a series of dramatic events. The story of these upper-crust Londoners centers around historical events of 33 years and how they mirror what happens to the family.
It’s hard for modern film viewers to put the importance of the historical events into perspective unless you have a decent history background. They are known events but how they affect British families is harder to relate. The movie covers important eras like the Boer War, the First World War, and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The idea of playing out the historical events against the rise and fall of a family is brilliant. The Marryot family is deeply affected by the changes happening in the world – the attention to detail is what made this an award-winning film. One thing that sticks out for me is the use of very clever songs for the soundtrack. That seems like a natural for a drama like this to include music of the era. But that’s a unique feature for these early films.
Compared to other films of the era, Cavalcade stands apart as a work of art that pushes forward the adaptation of plays. This isn’t just a stage play that’s been filmed, it’s taking a stage play and using the power of the new medium of film to create a more emotional work of art. But does it work for modern audiences? The target crowd is definitely a PBS crowd that loves British dramas like Downton Abbey. But there isn’t a slowness that people often associate with British and stage dramas. It’s hard to tell a young moviegoer to sit down and watch this film based on plot alone. There’s a luxuriousness to the way the film unfolds that modern viewers will love.
The film won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Art Direction. It’s an important film in the development of film in the early day of talkies. There are hundreds of characters and beautiful costumes that reflect the changing eras and the sweep of the film from the point of view of upper class Londoners. The Blu-ray contains a Movietone feature on the awards the film won and a commentary that is very helpful to place it in perspective by Richard Schickel. I’ve enjoyed Schickel’s work on other commentaries and he doesn’t let me down here.
The release of this important film closes another empty spot in the home video market. As I’ve watched the great works of the 1920s and 1930s, this is a key piece to the puzzle. The film is raised by the excellent base it gets from the Noel Coward play. I hope that viewers will get out of their comfort zone and see important films for fans of film and great stories. Watching this today, I can even imagine an American adaptation of this film doing well. You’ll be right in it through the final “Auld Lang Syne”.