1930s, 2.5/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Frank Lloyd, Review


Something of a spiritual precursor to David Lean‘s This Happy Breed, Noel Coward’s Cavalcade (he also wrote This Happy Breed) tells the story of Britain from the end of the Boer War through the start of the Great Depression (roughly 1931). The screenplay, written by Reginal Berkeley, and direction by Frank Lloyd do everything they can to make cinematic this stage bound play by the British playwright, but the needs of a film that covers so much time with so many characters limits its emotional impact. It has some of the same problems as the earlier Cimarron, but Coward’s basic writing that forms the foundation of the script is simply too strong to descend into incoherence like the earlier Best Picture winner. However, its lack of focus, its need to cover so many individual historical events, and the fact that its ending event is elided over while trying for a kind of bittersweet uplifting finale creates a mixed experience that it can’t quite overcome.

The Marryot family is an upper class family in London headed by Robert (Clive Brook) and his wife Jane (Diana Wynyard). They have two sons, Joe (Frank Lawton as an adult) and Edward (John Warburton as an adult) and a small set of servants led by Alfred (Herbert Mundin) and his wife Ellen (Una O’Connor). When the Boer War goes wrong, Robert and Alfred are sent off to help in Africa, leaving the women to run the household alone. Aside from the birth of Alfred and Ellen’s daughter, very little actually happens in this interim, and both men are returned, unharmed, minutes of screentime later. This is my problem with the film in microcosm: we get an event from British history in the late 19th century, it is centered around this family, and it barely affects them. It’s checking a historical box instead of finding a way for the story and the history to intertwine in interesting ways.

What feels like the actual beginning of the film is the death of Queen Victoria because it feels like the actual end of an era, and it affects the family in that way. They look out at an England that is in the process of change, and they don’t know what will come, but those changes are coming. The family facing these changes in English society is the heart of the film, and it’s where the film is at its best. Alfred and Ellen leave the household to start a pub. The boys grow up into young men. There’s a drunken death. There’s a marriage and a fateful trip onto a famous ocean liner named the Titanic. There’s an outbreak of war across Europe.

The core of this film is really Robert and Jane, but they end up taking a back seat to their children through the major events of the teens. The problem is that all three children end up dying, and since they aren’t really introduced as adults and actual characters until at least forty minutes into the story, they feel like they’re being bumped off only right as we’re getting to know them. Combine that with the fact that we’re just getting quick tastes of the major historical events (the sinking of the Titanic is an especially egregious example in the film), and you’ve got a rather frustrating major section of the film. The taste of World War I is also pretty weird since it’s mostly covered in a quick montage of footage that was most likely captured in other films (Wooden Crosses was probably used since it was used in almost every WWI movie made in the decade after 1932).

However, the ending is something really interesting. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it good. Ending the film in 1931 where Robert and Jane end up alone in the face of a Depression that no one mentions is a weird place, a limitation of when Coward wrote his play, but with Robert and Jane looking out over the New Year’s celebrations without their children, without their own family’s future, it seems almost an admission that England died in the 1910s. There’s this effort to look forward to the future with some hope, a future without Victoria, the rock on which the previous century had been built, and without their own children, that goes beyond the obvious attempt at a bittersweet tone that makes it feel empty, like Coward was looking for anything to grasp onto for hope in his country’s future, but he couldn’t find it.

This is where the comparison to This Happy Breed becomes interesting. In that, the central family comes out of WWI largely intact, and they learn to live with the cultural changes in the interwar period with their own brand of dignity of the yeomanry. It’s the rise of a new conflict in Europe that gives them a new focus and purpose, a sense that British strength is required once again, that fuels its finale. That’s completely absent in Cavalcade, which ends with its familiar sight of a medieval cavalcade continuing to march on, implying that the British will continue on no matter what.

So, I think the film is something of a failure, but it’s an interesting one. Coward had something to say when he wrote the play, but he didn’t really seem to know how to package it for an audience. I think audiences at the time took it more optimistically than he actually intended. Combine that with the rather staccato treatment of history that undermines its look at the family as a whole, and you’ve got something of a mixed bag.

Competently directed by Lloyd (for which he won Best Director) and well-acted by its cast, Cavalcade is a handsome film that just simply didn’t age very well. It was very much a film of its time, timely and “important” but there were real narrative issues that its contemporary audience was willing to overlook that become harder to let go as attachment to that specific era decreases with the decades.

Rating: 2.5/4


4 thoughts on “Cavalcade”

  1. One of the rare Bests I haven’t seen ( and didn’t have time to cram in).

    Thanks for reviewing it. I don’t think I’ll rush back to it, not that I have a ton against period dramas or melodramas but I don’t have a ton in favor of it.

    The ‘down’ ending is an interesting choice. And I concur: England did suffer a mortal wound in WW 1 and survived just long enough to inflict on on Germany in return in WW 2. What we have now are zombified versions of those nations, animated by feral and malign spirits wearing it skin.

    Perhaps, to quote a better movie, it’s the Land that matters. The land exists before us and long after we’re gone. Geography is destiny. And as I behold the slow rot and decay…or not so slow….of my own country, it is perhaps comforting to think that the Land will nurture some other culture that hopefully learns from our examples. These movies may be the myths and legends that live after us.

    But there I am, being an optimist.


    1. This, This Happy Breed, and Mrs. Miniver are all calls to preserve a Britain that was already dying by the 30s. It’s really kind of sad and almost depressing to watch it now, more than 80 years later, knowing how they won the war but lost what made Britain special at the same time, the things that they loved were torn away by themselves, not by Nazi Germany.

      Are you paraphrasing How Green was My Valley? It sounds sort of like what Hugh, the narrator, says at the beginning.


      1. I should have picked up on the Gone with the Wind reference as well. Tara and its land is kinda important to that story. Just a tad.

        I have Ralph Bakshi coming soon in between now and Mrs. Miniver…starts on Tuesday.


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