Quintessentially British yet made in the good old U.S. of A., 'Cavalcade' won the Best Picture Oscar at the 1932-33 Academy Awards, beating out such estimable competition as '42nd Street,' 'A Farewell to Arms,' 'Little Women,' and 'I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.' Yet this adaptation of a popular Noel Coward play charting the effects of several notable historical events on one upper-class London family is largely forgotten today. A massive production, employing literally a cast of thousands and directed with a sense of epic grandeur by Frank Lloyd, who won his first Oscar for the film (his second came two years later for 'Mutiny on the Bounty'), 'Cavalcade' still delivers the goods, thanks to an absorbing story, fine performances, and a sophisticated style that belies its early talkie roots. It may not be the most deserving Best Picture winner in Academy Awards history, but it nonetheless deserves to be rediscovered by contemporary audiences.
Coward was a master of social commentary, often brandishing his inimitable wit to make astute observations about British foibles, arrogance, and the country's hierarchical class system. 'Cavalcade,' however, features none of the legendary playwright's withering one-liners, instead favoring drama over comedy in a tale that truly tests the stiffness of the trademark British upper lip. It also, with uncompromising directness, charts the crumbling of a once lofty empire through the eyes of its battered and bruised subjects. It's a clever premise, yet it never feels gimmicky under Lloyd's steady guidance.
Reminiscent of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' and 'Downton Abbey' in premise and structure, 'Cavalcade' chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Marryot family and their devoted stable of domestics from the turn of the 20th century to the present day (which in this case means 1933). The film begins on New Year's Eve in 1899, with Britain mired in the throes of the Boer War and patriarch Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) preparing to depart for battle. His stoic, long-suffering wife, Jane (Diana Wynyard), and their two young sons weather his service well, but in the coming years, the brood must endure such landmark historical events as the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and the calamity of World War I, as well as a host of difficult everyday issues. "Time changes many things," one character says, and the body blows the Marryots receive mirror the hits taken by the battered British Empire, which, after years of Victorian prosperity, simultaneously begins its slow, inexorable decline. The "cavalcade of the 20th century" hits everyone hard, but England and its subjects must somehow persevere.
'Cavalcade' works because, despite its broad canvas, it maintains an intimate focus. The family's the thing here, and though history often forces itself upon the Marryots, altering the trajectories of their lives, they never cease to rise above it. Sadly, I've never seen Coward's play, but Reginald Berkeley's adaptation doesn't seem to dumb it down. Many exchanges feel like they were lifted verbatim from the original, and all the lines are recited with proper earnestness and zeal by the talented British cast, many of whom were unknown to American audiences at the time. Which is why 'Cavalcade,' even today, feels like it was produced across the pond. (The film is also a precursor of sorts to Coward's similarly structured 'This Happy Breed,' which examines the middle-class lives of a typical family in the years between World Wars I and II.)
In addition to its Best Picture and Best Director victories, 'Cavalcade' picked up Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Wynyard) and Best Interior Decoration. Yet it's the exterior crowd scenes that truly impress, especially when one considers the logistics involved. Several sequences include hundreds upon hundreds of extras, and orchestrating their movement so it synchronizes with the intended action and camera positioning is quite challenging, yet Lloyd pulls it all off without a hitch. He also, with the help of noted designer William Cameron Menzies, constructs an artistic World War I montage featuring superimposed images that's both visually arresting and emotionally stirring. Such spectacle nicely offsets the more static interior scenes, which were somewhat constrained due to the limitations of early sound technology.
'Cavalcade' is very much a time capsule, yet thanks to Coward's sophistication and insight, it holds up extremely well today. Some of the acting is stylized, but Wynyard and Brook anchor the film with strong, believable performances, and Lloyd's sensitive direction complements both large- and small-scale scenes. Though this 80-year-old Best Picture winner may not be one of the Academy's most memorable choices for its top award, it's easy to see why it received the honor, and as a historical snapshot of a bygone society and the events that helped shape it, the movie continues to have merit.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cavalcade' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Both a 50GB dual-layer disc and standard-def DVD reside inside. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Once you're 80 years old, a facelift can only do so much. And that same rhetoric applies to film. Though Fox has done a yeoman's job restoring 'Cavalcade,' it still looks like an early 1930s antique. There's nothing at all wrong with that; in fact, it suits this nostalgic period piece well. Viewers just shouldn't expect a massive makeover for this obscure Best Picture winner.
Grain is pronounced, but never overwhelming, and the source material sports some random marks and a few white vertical lines. Overall, however, the print quality is quite pleasing, even though some scenes exhibit a slightly washed out, bleachy look. Gray level variance sits squarely in the middle range, with contrast a bit weak and blacks not quite as inky as one would expect. Whites are crisp and never bloom, and noise and crush are kept at bay, even during nocturnal scenes. Shadow delineation is adequate, but background elements can be sketchy, especially during the massive crowd sequences. Close-ups exude a lovely warmth, although fine detail is lacking.
From a digital standpoint, no enhancements mar the film's integrity, and no anomalies cause distractions. Generally speaking, this is a good rendering of a rare vintage film; not spectacular, but better than average.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track supplies surprisingly good sound for a film of this vintage. Fox technicians have taken great care to eliminate the hiss, pops, and crackles that surely littered the audio before its restoration. A slight tininess remains, but that's typical for the period and due to the primitive recording equipment used. Various songs of the era comprise the musical score, and though the strings can sound a bit shrill, a fairly nice tone predominates. Dynamic range is solid, with no hints of distortion creeping into the mix, and a smattering of bass, especially during the war sequences, supplies some welcome heft. Crowd scenes border on cacophony, but manage to remain in check most of the time.
The all-important dialogue comes across clearly, although some muttering by the actors makes a few lines difficult to decipher. Heavy accents sometimes get in the way, too, yet considering the track's advanced age (it just turned 80 this year), the audio has held up remarkably well. Its vintage nature can't be masked, but its imperfections have all but vanished.
Only two supplements round out this classic release.
'Cavalcade' is one of the most obscure Best Picture winners in cinema history, but this impressively mounted production stands the test of time, continuing to hold our interest eight decades after its initial release. Credit playwright Noel Coward for supplying the piece with its unique structure, as we witness how important historical events influence the lives of one upper-class British family and the stable of domestics who serve them. Spanning two wars, a beloved monarch's death, and the sinking of the Titanic, this richly textured picture isn't short on drama and allows its cast plenty of chances to brandish their stiff upper lips. Fox's Blu-ray presentation features a nicely restored but far from perfect print and solid vintage audio, but supplements are thin. 'Cavalcade' may not be well remembered, even by classic movie buffs, but it's a fine film that deserves its high-def treatment, as well as a recommendation.