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When it comes to the list of Best Picture winners, it doesn't get much more obscure than the first winner produced by Fox, Frank Lloyd's Cavalcade. The film is based on the Noel Coward play about an aristocratic British family around the turn of the 20th Century. It was unavailable on home video for decades and the only way you could see it was when TCM happened to play it. That changed last year, when Fox finally released the movie on Blu-ray to mark its 80th anniversary. Cavalcade is ripe for rediscovery, even if it is as creaky as you might expect a movie of its age to be. It's actually better than some of the other Best Picture winners of its time (it's not too hard to be better than Cimarron), so it is a film worth taking a second look at.
Cavalcade is sort of like what Downton Abbey would be like if it was made in the early Talkie era. Like Coward's iconic play, the film focuses on the Marryot family, stretching from 1899 to 1920. It takes at least a novice knowledge of British history during this era to make it through the movie – like the Boer Wars, why Queen Victoria's death sends the entire country into mourning, how the UK got into World War I, etc. But there are some cornerstone moments, like the sinking of the Titanic. It was used at the launch of Downton, but it's actually in the middle of Cavalcade. The Marryot's son comes home from the war and decides to go on a honeymoon with a fateful trip on the Titanic.
The performances in Cavalcade run the full gamut of what audiences expected in 1933. Best Actress nominee Diana Wynyard is shockingly overacting throughout the film, but she does manage to be effective as Jane Marryot. Clive Brook, a man who just looks like an aristocratic Brit, is more on the other end of the spectrum, a bit too understated. (Brook is much better in Joseph von Sternberg's Shanghai Express.) Their performances may be hard for anyone to swallow post-Marlon Brando.
The really good performances come from the outrageous array of Hollywood's top character actor talent filling out key supporting roles. There is an upstairs/downstairs element to the story, as we see the struggles of the Marryot house staff and how they differ from the lives of the Marryot. Una O'Connor is great in a rare lead role for her (she's best known for her role Bride of Frankenstein) and Herburt Mundin (best remembered for The Adventures of Robin Hood) is wonderful as well. True, these aren't names that even audiences at the time knew (they knew their faces, though), but these actors get rare opportunities to shine in Cavalcade.
Even though Cavalcade was released six years after The Jazz Singer, it's pretty clear that director Lloyd and the rest of the crew are still feeling out the technology. Like many early talkies, it still relies on inter-titles to show time passing, or bring out important plot points. Lloyd even relies on montage, likely more a tool of economy here than art. It keeps the film just under two hours, but you can't help but wonder what Cavalcade would have been like if more action was shown. Technology certainly didn't allow it and it's a real testament to Lloyd's skill that he pulled off a cohesive film. Coward may not have liked it, but Lloyd could still perfectly capture the breadth of the many eras seen in the movie.
Cavalcade's Oscars went to Fox for Best Picture, Lloyd for directing and William S. Darling and Frederic Hope for Art Direction. The art team did have a challenge with showing time passing through the sets and it is really interesting to see the Marryot home through the ages.
On Home Video: Even if they are all of varying quality artistically, it is important for all 85 Best Picture winners to be readily available to the public. After Paramount released Wings on home video in 2012, Cavalcade was the last to reach Blu-ray and DVD. Fox's package isn't as impressive as it should be – it only includes a newsreel on the 6th Academy Awards ceremony and a commentary by Richard Schickel – but this is as good as it's going to get. I also have to applaud Fox for releasing this on Blu-ray in the first place. They could have just dumped it on DVD, but we got a lovely high definition presentation of the film.
In retrospect, there are a couple of better films that were up for Best Picture of the 1932-33 season, but Cavalcade was the type of prestige project that even then seemed tailor made for awards. It may be tough for some audiences to sit through (it is really difficult to get used to the acting), but if you're willing to give it a chance, allow yourself to get swept up in the emotional lives of the Marryot family.
image courtesy of Amazon