Cavalcade (1933)

  • Posted on: 28 March 2016
  • By: Noah Brand

This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me. It’s reminiscent of Cimarron in that it traces the history of a nation through a pivotal era via one family, but Cimarron at least had struggle and difficulty and action, rather than a bunch of rich people sitting around a drawing room complaining that the Second Boer War is really bumming them out.

The comic-relief servants are the most interesting part of the film. Notice I don’t say funniest, just most interesting. The way they’re treated by the other characters and by the narrative serves to underscore what didn’t work about Cavalcade for me: it’s trying to get me to mourn the decline of feudalism. It’s a love letter to the British class system and Victorian morality, neither of which I’m a big fan of.

Toward the end of the movie, there’s a whole sequence that’s meant to scandalize and upset us, showing various terrifying headlines about divorce, scandal, lack of religion, and “vice orgies”, finally ending up at a party where there are people drinking and making out while actual black people play the easy-listening version of jazz music. We pass a couple guys who I think we’re meant to assume are gay, and they seem to be having a good time. The camera swings dizzyingly around this scene of appalling, decadent debauchery as though forcing us to confront the true horror of the 20th century (closing with a song called “20th Century Blues” in case we missed the point) and all I can think is “This is the most fun anyone’s had in this lousy story yet. About time someone threw a decent party.”

Short version: if you’re trying to get me to mourn the passing of your civilization, and instead I’m actively rooting for its downfall, you have failed as a storyteller.

What did this beat?

A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, Little Women, Lady For a Day, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Through, The Private Life of Henry VIII, and State Fair. Ten movies nominated, and they picked freakin’ Cavalcade.