Dir. Frank Lloyd. Starring Diana Wynyard, Frank Lawton, Una O’Connor
For folks who lived in the 20th Century, or for people who can remember it, even, we’re at an increasingly strange point in our history. Super Bowl L (“50,” because now it makes sense to ditch the Roman numerals) is nigh. The 88th Academy Awards are slightly less nigh but make up for it by being almost aggressively old. It’s been nearly thirty years since the Challenger explosion, which is the midpoint between the present day and when Elvis started peaking. There are more examples of how old you actually are, and all you have to do is spend five minutes on Google.
What makes Cavalcade fascinating to me is that it was the sixth Best Picture winner (or seventh, depending on what you want to do about the Wings/Sunrise numbering dilemma). In 1933, it was an example of some fairly high-tech moviemaking. There’s a scene where a zeppelin bombs London, and there are various sequences where footage is laid on top of other footage two, three, four times over; doubtless that was, at the time, the “wow!” equivalent of the stargate from 2001. A guy gets run over with a horse-drawn fire engine. It’s one of the first movies to depict the Titanic. And yet it also featured the same sort of vaudevillian sensibilities that other movies of the time, like its rough contemporary Duck Soup, shared; don’t go more than twenty minutes without a musical number or no one will want to stay. Audiences had come a long way from the first years of film; when movies first became popular, people were far more interested in the camera than they were in the actors. In 1933, while the camera movement is hardly primitive, it’s not quite The Rules of the Game or Citizen Kane yet. Cavalcade, based on a popular, cast-of-literal-hundreds play, was the perfect text to adapt to the screen: point, shoot, and sometimes zoom at the actors who would move through the scenes.
Despite the somewhat confusing title which conjures up imagery of an avalanche or mudslide or something, the film is about a pair of English families, beginning at the turn of the century and ending more or less in the contemporary present. At the beginning of the story, wealthy bourgeois Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) and his manservant Bridges (Herbert Mundin) have both volunteered for the Boer War. Marryot is, befitting his position, stoic. He tries to convince his wife, Jane (Wynyard), that she should bear up because he will be home soon; wars never do last too long. Bridges is ebullient, although his wife, Ellen (O’Connor, who probably has the best list of credits of anyone in this movie), is distraught. Like Jane, Ellen is convinced that her husband will come back in a box; like Jane, Ellen is a mother, although Jane’s two sons are older than Ellen’s baby daughter. Marryot and Bridges both come home, much to their families’ relief. The message is clear enough: the Boer War, which occurs entirely offscreen, was deadly enough, but it was very possible to ignore the war on the home front. A theater erupts with joy when a British force at a key city in South Africa is relieved, but even in 1933 that joy is played as a little naive. Patriotism is unironic, and families need not be splintered in perpetuity for the glory of the Empire. Marryot’s homecoming is straightforward; his two sons, Edward and Joey, grow up into handsome young men. The boys, especially Joey, don’t quite understand the solemnity of Queen Victoria’s death and funeral procession; all they know is that their father is sufficiently important to ride in the parade thanks to a recent knighthood. Edward casts his eye on Edith, a childhood friend; he goes to medical school. Things go swimmingly for the Marryots until Edward and Edith decide to book a trip on the Titanic for their honeymoon. (The reveal that the two are aboard Titanic which, unimpressively, comes after a big title on screen reading “APRIL 14, 1912” followed by a big ol’ boat, is one of the more mature shots of the picture.)
While the rich get richer, so to speak, the poor get poorer. Bridges buys a pub – a “respectable” one, not anything inappropriate – and takes his family out of servitude. In an American production, one imagines that Bridges would become a success, owning his own small business and providing a living for his wife with future opportunity for his social-climbing daughter. In a British one, though, it feels like Friedrich Engels managed to squeeze in. Bridges becomes a caricature of a saloon-keeper, drunk on his own booze and perpetually in the hole. Ellen receives Lady Jane at one point and instead of admitting that her husband is out drinking, she lies and says that he’s resting and recuperating from a recent injury. Of course, Bridges comes in drunk, starts a row, makes a great deal of noise about “snobs,” runs back into the street, tries to corral his daughter, is prevented from doing so by some would-be Samaritans, and as he prepares to fight them, is run over and killed. His daughter, Fanny, now a little girl, dances in the street as she was doing before. The message is pretty clear: it’s safer to serve the master’s punch rather than strike out and dole out beer as your own boss. Jane’s reaction to Ellen’s embarrassment is a well-meaning, condescending empathy. Noblesse oblige is in its death throes in 1908, but Jane, who brought Fanny a doll, means to keep the tradition.
The first chapters of the film – the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s death, Bridges’ failure – are all prequel, the omens which foretell future doom. The Boer War is placed in contrast with World War I; the actresses in military costume onstage are contrasted with a long sequence where endless streams of British troops walk into a French village and fall, killed by gas or bullets or indifference. A life-sized statue of the Crucifixion stands the whole time, looking down on the many men marching into the town. Queen Victoria’s death and the sinking of the Titanic are placed in tandem with one another, grand symbols of a changing British Empire which is cracking under the strain of the 20th Century; in the moment, the only appropriate reaction is grief, but in the years to come the criticism of Victorian England and the Titanic alike will dominate the discourse, overshadowing the pomp and marvel which accompanied them initially.
Bridges’ daughter, Fanny, ends up working as a dancer in a high-end nightclub. Joey, for his part, joins the British army with a will. Predictably, the two of them run into one another, and predictably, they fall for one another. It’s a boring subplot. It goes roughly where you’d expect it to. The most interesting thing that happens to them occurs when neither one is onscreen. Ellen, dressed almost regally, shows up at Jane’s home, somewhere between accusatory and pleased. She was snooping through Fanny’s belongings and found a letter that shows that her daughter and Jane’s son are in love. Ellen makes it clear that she thinks that Joey has a responsibility to marry Fanny, while Jane demurs. Ellen quickly recognizes that Jane’s reticence has more than a little to do with the fact that Jane doesn’t want her son’s mother-in-law to be the one who used to serve him. “She’s received in all the best places,” Ellen says, as if that means anything in 1918; Jane, as she has been doing, takes her opportunity to point out that society is crumbling. Ellen plays Jonas Wilkerson and Emmie Slattery in this scene while Jane plays Scarlett O’Hara; we are supposed to be outraged at the presumption of the lower-class pretenders, although if we had a little more pity, we might be less judgmental. New money is, I think, more threatening to the middle-class than the upper-class. The rich tend to stay rich, while the middle-class understand that there’s only so much capital for them to split amongst themselves without Bridges or Wilkersons poking their ratty noses in. Happily, Joey (Lawton )was killed just days before the Armistice after surviving years of combat; Fanny won’t be a Marryot, and the question of Joey and Fanny’s relationship, probably the most interesting question of the movie, is tossed aside. It is really the film’s sole unwritten postscript; in a world that cannot imagine another World War, which is a world which seems to believe it has all the answers, the class struggle can wait.
Cavalcade was feted in 1933, read as a stirring portrait of how (remember the title?) things have just gotten bad in our lifetimes. In 1943, a bare ten years later, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was released, a movie that, even though it has a similar plot, seems to come from a different galaxy. Cavalcade is in grainy black-and-white, Colonel Blimp in glowing pastels. Cavalcade asks us to engage in the treacly past through a dewy-eyed mother whose only excuse for her well-behaved histrionics could be the Victorian training that would have made Foucault’s eyes light up. Colonel Blimp pushes us to look at the same time periods over a soldier’s increasingly bushy mustache, providing an active hero who sees his surroundings less as a sign of inexorable depravity than an opportunity to do the right thing. Both films are pro-Britain, pro-tradition. Both films are of the opinion that the elite are the ones who are meant to lead the nation into its future. Yet Cavalcade has little more to say than “Things were better twenty years ago.” It is a film that, fifteen years after the fact, remains horrified by World War I to the point of believing that the war, and its ensuing effect on the young people who reach for pleasure rather than duty, is the worst thing that could have happened. Colonel Blimp, by virtue of being ten years ahead of the curve, has an immense wisdom; the Kaiser had nothin’ on Hitler, who was Chancellor of Germany by the time Cavalcade was released. In short, I think Cavalcade and Colonel Blimp recognize that their contemporary issues had their roots in the recent past; where Cavalcade largely ignores those root causes in favor of nostalgia, Colonel Blimp works to rationalize them by providing them context. “You laugh at my mustache but you don’t know why I grew it,” Candy tells a Wilkerson-Bridges upstart in the first ten minutes or so of the film, a line which has no equal for insightfulness in Cavalcade. No one in Cavalcade would have dared laughed at Candy’s mustache in the first place.