Nether Regions 03.09.10: Cavalcade
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook, and Una O’Connor
Cavalcade is a stuffy and fleeting Best Picture winner that boldly goes where so many films had gone before and would again many times afterward. It is largely a war picture, the third to emerge victorious with the Best Picture prize in the first six Academy Awards ceremonies. The other two are Wings and the glorious All Quiet on the Western Front. Cavalcade is easily the worst and most dated of that eclectic trio, but the fact remains that World War I made an irreplaceable impact on the globe, and knowing that messages against senseless deaths in battle were so popular in the movies (and for the Academy) should be no surprise. Observing which titles have survived through the years and which have been tarnished is certainly intriguing. Cavalcade falls into the latter pile.
|Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin
discuss the pros of being servants.
The story follows two trajectories that would be done better over the next seven decades. The first is what is referred to as the “Upstairs Downstairs” style, which analyzes the lives of the elite and their servants. The second is that of a generational family story structure, showcasing the events of one group over a span of time. The wealthy “upstairs” class are the Marryots, consisting of the father Sir Robert (Clive Brook), mother Lady Jane (Diana Wynyard), and sons Edward (John Warburton) and Joe (Frank Lawton). The “Downstairs” family includes manservant Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin), his wife, maid Ellen (Una O’Connor), and their daughter, Fanny (Ursula Jeans). The film jumps around from 1900 to 1933, but commences with Robert and Alfred preparing to fight in the Second Boer War. Both men shine during battle, and upon their return, Robert is knighted, while Alfred has the funds to open his own pub in London. They then leave the Marryot household, but run into each other from time to time.
Tagging along with one or two families over the course of three decades is ripe for drama, but as epics like Gone with the Wind and Giant would prove later on, a longer running time allows the characters to be fleshed our more, and enables the viewer to spend more time in specific periods. Giant is one of the best examples of this, and in terms of “Upstairs Downstairs” tales, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park makes Cavalcade look silly. Despite those comparisons however, Cavalcade suffers from focusing on important events rather than the central characters. Things happen, lives are lost, and it barely registers because little is known about most of these people.
Edward is one of the Marryot sons. Margaret (Irene Browne) is a friend of the family, and her daughter Edith (Margaret Lindsay) commonly visits with her so she can play with the boys while the adults enjoy their tea. At first Edward and Edith are kids anywhere from the ages of 6-10. Eventually we flash forward to 1909 where Edward and Edith are older, now portrayed by different actors, and are ready to get married. The time then shifts to 1912, the wedding was not seen, and Edward and Edith are enjoying their honeymoon on a large boat. Edith unleashes some rather strange conversation about what it would be like to die today, and how they would feel about it. This heavy-handed dialogue gets worse as Edith professes that her happiness will not grow after this honeymoon, and she is ready to die if need be. The loving couple walks away, and then a life preserver is seen, displaying “Titanic”. This sequence is so sloppily and overbearingly executed that once you recognize the irony, you think “Oh ok” and move on.
This horrific tragedy, which is of course not seen, like many of the significant events, is only mentioned briefly, as if the characters have to allude to it once or twice so we remember that it actually did occur. The film can skip the emotions of such a shocking loss because the next time it is mentioned is two years later, to the next time shift of 1914, after they have had time to digest it. Cavalcade keeps making this mistake from the beginning of the film to its conclusion. The leaping around between characters, combined with the change of performers who play the children due to growth, makes stirring emotions, or truly caring about any of the deaths, impossible. Yes, there are other deaths, but all unfold in such a manner which prevents/avoids the necessary sentiment.
|The VHS cover
with an odd expression from
Cavalcade is stamped as an anti-war film, but if one examines it closely, the argument could be made that it celebrates the sacrifices men make for their country. This is based on a Noel Coward play, and apparently, he managed to appease everyone who saw the production back then. Imperialists sympathized with the devoted and haughty Marryots, while others embraced the theme of meaningless deaths in wartime. In my mind it is fairly neutral in this stance. Critics concentrate too much on the aspects of war depicted in Cavalcade, while the pro-England attitude is clearer. The final scene is evidence of that. The implication is simple: Through love, loss, war, gaiety, ships sinking, and monarchs dying, England charges on. I’d be curious as what someone from England thinks of this today.
The transitions through time are smooth, but they do undercut the drama considerably. The adults skate by on aging via makeup, but the children needed older actors to fill the shoes of the parts. In light of not really knowing the kids, we just accept nonchalantly that the older versions are of those we met earlier. Do they match up? Maybe, but it matters little due to the constant game of hopscotch the movie plays. There are also two poor montages late in the picture that damage the effect of the war and cloud the point of the film in general. The first chronicles World War I, from the years of 1914 to 1918. It is an incessant and clumsy loop of the same troop marches mixed with gunfire and so forth. The other transpires after WWI, and is a fast barrage of political rumors, headlines, and controversy. We are also reminded of “Famous People” at one point during the story. What is Cavalcade about, a family or a country? One undoubtedly overwhelms the other.
On more than one occasion, the story touches on the possibility of death during battle, exhibiting the never-ending state of anxiety and worry as the women wonder whether or not their loved ones will appear on the casualty list. Diane Wynyard’s Jane Marryot is shown tormented over the waiting more than anyone else, as most of the script revolves around her. She is also the person who is most vocal opponent of the war. Unfortunately, Wynyard’s relentless wailing and moaning, not to mention that annoying habit of delivering her lines while looking out into the distance, makes her performance incredibly old-fashioned and goofy. Thankfully Katherine Hepburn would beat her in the Best Actress category for Morning Glory. Oddly, some of the cast in Cavalcade benefit from the theatricality of the lines, and others just fail completely.
Clive Brook, acting as Sir Robert Marryot, is brilliant, and makes everyone else look mediocre. The exaggerated nature that would plague Wynyard was not a problem for Brook, who communicates the lines with assurance, buoyancy, and refinement. This was a splendid year for him, even though he was never nominated for an Oscar, and even though a superior film, Shanghai Express, did not receive any attention at all. He flourished primarily during the silent era, and even portrayed Sherlock Holmes three times before Basil Rathbone would make the role famous.
Three of the supporting cast members in Cavalcade were reprising their roles from the stage version. They are Una O’Connor as Ellen, Irene Browne as Margaret Harris, and Merle Tottenham as a maid named Anne. O’Connor is fine, but her screen time as Ellen Bridges is severely limited, and the main image of her is of an uptight and snobby woman, and she was a servant don’t forget. A death in her family is one of the few that is actually seen. The entire supporting team is average except for Herbert Mundin as Alfred Bridges, an optimistic common man who transforms into a nasty drunk after he opens the London pub. Mundin was a short and stocky character actor, who would go on to be one of Robin’s Merrie Men in The Adventures of Robin Hood, where he would again have scenes with Una O’Connor.
|Edward and Edith’s honeymoon aboard
a boat the Academy loved in 1998.
There are numerous tangents involving musical performances, many of which exalt the forthcoming venture. Ursula Jeans sings “Twentieth Century Blues” as Fanny Bridges, which is the most memorable number, but the rest are relatively pedestrian. Cavalcade does contain its share of effective scenes though. One of which has Jane lighting a cigarette, while a soldier is being carried on a stretcher beside her, and he must have his cigarette lit by someone else. She stares in horror as hers burns away. Another has Jane and Ellen meeting to read the names of the latest dead or wounded soldiers. When Wynyard says nothing, she is wonderful.
Director Frank Lloyd’s career began in 1914, and would last until his final picture, The Last Command in 1955. In 1929, he was nominated for three films: Drag, Weary Kind, and The Divine Lady, which won. None of those titles were nominated for Best Picture that year however. He would win again for Cavalcade, and would be nominated once more for Mutiny on the Bounty, which did win Best Picture in 1935, but Lloyd lost to John Ford as Best Director with The Informer. Cavalcade is generally regarded as an extremely faithful adaptation, but Lloyd does his best to avoid the claustrophobic quality of the settings by making it a bigger production. That goal is a success, but the flaws rest chiefly on the competence of Coward’s play rather than Lloyd’s filmmaking skills.
Cavalcade is not a waste of time, but it certainly is a lower level Best Picture winner. Its ephemeral organization weakens the character development, and by omitting the focal points in many of their lives, the emotions that could have resulted are spoiled. It feels as if the momentary timeline of the film exists just as it is for the families. For them life went from 1900 directly to 1908. The years in between did not happen, and if they did, they are trivial. Director Frank Lloyd juggles the material with class, but if the substance is already blemished, that will likely translate to the screen.
Cavalcade picked up three out of the four Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Art Director, and Best Director. It was highly praised by critics upon its release, was an enormous success at the box office, and raked in over seven times its budget when its re-issue in 1935 had finally wrapped. Some stage-to-screen adaptations are terrific, but this was not one of them. Furthermore, the plot would be improved countless times over by other films as the decades continued. Viewing it as a reason to see how people reacted to the world back then might be disappointing also since it basically goes through the motions of the story to highlight important events. You never get a sense of what they meant. Cavalcade is not available as a region 1 DVD release, and if it is in the future, it will probably be in a box set of some sort. You can buy it on VHS through used sellers, and it might appear on TCM once in a blue moon.
Final Rating = 5.5/10.0
The Heartbreak Kid – Still Out of Print
Homicide – Now Available
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV) – Still Out of Print
The Stepfather – Now Available
The Stepfather 2 – Now Available
The Stepfather 3 – Still Out of Print
Phantasm II – Now Available
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – Both Available on 3/30/10
America, America – Still Out of Print
Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Still Out of Print
Latin Lovers – Still Out of Print
State Fair (1933) – Still Out of Print
The African Queen – Available on 3/23/10
Wings – Still Out of Print
You can read all my Oscar thoughts in the post-Oscar roundtable, but I will say I tried to see The Secret of Kells before Sunday just to satisfy my completist nature. Unfortunately, it was only playing in one theater, and was sold out all day. Oh well. I did get to see all the Foreign Language Film nominees, which was cool. I also saw The Last Station on Sunday right before the ceremony. Overall that was good flick, with some slightly over the top performances to accentuate the story. As for DVD, I saw Hunger, starring Michael Fassbender, which was brilliantly acted and directed, especially as Fassbender pulls a Christian Bale with his weight, but watching someone die for an extended period of time is just not something I care to watch repeatedly.
I’m still keeping up with wrestling, both WWE and TNA, though I have no idea why. I am a Hogan fan, and I don’t want him back in the ring, but what choice does TNA have? Who else will bring the ratings? No one else, that’s who. Still, TNA needs to change a lot. So much of it is annoying. As for the WWE, I’m not sure how the Bret vs. Vince match will be, but Wrestle Mania is usually the only pay-per view I purchase, so hopefully that card delivers.
-Thanks to Jeremy Thomas for my banner.
“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount