The title of this movie, which won 1933’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards, tells you how to regard this movie. The epic motion picture, based upon a play by Noel Coward, plays as a pictorial procession. It’s a tale of one couple and the ravages of war.
Cavalcade, one of those deceptively simple and unblemished movies, begins with a happy London couple on New Year’s Eve at the end of the 19th century. It’s too bad that this might be taken as a sign of overly sentimental or oversimplified storytelling. Let this remind you of the catastrophic toll of the century to come. The 20th would become the bloodiest century known to man. Cavalcade dramatizes the contrast without the gore.
The term happy didn’t used to be taken to mean daft and impossible to achieve. The married couple depicted know what’s coming yet are no less romantic. In a telling exchange on New Year’s Eve, they trade sharp lines about what dangers lie ahead. They reaffirm their mutual love, however, as a sealant to their sacred pact.
As war in South Africa worsens, with the wife’s anxiety rising, their household, including the servants, is affected. On come fast shipyard farewells to husbands from wives and in come the children, as boys and a girl play with toy soldiers on the floor. This type of plot device sets Cavalcade apart as a relevant epic; the scene fills character backgrounds and cranks up the first of Cavalcade‘s revolutions.
Starring Diana Wynyard as the wife and mother, Cavalcade commences its march in stylized and touching — sometimes, poignant — plot circles. For instance, after servant and aristocrat children play war on the floor, Wynyard’s mother and pining wife erupts and melts down, kicking tin soldiers in an unladylike outburst. The cavalcade continues. A line of dancing women give an occasional synchronized kick on the London stage in an effort to entertain the city’s war-weary residents. Soon, the women on stage are marching.
One can imagine what happens next. Steadily marching lives entwined, enchanted and endangered, only to be dispatched into endless, ceaseless war, like today’s neverending, unwinnable war in Afghanistan, go on. This is Cavalcade‘s essential theme — that life goes on. That war drives hardship and hardship breeds progress, such as women going out without a male escort. That life becomes an endurance test, requiring you to shuttle between agony and ecstasy — that war puts life at stake while pushing men to love.
Cavalcade dramatizes that war destroys the best in man out of combat, too. A child in white dancing while the band plays, for instance, follows the end of a damaged father. In these powerful scenes, which play as extended vignettes in soft black and white motion pictures, Cavalcade renders Noel Coward’s dramatization of life as an ultimate and ongoing reckoning with reality.
“This is our moment, complete and heavenly,” one lover says to her groom. They, too, are doomed if not before relishing the moment in love.
This proceeds with accentuation in songs, very popular songs to this day, in fact, for every occasion of our lives, from agonizing and melancholy to glorious and intimate. Nearly every piece of music in Cavalcade is a tune with which generations of audiences are extremely familiar. These, too, accompany faces singing on the way to or from war as the cavalcade depicts a march of dying men.
And if one becomes practiced in life at saying goodbye, the shift from late 1800’s shipyard farewell to the early 1900s railway farewell completes a wider arc with another set of finely drawn characters.
Cavalcade is stagy in this way, but the procession succeeds in showing what matters. “I think you should have spoken to your daughter before you came to see me,” is another progressive line in man’s march to better ways and means, as Cavalcade takes final measure with montages of men blinded in war fading into a picture of the war cemetery. The newspaper’s headline that the “World Suicide Wave” of war cues Cavalcade‘s climax, which comes in a pointed line about the noise of the 20th century.
At last, what director Frank Lloyd and script superviser Sonya Levien (who went on to co-write Oklahoma!) with screenwriter Reginald Berkeley and the cast enact is a cavalcade of Noel Coward’s history in terms of a gallant British couple. Their pre-Nazi Thirties New Year’s Eve is a bookend to the film’s beginning as man and woman pledge themselves to hope for “something gay and original…” in the future.
“I drink to you …” one says before the other reciprocates with “… and I drink to you.”
Appropos of the 20th century, a long, bloody prelude to this ominous time, truth falls to the soulful one to pronounce that life can be “unbelievable hell”. Still they choose to strive for “dignity, grace and peace” (again and again). So goes this march of the living and their beloved ghosts which was 20th Century Fox’s 1933 adaptation of Noel Coward’s Cavalcade. With stunning and excellent makeup and photography, and performances that linger and sting, it delivers war wisdom low, straight and clear.