Seeing Cavalcade for the first time since I was in high school, I was immediately struck that this best-picture Oscar winner from 1933 is a testament to the unkindness of time. Almost no one remembers the film today. Its director, Frank Lloyd (who also won the Oscar), was a big noise in his day, his movie receiving the coveted billing of “A Frank Lloyd Production” (the 1930s equivalent of “A Film by”), yet he’s all but forgotten now, as are Cavalcade‘s stars, Diana Wynyard (Oscar-nominated for her performance) and Clive Brook.
Cavalcade is an impressive work with an impressive cast, but I could name a dozen far-better-remembered films from 1933. Yesterday’s prestige picture is often — rightly or wrongly — also just yesterday’s news. Still, it’s nice, as with Lloyd’s film, to be reminded that sometimes yesterday’s news is worth looking at again. Indeed, Cavalcade plays better for me now than it did when I saw it 30-odd years ago on the late show.
The film is adapted from Noel Coward’s stage play that follows, in Upstairs/Downstairs fashion, the fates of two families, the well-to-do Marryots (Brook and Wynyard) and the lower-class Bridges (Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin), from New Year’s Eve 1899 to New Year’s Eve 1932. Cavalcade is also part of an early trend in sound films toward anti-war sentiment. And while there’s a certain reactionary quality to some of the Coward material in its tendency to scoff at the very modernity of which Coward was himself a part, the movie’s overriding thrust is very effectively anti-war. Owing to the film’s expansive structure, it moves in a rather fragmented fashion, but it’s surprising how well it does work.
Very much a part of our cinema heritage, Cavalcade deserves to be remembered more than it has been.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke