The inevitable passage of time and the immeasurable joys and tragedies that it brings to life served as the basis for Noel Coward’s inspiration to write Cavalcade; a mammoth Drury Lane stage production at the Theatre Royal that utilized 300 performers, contained over 150 speaking parts and incorporated a myriad of stagecraft special effects; lighting, smoke and fire and six hydraulic lifts. Arguably for its sheer size and spectacle, Cavalcade was embraced by the British as a sort of sad and very patriot farewell to that decline and eventual demise of their once galvanic notion of ‘empire’ that for one brief shining moment the sun indeed never set on. Britain’s dominant presence had been the envy of the world during the reign of Queen Victoria; less so regarded with mounting animosities after her passing and the dawn of the twentieth century.
For all his laissez faire sexual proclivities – both in private life and those more readily exercised by the erudite upper crust snobs who frequently populated his plays - in his heart and soul I firmly suspect that Noel Coward was very much an arch conservative. Many of his plays do more than simply poke fun at the British aristocracy. Rather they are astute social critiques of the foibles of mankind in general and British society in particular; often glib, undeniably frank, but with kernels of truth peppered in that remain universally relevant in their exposure if – arguably – not in their execution. Coward was a highly literate man. Thus, the characters in his plays speak to us with very theatrical and prosaic methods of self-expression, not unlike the movie characters created by director/writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), and more proficiently in All About Eve (1950) who continue to resonate with us nearly seventy years later.
Yet, Coward is doing more than simply offer us a mirrored reflection of the times in which he lived and worked – or at least, as he perceives them to be. In his long and illustrious career Noel Coward became the éminence grise for an entire generation; one of the foremost playwrights who made a seemingly effortless transition to movies. Cavalcade is undeniably one of Coward’s weightiest tone poems, bidding adieu to the Britain that was while ever so gently easing into the popular opinion, and perhaps even suggesting that the memories recalled from that near forgotten ghost-flower have no place within the context of the new and burgeoning century. Cavalcade is Coward’s most tragic masterpiece, forgoing almost all his usual penchant for ‘wink-nudge’ comedy except in a few of the earliest scenes, but even then remarkably subdued when compared to his other formidable stage works.
The sheer size of Cavalcade’s stagecraft made it virtually impossible to do the play justice with a touring company. Thus, and unlike most of Coward’s works, Cavalcade never even made the leap across the Atlantic to Broadway. Apart from the Drury Lane production Cavalcade was never again attempted on the stage after its triumphant year long run at the Theatre Royal. In more recent times there have been several modest revivals – but these have excised much of the lavish stage trickery of the original venture for budgetary constraints and have also severely paired down the cast. Hence, the closest facsimile we have to the Drury Lane production today is Frank Lloyd’s 1933 film adaptation – created on a scale even more impressive than Coward’s and produced by the Fox Film Corporation a full three years before its merger with 2oth Century Pictures (thus creating the company we know today as 2oth Century-Fox).
Viewed today, the film version of Cavalcade is a rather stoic, often static, though rarely turgid visual experience – its narrative regrettably episodic, the vignettes loosely strung together with inserted titles to illustrate the passage of time. The years are superimposed over a medieval cavalry of gallant knights on horseback – art director William S. Darling’s rather queer attempt to hark all the way back to ‘ye olden days’ possibly as a comparative, if strained, reference to England’s waning supremacy at the cusp of modernity. The film co-stars Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook as the quintessential Victorian age, upper middle-class couple; Jane and Robert Marryot.
Returning home from a lavish party just moments before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the couple quietly toast 1900 with bright-eyed optimism, along with their two children, Edward (Dickie Henderson) and Joey (Douglas Scott), and their devoted servants, upstairs maid, Ellen (Una O’Connor) and butler, Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin). Coward’s genuine affection for revealing both the upstairs and downstairs lifestyle that were in simultaneous existent in England’s classicist society, but soon to diverge from each other and, in fact, dismantle the time-honored precepts and traditions of Victorian age Britain is at the crux of Cavalcade. For Robert and Alfred are off to fight in the Boer War – the conflict that brought about the first in a series of death knells for this once proud and impenetrable fortress typifying solidarity and strength under Queen Victoria’s iconic reign.
Jane and Ellen go to the docks to see their men off, while Ellen’s sister Margaret (Irene Browne) stays behind to look after Jane’s boys and her own daughter, Edith (Sheila MacGill). Margaret is a practical sort, but with a gregarious penchant for acquiring handsome suitors. Months later, she goads Jane into a night on the town, the gaiety of the musical hall review interrupted by the stage manager’s buoyant declaration that the war has come to an end. The crowds rejoice and Jane looks forward to a return to normalcy for her family. Although Robert and Alfred do indeed come back unharmed by the perils of battle, the world they once knew has moved on; symbolically represented by Alfred’s announcement to Ellen that he has decided to buy a respectable pub, thus leaving service to the Marryot family with Robert’s blessing. Robert has, in fact, provided a considerable stipend to help Albert with his down payment on the establishment. This, however, will also bring about Albert’s ruination.
For left to his own accord Albert gradually becomes his own best customer – drinking away the pub’s profits and bringing shame to Ellen and their young daughter, Fanny (Bonita Granville) who daydreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Again, time passes. Jane and her son Edward (now played as a young man by John Warburton) decide to pay a call on Ellen and Albert. But during their brief visit that also includes the company of the Marryot’s former downstairs maid, Annie (Merle Tottenham) and her new husband, George Grainger (Billy Bevan) Jane and Edward are accosted by a drunken/sullen Albert who orders them from his home. During this commotion Fanny darts into the streets, joining a gathering of buskers in a spirited dance. Still angry, Albert runs after her and is struck down by a horse-drawn fire engine.
The tale moves on, to Edward’s growing love for Edith (now played by Margaret Lindsey). As children they were frequently at odds. But as young people their love has only ripened with time. Both the Marryots and Margaret approve. Joey (now played by Frank Lawton) offers the on rather dandy and descending opinion on the romance, goading his elder brother and proving that when it comes to sibling rivalry some things never change. Ah, but it’s all in the spirit of fun. Edward and Edith are married and set sail for what promises to be the happiest of futures. Tragically, their vessel to start a life together is the R.M.S. Titanic. The couple perishes, leaving their families distraught to pick up the pieces at home.
With the outbreak of WWI Robert and Joey both become officers; Jane once more terrified at losing the men in her life. This prophecy is only half-fulfilled when Joey is killed in battle on the eve of the armistice. Prior to this loss, Joey had begun a rather joyous affair with Albert and Ellen’s daughter, Fanny (now played by Ursula Jeans), an accomplished and rising musical hall star; their happiness impeded by Ellen’s rather uppity concern that the relationship will spoil her daughter. After Joey’s death, Robert returns home to his wife, the film momentarily digressing from what until now has largely been a rather intimate familial melodrama set against an undeniably grander and turbulent period in England’s history. We are given a lengthy montage of soldiers dying, and row-on-row crosses, and then a brief glimpse into an army hospital where the blinded, the emotionally and physically crippled remnants of that gallant generation are left to salvage what little remains of their once-promising future.
We return to the Marryot home on New Year’s Eve, 1933; Robert, Jane and Margaret all having entered the twilight of their lives. Margaret is still up to her old ways, however, and departs a few minutes before midnight to meet up with her latest beau – a doctor. As the crowds gather in the streets, Jane and Robert assemble on the balcony of their family home; the scene where so many iconic moments in the play were performed, but only the cortege of Queen Victoria’s funeral is briefly glimpsed in the movie. Jane makes a rather wistful and homesick toast; both to England in general and to their lives in particular; that each may come to know prosperity, solidarity and the optimism of a brighter future that arguably she and Robert will not live to see.
Cavalcade is at times a magnificently forlorn masterpiece, its chief asset remaining Diana Wynyard’s poignant central performance. Much of Coward’s prose reflect that stiff upper lip British pride being pummeled into submission with the advent of the twentieth century; no more poetically expressed than in the far-away and careworn, misty-eyed stares frequently given by Wynyard throughout the film. In her day, Wynyard was a popular star of the London stage and a strikingly handsome woman besides; her career briefly segueing into the movies, mostly in supporting roles. Like co-star Clive Brooks, Wynyard’s greatest triumphs were on the stage – a tenure for which regrettably no record exists.
But Cavalcade unequivocally illustrates what a truly stellar talent she was. There is a strange solemnity in her performance, one forever teetering on the brink of surrender yet staunchly refusing to tip entirely to the edicts of the coming age. While the other characters all morph and/or evolve beyond their initial introduction to the audience, Wynyard’s Jane Marryot remains remarkably intact – a sort of mortal time capsule for that near-forgotten even-keeled cadence in life, too impossibly beautiful and confident to last, yet ever more resilient and destined to never truly fade away.
Una O’Connor’s toffee-nosed maid, who fancies herself a middle-class lady by the end of WWI – enough to suggest to Jane that her daughter, Fanny would do better to marry anyone except Joey – remains the transitional figurehead of the piece; the physical embodiment of that rising middle-class slum prudery that would eventually eclipse the faded pride of England’s diminished aristocrats. Irene Browne’s doting sister is really quite marvelous, maintaining a sense of balance and understanding; moving along with the times and yet able to treasure all that has gone before; clear-eyed and without much sentimentality for the traditions discarded or lost along the way.
Cavalcade has some marvelous set pieces and a stellar cast to recommend it. But the film never entirely escapes the rather cloistered and clandestine trappings of the stage play. Frank Lloyd’s direction is not terribly engaging. Given such formidable resources at his beckoned call, he seems rather intent on photographing Cavalcade as a play. The camera rarely dollies or pans, the cast mostly photographed from the waist up in well-placed stage groupings or in pairs; the close-up never utilized to heighten the drama or bring the audience nearer to the performances. Cavalcade has been mounted with considerable expense. The crowd scenes, war-time marching, and nightclub and ballroom sequences are mind-bogglingly lavish. But on the whole Cavalcade emerges today with a faint tinge of embalming fluid about its peripheries. There are nuggets of exceptionalism to be had, but one really has to concentrate on the story – and particularly on Diana Wynyard – to find the true spirit of Noel Coward’s masterwork.
This exercise is further impeded by Cavalcade’s less than stellar representation on Fox’s new Blu-ray. Despite having been mastered at a fairly high bit rate, Cavalcade’s overall image quality is tired, muddy, age-beaten and exceptionally grainy. Owing to mitigating factors – first, imperfect film stock, second, less than original elements used in the remastering effort (the only elements, it should be pointed out, available after Fox junked all of its original nitrate negatives in the late 1970s as a cost-cutting measure), and without a full-on restoration effort employed to digitally correct inherent flicker and some minor age-related artifacts, Cavalcade reveals what the gross ravages of time can do to movie art when improperly stored and mismanaged along the way.
Contrast is weak at best. Whites tend to bloom and fine detail meanders between reasonable sharpness and an overall patina of haze – particularly during the process shots used to create the various montages. Age-related dirt and scratches are also much more obvious during these aforementioned sequences, but on the whole damage to the film elements has been remarkably subdued.
No fault – or perhaps very little – should be ascribed to the present regime at Fox Home Video for the resulting lackluster image quality herein. Schawn Belston and his crew are working with imperfect materials at best. Some work has been done to remaster Cavalcade to a marginally presentable level for this hi-def presentation. Is all that could have been done, in fact, been done? Well, in a perfect world a year-long search for alternate materials and painstaking frame by frame ground up restoration would have yielded far more impressive results.
But budget and consideration of sales for this eighty year old movie must also be factored in when deciding on how much to spend on a restoration effort. Despite its Oscar-winning Best Picture status (an award granted the year of its release 1932/33, though not actually bestowed upon the filmmakers until 1934), Cavalcade is not a movie many today remember with rekindled fondness if, in fact, they remember it at all. That’s a pity. Hell, it might even be an artistic tragedy. It is, however, a fact.
In light of it, Fox has given the title more than modest consideration. Frankly, I am amazed that Cavalcade’s made it to Blu-ray at all. The DTS mono is in very good shape and has been tweaked from the DVD release. Hiss and pop that appeared on the DVD have been almost eradicated on the Blu-ray. Apart from a somewhat waffling audio commentary by noted film critic/historian Richard Schickel previously recorded for the DVD release, and, a truncated Movietone Newsreel marking its Oscar-winning victory, no other extras are included on this disc.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)