Although it’s a Hollywood film, it’s based on a hit West End play by Noël Coward and all the actors are English. Rather like Cimarron from two years before, it’s a family saga, but this time set in London in the years from 1889 to 1933, consisting of a series of vignettes about the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s death, the Titanic, the First World War and the consequent social disruption of the 1920s. I find it really curious that a portrait of English life (or rather of Noël Coward’s concept of upper-class English life) had such drawing power in Depression-era America. Perhas it was received as a fantasy about what life is really like in Britain. As noted below, I thought the movie was considerably more upbeat than the play.
The only Coward play I had previously seen was Blithe Spirit, in Belfast when I was a teenager; I’m trying to track that down - could it have been the Glasgow Citizens Theatre production of 1985, starring Ciaran Hinds, transported across the North Channel? It is much more coherent and less lavish than Cavalcade.
Things to note, starting with the bits I didn't like as much:
Whitewashing: This is my sixth Oscar-winning film and so far we have seen precisely one black speaking character (and a few Native Americans), in Cimarron. The non-white population of London wasn’t huge in the 1899-31 period, but it wasn’t zero either. Having said that, the jazz band in the climactic final scene (see video below) does include several black musicians, so we are scoring a bit better than Broadway Melody.
Staginess: As with the previous year’s Grand Hotel, this was adapted from a stage play, and not everything worked as well on the screen. In particular, oddly enough, I am sure that the occasional shift of scene between family life and the music hall (or other entertainment venue) was carried out much more smoothly in the theatre, even though it would have been much less naturalistic. I thought that Clive Brook, starring as Robert Marryot, particularly didn’t seem to catch the camera terribly well. It is of course a challenge to do a film-of-a-play, but my feeling is that Grand Hotel managed the transition better.
Class politics: The central characters in the film are the upper class Jane and Robert Marryot, and the Bridges family, where parents Alfred and Ellen start as the Marryots’ servants and daughter Fanny ends up as their son's lover. Coward (and screen adaptors Reginald Berkeley and Sonya Levien) were trying I think to treat the relationship in a natural realistic way, but it still comes across as a bit forced in the early scenes, and the social disruption of the 1920s is shown rather than told. Having said that, Una O'Connor is solid throughout as Ellen Bridges, and Herbert Mundin hams it up very attractively as Alfred.
Coherence: As with Cimarron, it's a bunch of scenes strung together over three and a bit decades of action, which is a serial violation of the classical unities. I think in general it's carried off a bit better than Cimarron. There is a huge jump across the whole 1920s taking us from the end of the first world war to the present day (ie 1933), and a bit of a big jump between 1900 and 1908. There is a very silly filmed sequence of knights and ladies riding across a pleasant landscape to break up the scenes (a literal cavalcade, to match the title).
Gay visibility: A very very brief late scene is set in a gay club in London. This goes further than Wings, six years before, which had a gay couple in a Paris club and a rather chaste same-sex kiss.
Performance: The standout here is Diana Wynyard, then aged 27, playing Jane Marryot who starts the story aged 31 and ends it in her 60s. I found her very convincing as wife, mother, mistress of the household and Victorian woman adrift in the twentieth century. She gets all the best lines and best scenes, and she gets the most out of them. (Unfortunately I couldn’t find any videos of her parts which could easily be included here.) I've noted Herbert Mundin as Alfred Bridges already. Special shout outs also to Ursula Jeans as Fanny Bridges, and to John Warburton (who much much later appeared in a Star Trek episode) and Margaret Lindsay as the doomed lovers on the Titanic in this scene (apologies for spoiling the punchline there):
Music: Long long ago I saw the 1969 film Oh! What A Lovely War, which I now realise drew on the tradition of showing and telling the story of conscription and combat through music which Cavalcade must have been an early part of. Both film and play use music to be more critical of militarism than the wording of the dialogue given to the characters. Some of the songs are traditional, some are original to Coward. The high point musically (and there are no low points from that point of view) is at the end, with Ursula Jeans as the servants' daughter Fanny Bridges, having achieved stardom on the stage and the love of her parents' masters' son, singing the chilling "Twentieth Century Blues":
This is followed by the final scene of Jane and Robert Marryot seeing in the New Year for 1933, looking forward rather happily if with regret for their losses over the years. It’s a sentimental and mildly uplifting end for the film.
After some reflection, I went and sought out the original Coward play. This is the opening of the third scene:
Principals: JANE MARRYOT, MARGARET HARRIS, EDITH HARRIS (aged 10), EDWARD (aged 12), JOE (aged 8), ELLEN.The original play (it says in my book) cost thirty thousand pre-war pounds and kept a cast and back-stage crew of three hundred employed at Drury Lane for over a year - a spectacular in the line of the more modern West End musical. It's particularly impressive when you remember that these were the first years of the Great Depression. The play opened just before the 1931 election which saw former Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald returned to power at the head of a mostly Conservative coalition. It was received as a patriotic, nationalist piece in tune with the needs of the times, much to Coward's dismay; he thought he was just writing a piece about the impact of the times on an ordinary (read upper-middle-class) family, and to my eye he was attempting to portray the inevitability of the dissolution of old social structures, and to challenge the audience to get to grips with how the world was changing.
SCENE: The same as SCENE I [the Marryots' drawing-room].
TIME: About five o’clock on the afternoon of Friday, May 18th, 1900. When the lights go up EDWARD and JOE MARRYOT and EDITH HARRIS are discovered playing soldiers on the floor. EDWARD is aged twelve, JOE eight, and EDITH HARRIS about ten.
JOE (shooting off a cannon): Bang –bang, bang, bang.
EDITH (giving a little squeak): Oh –oh, dear!
I think he was right to be dismayed. The play is more cynical than the film. The theatrical Diana Wynyard repeatedly makes anti-war comments, and is repeatedly proved right. A couple of grim scenes from the play did not make it to the film - an early fake bucolic musical number, and a scene where the teenage Marryot sons engage in dissolute behaviour with their friends. And the ending is truly chilling. The two final scenes were flipped in the film. In the original, the Marryots see in 1930, much diminished in health and happiness. Jane’s final words are:
Now, then, let’s couple the Future of England with the past of England. The glories and victories and triumphs that are over, and the sorrows that are over, too. Let’s drink to our sons who made part of the pattern and to our hearts that died with them. Let’s drink to the spirit of gallantry and courage that made a strange Heaven out of unbelievable Hell, and let’s drink to the hope that one day this country of ours, which we love so much, will find dignity and greatness and peace again.. It’s a bleak end to her role in the play. In the film, the pessimistic impact is deadened by Robert repeating “Dignity, greatness and peace” back to her, and a crowed scene of revellers singing “Auld Lang Syne” before the final titles. In the orignal play, the final song, “Twentieth Century Blues”, comes after rather than before the Marryots’ New Year scenem with some difficult but bloodcurdling stage directions:
SCENE: A Night Club.Given the necessary scale of the theatre production (drawing-room, crowds, music-halls and the Titanic), it has been staged only a handful of times since the original 1931 West End production (including the two film adaptations). It's an ambitious and vicious piece which would reward a determined and talented director. I'd pay money to see it on stage.
TIME: Evening –1930.
This Scene begins with a night club in which FANNY is singing, seated on a piano. The decoration is angular and strange, and the song she is singing is oddly discordant.
TWENTIETH CENTURY BLUES
Why is it that civilised humanity
Must make the world so wrong?
In this hurly burly of insanity
Your dreams cannot last long.
We’ve reached a headline —
The Press headline –every sorrow,
Blues value is News value tomorrow.
Blues, Twentieth Century Blues, are getting me down.
Who’s escaped those weary Twentieth Century Blues.
Why, if there’s a God in the sky, why shouldn’t¹ he grin?
High above this dreary Twentieth Century din,
In this strange illusion,
Chaos and confusion,
People seem to lose their way.
What is there to strive for,
Love or keep alive for? Say —
Hey, hey, call it a day.
Blues, nothing to win or to lose.
It’s getting me down.
Blues, I’ve got those weary² Twentieth Century Blues.
When the song is finished, people rise from table and dance without apparently any particular enjoyment; it is the dull dancing of habit. The lights fade away from everything but the dancers, who appear to be rising in the air. They disappear and down stage left, six ‘incurables’ in blue hospital uniform are sitting making baskets. They disappear and FANNY is seen singing her song for a moment, then far away up stage a jazz band is seen playing wildly. Then down stage JANE and ROBERT standing with glasses of champagne held aloft, then ELLEN sitting in front of a Radio loud speaker; then MARGARET dancing with a young man. The visions are repeated quicker and quicker, while across the darkness runs a Riley light sign spelling out news. Noise grows louder and louder. Steam rivets, loud speakers, jazz bands, aeroplane propellers, etc., until the general effect is complete chaos.
Suddenly it all fades into darkness and silence and away at the back a Union Jack glows through the blackness.
The lights slowly come up and the whole stage is composed of massive tiers, upon which stand the entire Company. The Union Jack flies over their heads as they sing ‘God Save the King’.
¹ The film version has “didn’t” rather than “shouldn’t”.
² The film version ends “escape those dreary Twentieth Century Blues“ rather than “I’ve got those weary Twentieth Century Blues”.
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can't Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman's Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King's Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976)
21st century: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)