With the Oscar nominations for 2024 having been released in anticipation of March’s ceremony, it is worth looking back on a former Best Picture winner that has never got its due. Ninety years ago this March, the 6th Academy Awards decided that the Best Picture was Cavalcade, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s play about the lives of two London families over the social and historical changes between 1899-1933. For your average film-goer, other 1930s Best Picture winners like All Quiet on the Western Front or Gone with the Wind may ring a bell, but even most film buffs haven’t heard of Cavalcade.
We open with the illustrious Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Robert Marryot (Clive Brook), a Victorian couple celebrating the turn of the century. Most period films smell more strongly of the year in which they’re produced than the year in which they’re set, but here the period setting is convincing and immersive. The costumes and interior design are perfect: Jane and Robert’s glamorous attire embodies the grace, beauty and refinement of a generation. Streets, offices and theatres are set up just as authentically. The production values alone are lavish enough to make the film worth watching: with 150 speaking parts, 15,000 minor roles, 25,000 costumes, a single scene using 2,500 actors, the cinematography is sweeping enough to appreciate it all.
Throughout Cavalcade, the characters are constantly shaped by historical events: the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the First World War, and the Roaring Twenties. The changing experience of Britain – national griefs, joys, trends, and social shifts – are mirrored in the central characters. A subplot concerning the former servant’s daughter marrying the Marryots’ son is an obvious symbol of the shrinking class divide. There is a strong anti-war message, too, in keeping with the times (this was the year that the Oxford Union voted not to fight for King and Country); the mindless jingoism surrounding the wars is contrasted with scenes of soldier after soldier dying.
Some scenes are especially well-constructed, such as the one in which Jane, framed against a backdrop of cheering patriots, tries to compose herself after seeing her husband off to the Boer War. Later, two young newlyweds go for their honeymoon on a cruise ship and, looking out to sea, discuss their hopes and dreams for the future, while gentle music plays in the background. It’s a touching scene, and when the camera zooms slowly onto the deck towards the word “Titanic”, the audience silently understands. Moments like these – with their economy of construction and their reliance on dramatic irony – reveal the skill of Noel Coward’s stagecraft.
The final scene is the most memorable. In a callback to the opening, Jane and Robert, grey and weighed down with age, welcome the New Year of 1933. The New Year itself is symbolic, for the whole film has essentially been about the destruction of the nineteenth century by the twentieth. Jane and Robert are all that remain of the Victorians. There is a tangible sense here of the enormous social change and personal loss that they have suffered; yet still they remain the same people sitting in the same room on the same date as thirty years earlier. Quiet moments like these reinforce the epic, saga-like quality of the rest. Then Robert says: “Let us drink to the hope that one day this country of ours – which we love so much – will find dignity, and greatness, and peace again”, and a montage of modern trends and noisy music takes up the screen; the implication is that the perceived dignity, greatness and peace of the Victorians has vanished forever.
The cast is mostly competent, but Diana Wynyard is by far the stand-out performer. Only Clive Brook comes close. It is Wynyard’s film more than anyone else’s, and she binds the scenes and characters together more centrally than the director. She has a classical acting style and an engrossing screen presence which, together, outweigh the efforts of every other player. This is even more impressive considering this was only her second film. It is unfortunate that she never “made it” as a film actress, her only other memorable roles being Mary Disraeli in The Prime Minister (1941) and as Helen Walsingham in the adaptation of H.G. Wells’s Kipps (also 1941).
It is worth comparing Cavalcade to This Happy Breed (1944), which isanother Noel Coward adaptation about the experiences of a single family over a period of historical change: in this case, 1919-39. Happy Breed is probably the better film. Although it was a piece of wartime propaganda and lacks the grandeur of its predecessor, it benefits from a blend of David Lean’s skilful direction, a largely domestic setting with proto-kitchen-sink realism, and a first-rate cast of household names (Celia Johnson, Stanley Holloway, John Mills) who give the story a homelier and more authentic warmth. It succeeds as both a drama and a social history.
On the other hand, Cavalcade is worth watching for its lavish scale, stagecraft, the absorbing sense of time and change, Diana Wynyard’s performance, and, above all, the little golden statue that it won ninety years ago. It remains a lush spectacle and the only way to live through four decades in two hours.