Sunday, October 31, 2010



Noel Coward's image, that of the immaculately dressed Englishman poised over a piano, talking- singing his way through a acidicly witty song,  is often more remembered today than his work as an actor and playwright.  This is probably because of the great success he had performing in Las Vegas  for the Hollywood elite late in his career.  But Coward wrote over fifty plays in his lifetime, and while many of them are comedies, such as BLITHE SPIRIT and PRIVATE LIVES, he was also capable of serious work, such as BRIEF ENCOUNTER, which was made in to a popular movie by David Lean in 1945 (and also had a recent successful revival on Broadway), and, of course, CAVALCADE, which opened in 1931.  It is a a serious, ambitious attempt to capture the people of England and the changes the country went through over decades of time, complete with wars and historical events; not surprisingly it was a massive undertaking with enormous sets and a large cast.
It is interesting to note that, for the second year in a row, the Academy rewarded an adaptation of a play that is set in Europe; but, whereas GRAND HOTEL was turned into a vehicle for several big stars, CAVALCADE had no big stars in its cast.  More importantly, CAVALCADE has none of the staginess that GRAND HOTEL does, indeed this film has a cast of thousands, and features many visuals (such as a Zeppelin attack on London)that, as big as the stage production was, could only be hinted at onstage.  Yes the Fox Film Corporation (later 20th. Century Fox) clearly saw this film as a high class production, giving director Lewis Milestone a budget of over $1.5 million, which was used not only for that huge cast, but also for the film's beautiful (and numerous)sets and costumes. There are also several musical numbers in the film, with songs written by Coward himself, and while they effectively show the passage of time, ranging from British music hall to jazz,  they often go on too long, and most are not very inspired, with the notable exception of the last number, the jazzy, "20th. Century Blues".
At times, the film almost feels too ambitious, with director Milestone cutting away to busy scenes of politicians giving big speeches and soldiers marching endlessly to war; it is pretty much impossible for one story to contain an entire country, and this attempt to show so much of what happened often becomes tiresome. Also, although this is a great looking film, Milestone makes one odd stylistic choice: there is not a single closeup in the film.  This is surprising considering how much importance glamorous star closeups were given at the time(even for a film without glamorous stars!), and it has a definite distancing feel, lessening the film's emotional impact, in my view.

The film begins on New Year's Eve, with the 20th century just about to begin, and ends in 1933; it focuses mainly on one attractive, well off English family, Robert and Jane Marryot(Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard), and their two sons Edward and Joseph (played as children by Dickie Henderson and Douglas Scott, and as adults by John Warburton and Frank Lawton).  Their married servants, maid Ellen (Una O'Conner) and butler Alfred (Herbert Mundin), also play large roles in the film.

 Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook

In the first scene, Robert and Jane arrive home from a new year's party and wake their children to celebrate the new century; although all appears well,  Robert and Alfred are both about to head off to fight in the Boer war, and both of their wives are nervous.  Immediately Coward contrasts the optimism about the war the men have with the fears of their wives, and, even though both men will return safely, he clearly is sympathetic to the women's  feelings ("What's the sense in the war?" asks Jane), and sees the men's gung ho attitude as foolish (Alfred proudly parades around in his new uniform, even though it looks ridiculous on him).  Right away, the film establishes itself as antiwar, and praises the strength of the women left behind to worry and watch over their children as the men go off to fight.  The opening is consciously repeated later in the film, when, once again, the men prepare to go off and fight, this time in WWI, and here their casual, positive attitude towards the war will prove tragically wrong.  The fact that Jane refuses to drink a toast to the start of the war shows how much more perceptive she is than the men.

The tragic couple

But this is not just a film about war, and its most famous scene is about another kind of big historical event.  Edward, the Marryot's eldest son, and his new wife, Edith (Margaret Lindsay) are on a honeymoon cruise, and while they gaze out at the water, they talk of their upcoming life together.  At first, she fears that his love for her will fade as the years go by, despite his protests to the contrary; finally, she concludes that she doesn't care about the future, because she "isn't afraid of anything."  The two of them walk off, and behind them we see a life preserver with one word written on it: TITANIC.  Another tragedy occurs when Joseph, Edward's brother, proposes to his dancer girlfriend just before returning to the battlefield; he is killed literally the day before armistice. 
While certainly a drama, there are some welcome traces of the trademark Coward wit on hand, especially in the earthy humor of the servants (Merle Tottenham as Annie, who also appeared in the role onstage, has such an  odd manner of speaking and mispronouncing words that she must be heard to be believed!), and when one character describes a young couple as "Romantic?  They're absolutely pathetic!", it's a classic example of Coward's sense of humor.
Despite the film's wealth of characters and stories, it always returns to Jane, who is not only the heart and soul of the film, but also a symbol of England's strength and determination in the face of war and strife.  As Jane, Wynyard is marvelous, totally believable as she ages from young mother to old woman.  Her Jane is lovable without being saintly, wise without being too smart, and Wynyard somehow  manages to underplay the scene where she is given the news of Joseph's death.  And her romantic chemistry with Brook as her husband Robert is wonderful, and we fully understand why they still adore each other at the end after so many years together,  (Jane calls their time together "a great adventure.") even if I have a little trouble with Jane's continuing optimism, given that both of her sons have been lost to tragedies. 
CAVALCADE tries to end on a positive note, as Jane and Robert celebrate the new year once again, and in a moving and well acted moment, Jane drinks a toast to England, hoping it will have "dignity, greatness, and peace again".  It is difficult to watch this scene without thinking of what lay in store for England; how tragically naive its characters are!


Of all the movies that have been made of Coward's plays, BRIEF ENCOUNTER seems to be the best remembered and revered; perhaps CAVALCADE has fallen into such obscurity even after winning best picture because it is so specific in its time and place; it's the kind of story that dates almost immediately.  Given that, I can understand why the Academy awarded a distinguished and ambitious  film like this the best of the year, even though now it seems off by a long shot.   You see, 1933 was a very impressive year for Hollywood, perhaps because the difficult transition to sound was now behind it, and it would be another year before the  production code would be strictly enforced.  In any event DUCK SOUP, QUEEN CHRISTINA, DINNER AT EIGHT, 42ND STREET,  and, perhaps most influential of all, KING KONG, all opened that year, and all of them are still popular at revival houses and on cable today.  And I think any one of them would have been a superior best picture choice than CAVALCADE.