Cavalcade, a Best Picture Oscar winner that hasn’t aged too well

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Despite winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, time hasn’t been too kind to the 1933 epic drama, Cavalcade. Sarah Cook looks back.

NB: This article, oddly enough, contains a spoiler for the ending of the 2010 romance, Remember Me.

The 96th Academy Award winners have finally been announced. Sure, we’re in a post-Oscars haze, some of us (mainly me) writing this still bleary eyed from a night of dazzling stars, a glitzy ceremony, and the pinkest rendition of ‘I’m Just Ken’ ever performed.

Heavy hitter war blockbuster Oppenheimer swept the awards, winning seven accolades including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. Following behind was Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things which won a lot of the technical categories such as Make-Up & Hairstyling, Costume Design, Production Design, and a surprise Best Actress gong for Emma Stone.

In his Best Director speech, Christopher Nolan mentioned that movies are a little over 100 years old (more like 130) which is a nice little nod to our forefathers of film. I’m not going to spend my column talking about the movies that won this year – instead I’m going to go back just 90 years, to the Best Picture winner of the 1934 ceremony: Cavalcade.

Released in 1933, this cinematic outing from director Frank Lloyd (and based on a hit play by Noel Coward) ticks pretty much every box for an Oscar winner. The historical epic follows English life from 1899 to 1933, seen through the eyes of an upper-class family – the Marryots – as they deal with the ever-changing tides of British society. From the Boer War to the First World War, the Marryots tackle subjects such as death and social class.

For some, this tender and affecting film tackles the hardships one family could face in an ever-changing world. For others, such as myself, it’s a sickly and pandering mess that nevertheless has its high points.

Read more: Romance, historical epics, musicals – meet the finest films of 1934

At best, Cavalcade is just fine, but its melodramatic shtick gets old and quickly. It’s robustly acted, boasting a good cast led by Diane Wynyard and Clive Brook (with support by Una O’Connor who, sorry, winds me up in everything she does).

One of its strongest elements, though, is when it balances life between the upper-middle class and the working class and how their lives are uniquely impacted. Here, however, this differential is highlighted via Ellen and Alfred Bridges, the Marryots’ loyal butler and maid. The contrast works well, establishing how the other half live, although the story favours the Marryots over the Bridges, casting the latter as the ailing and abusive.

It’s strongest section, perhaps, is between Fanny and Joe, two lovelorn sweethearts who reconnect in the height of World War I.

Now working as performers in a nightclub, the pair are instantly head-over-heels in love for one another, only for Fanny to scorn Joe’s affections because of their class divide. It’s intriguing to watch this as the war looms overhead, giving extra urgency to their desires while also damning them at the same time. This moment, later on in the film, is delivered wonderful by Frank Lawton and Ursula Jeans.

The problem with Cavalcade is that it’s filled with a number of insane moments that feel as if the director is purposefully winking at the camera. Think of every historical movie you’ve seen where the characters end with some guff, throwaway comment about an upcoming president or scandal that makes you audibly groan. Think of that ending of 2010’s romantic drama, Remember Me, where the camera pulls back to reveal that Robert Pattinson’s drinking coffee in one of the World Trade Center buildings in September 2001.

I guess these moments are intended to shock us. To make us ponder the ever-turning world and realise we’re powerless to stop the, well, cavalcade of life-changing events life throws at us. The result, however, feels contrived, as if the only way for us to be stirred into emotions is by focusing on these historical events.

One of these moments is meant to illicit some type of sorrow-filled response and, instead, will have you either laughing or curling your toes. Newlyweds Edward and Edith (newly-Eds, if you will) are celebrating their honeymoon on a ship, speaking about their future plans, overlooking a dark sea. However, as they head back inside, the camera tracks down and shows a lifebuoy ring bearing the name of the ship: the HMS Titanic (insert ominous and dramatic music here). The moment unfortunately sinks the movie.

Perhaps Cavalcade is best suited for Oscar completists – those keen to watch every Best Picture winner. Perhaps it does have some merit, shining a light on momentous times. Especially now when the world feels like it’s on fire, and we’re seeing all the horrors across the globe daily. Maybe in that aspect, it retains some of its reverence.

Still, after 90 years, the movie inevitably feels dated. Oppenheimer is likely to age a lot better.

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