The story begins as a wealthy British couple, the Marryots, and their live-in help, the Bridges, celebrate New Years’ Eve 1899 ringing in the 20th century.
Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) and their chief servant Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin) are about to head off to fight in the war. This time it isn’t WWI but rather the Second Boer War in South Africa.
Their wives, Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Ellen (Una O’Connor) respectively, care for their young children. The Marryots have two boys and the Bridges have a daughter.
Like Cimarron, Cavalcade covers a span of decades in the life of the main characters. In this case from 1899 through present day (1933) as these two family’s lives intertwine during a period of great change in Great Britain. And like Cimarron, the matriarch carries the story.
After the men come back from the war (just before Queen Victoria dies in January of 1901) the Bridges leave the Marryot’s service to open a pub. By 1907 Alfred is hitting the bottle pretty hard and is struck and killed by a fire engine when drunk.
Tragedy strikes again, this time the Marryots, when their oldest son and his new bride book honeymoon passage on the Titanic. You don’t know they’re on the Titanic as they share a romantic moment in the moonlight. The reveal at the end of their conversation is pretty great.
Soon England finds itself in another war and like in Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front World War I takes center stage. The youngest Marryot son (Joey) is off to serve but not before the Bridges daughter Fanny comes into his life and they fall in love.
Following the war (and Joey’s death…I know, bummer), a less-than-subtle montage shows the post-war ravages of war veterans dealing with physical and mental disabilities as a result of the war, daily life becoming chaotic and social order disrupted by communists, atheists, perversion and excess. Fanny sings “Twentieth Century Blues” at a glitzy Hollywood party just to emphasize the point.
The film ends on New Year’s Day 1933, with Jane and Robert, now elderly, carrying on their tradition of celebrating the new year with a midnight toast. Jane really hammers it home just in case you somehow didn’t get it.
“Let’s couple the future of England with the past of England… Let us drink to the spirit of gallantry and courage that made a strange heaven out of unbelievable hell. And 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.”
After the toast we get another montage, this time more like a ride on the Wonkatania with a cacophony of the same things we saw in the first montage concluding with Fanny reprising her song with just the lyrics “In this strange illusion, chaos and confusion, people seem to lose their way.”
The scene crossfades back to Robert and Jane gazing just off camera. Robert echoes the end of Jane’s toast.
“Dignity. Greatness. And Peace.” They turn to each other and drink.
It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
It’s yet another film from a play that feels like a play on screen. Sharp witty dialogue and over-the-top characters. This film did give me an appreciation for Mary Poppins which was set during the same era as Cavalcade. I don’t know if it was an inspiration or if they both gave us British caricatures.
The film is mostly forgettable but the Oscars that year were not. Cavalcade took home 3 (picture, director and art direction) and in just her third film a young Connecticuter named Kathryn Hepburn notched the first Oscar nomination and win of her stellar career for her work in Morning Glory.
She would go on to receive 11 more nominations over the next five decades, every single one in the best actress category. Her final three nominations (1968, 69, 82) were all wins.
Incidentally, this is the earliest officially recorded mention of the statuette being called “The Oscar.” It occurred when Walt Disney won his second in three years for the animated short The Three Little Pigs.
Streaming rental available on Amazon.