Cavalcade (review)

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20th Century Blues

As we approach another century’s turn, it’s educational to look back at how society dealt with the last big rollover. Cavalcade follows the fortunes and misfortunes of two Victorian families — the prosperous Marryots and the working-classes Bridgeses — from New Year’s Eve 1899 to New Year’s Eve 1932.

Based on Noel Coward’s stage play, this delightful, passionate drama sends Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) and his butler, Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin), off to the Boer War and back; on their return, Marryot is knighted and Bridges leaves behind his serving days to become landlord of a pub. Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) sees her family through the tragic loss of their son Edward (John Warburton) and his wife, Edith (Margaret Lindsay); Ellen Bridges (Una O’Connor), formerly the Marryots’ maid, suffers a tragedy of her own. Then comes the Great War, and Sir Robert and son Joe (Frank Lawton) are off to battle, and Jane faces another loss. The Bridgeses’ daughter Fanny (Ursula Jeans) grows to become a jazz singer in the wild, dangerous 20s — her signature tune: “20th Century Blues.”

Cavalcade ends at the film’s present day, 1933, with Jane wishing “dignity, greatness, and peace for England again.” Our hindsight imbues this hopeful attitude for the future with nothing but irony — we now know that Jane had witnessed the last gasp of the British Empire, and the insanity of the 20th century was only beginning. Change must have seemed rapid to Jane and to Cavalcade’s audience — from the horse-and-buggy to the automobile, the Wright Brothers to transatlantic flight within a few decades — but the pace would only pick up.

Cavalcade, its characters swept along helplessly in history’s wake, reminds us that complaining about change has been the defining motif of the 20th century.


Oscars Outstanding Production 1932/33
unforgettable movie moment:
Edward and Edith on the deck of their honeymoon cruise ship, blissfully unaware of the disaster that awaits them.

previous Best Picture:
1931/32: Grand Hotel
next Best Picture:
1934: It Happened One Night

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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