Monday, August 1, 2016

Cavalcade (1933)

The first film of the 20th Century Fox 75th Anniversary Collection technically predates the formation of the studio by two years. Cavalcade hit the picture shows under the banner “Fox Films,” which later merged with Daryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures in 1935, and a studio (later a TV network and ultimately multi-billion dollar media conglomeration), was born. The film won the studio’s first Best Picture Oscar, but surprisingly has been largely absent from the media ever since. Rarely shown on television, and never released to home video, it finally made its DVD debut with this collection.

And it’s hard to imagine why, because this is a wonderfully entertaining, thought-provoking work of art. Even better, it’s not terribly dated, owing in part to the renewed interest in the film’s main subject – the class conflict of turn-of-the-century England – due to the popularity of such programs as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. And it also features a broad, sweeping timeframe, beginning around 1900 and concluding 30 years later, offering us a longitude view of lives over time, and the changes which affect them, for better or worse (mostly worse).

The story commences on New Year’s Eve, 1899, on the verge of Britain’s entry into the Boer War, and we meet an aristocratic couple, Robert and Jane Marryot, as well as their servants, headed by Alfred and Ellen Bridges. The two men await their respective inductions into the service, expecting the conflict to last but a couple of months, but they military tenure turns out to be measured in years. They return, ready to peruse their lives, albeit in their respective economic positions.

But life is hardly tranquil for them: Alfred buys a bar, but his alcoholism mars his personal and professional life, coming to a head when he bitterly insults the pretensions of his former employer, and meets his maker in a tragic accident afterwards. The Marryot’s eldest son, Edward, perishes on a little-known ship called the Titanic, and the looming sabre=ratting of World War I once again threatens their tranquility. This time, younger Marryot son Joe is called up, but he’s got love on his mind – that for the beautiful actress/singer Fanny Bridges, daughter of the Marryot’s former servants. Prospects of marriage are promptly dashed, however, when matriarch has reservations about the union, still seeing Fanny as lower-class. In the end, it hardly matters much: Joe is killed in the war, representing the equally horrible wounds incurred by his mother country.

As I’ve indicated Cavalcade winds up conveying a trenchant theme: the tragedies of life are so universal they act as a leveling agent, ignorant of age, race, class or religion. But, despite this, for whatever reason, we keep a firm grasp of our prejudices and judgments. The Marryots continue to scorn their Cockney servants, beneath the veneer of civility and pleasantry, despite enduring two wars, the destructive results of which don’t discriminate at all. The silent wounds suffered as a result are as deep as the external ones beyond their control. But the real tragedy is that they could be avoided.

But through Cavalcade’s third act, which chronicles the “Great War,” something curious happens: the tone shifts. Beginning with a brutal war montage which must’ve really freaked out audiences in 1933, the film gets swallowed up by its decidedly antiwar sentiments. We see harrowing images of blind veterans weaving baskets (the stereotypical metaphor for postwar debilitation), along with the emotional fallout of those grieving for love ones thousands of miles away. The film’s view of the 20s – which we tend to romanticize these days – is also darkened by the wake of the war. Rather than a Jazz Age, it becomes an era of profligate decadence, fuelled by a breakdown of order and control. Remember that our view of the war is eclipsed by its even more horrible successor, WWII. Not so in 1933, when few Americans ever heard of the name Adolf Hitler.

An auspicious beginning to an admittedly ambitious endeavor. But I’m ready for the ride!

Rating: ***1/2

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