THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Cavalcade’ (1933)

In 1934, the sixth Academy Awards ceremony was held at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between August 1, 1932 and December 31, 1933 the awards took place on March 16. As you can see, the Academy once again changed its eligibility period, and was the last time the period was spread over two calendar years. The change resulted in future awards being based on a calendar year of film releases, rather than a seasonal one. This practice is still in place to this day.

In a moment almost reminiscent of this year’s La La Land disaster, Will Rogers accidentally bungled the announcement of Best Director. After opening the envelope, he simply stated, “Come and get it Frank!” failing to realise there were two nominees named Frank (Capra for Lady for a Day and Lloyd for Cavalcade). The announcement resulted in Capra bounding up to the podium to collect his Oscar. One small problem – he hadn’t won, and embarrassingly had to scuttle back to his seat. It was perhaps the birth of what we now refer to as the “Oscars moment” i.e. a major buzzed-about event that sometimes overtakes the results of the ceremony itself.

The nominees:
42nd Street
A Farewell to Arms
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Lady for a Day
Little Women
The Private Life of Henry VIII
She Done Him Wrong
Smilin’ Through
State Fair

The winner:

Based on Noel Cowards’s 1931 play of the same name, Cavalcade tells the story of two British families of differing classes, over the course of several decades, beginning and ending on New Year’s Eve of 1899 and 1932. The upper-class Marryots consist of Sir Robert (Clive Brook), Lady Jane (Diana Wynyard), and their two sons Edward (Dick Henderson, Jr. and John Warburton) and Joe (Douglas Scott and Frank Lawton). The lower-class Bridges family are servants of the Marryots. Alfred (Herbert Mundin) is their manservant, and his wife Ellen (Una O’Connor) their maid. They live in the Marryot home with their new daughter, Fanny (Bonita Granville and Ursula Jeans). As the film progresses, we see how major historical events impact both families including the Second Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the tragic sinking of the Titanic, and the advent of the First World War.

Why did it win?
Much like 1931’s winner Cimarron, Cavalcade was applauded for its ambitious scope, with its story taking place over several decades and following the evolving lives of the families its plot focuses on. This kind of filmmaking was still relatively rare and somewhat innovative, and it’s not hard to see why audiences and the Academy were so taken by it. By showcasing the families lives against the backdrop of major events audience members themselves would have a connection to, the film instantly becomes relatable and empathetic. You can could call this a clever narrative tactic by the filmmakers to make a story instantly relevant. Or you could say it’s a cheap ploy to gain an audience’s love, without the need to really earn it. Either way, it clearly worked.

The film was an enormous financial success, recouping well over its budget with huge box-office takings. It represents a tribute to the wholesome and quaint lifestyle of the early 20th century, as well as a representation of how several key moments in history affected the lives of the common-man, and audiences quickly fell in love with the film. A box-office sensation, the film was re-released in 1935, and ultimately made seven times its production budget. It may be forgotten today, but Cavalcade was a key piece of cinema of this era, and something the Academy clearly could not ignore.

While the film’s anti-war message may not be as prevalent as previous winner All Quiet on the Western Front, it still portrayed the damaging effects and tragic outcomes war so often brought. Robert and Alfred are both dispatched to fight, and one returns a completely changed man, ultimately suffering crippling PTSD and a subsequent drinking problem, leading to tragic results. We also see how devastating it was for those left behind at home, anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones and hoping desperately for their return. Given Hitler was making advances in Germany that would ultimately lead to another World War, it’s not hard to see why the film’s themes were so striking and relevant to the audience and to Oscar voters.

The film was also rather groundbreaking in having its narrative mostly told from the perspective of its female lead character. Wynyard is front and centre, and gives a stellar performance as the family matriarch. Women were the unsung heroes of the war, keeping fort back home and tending to their families while their husbands were away. It’s up to Jane to keep her family together, despite her emotional turmoil at not knowing if she’ll ever see her husband again, and Wynyard plays the role with great heart and terrific confidence.

Did it deserve to win?
Unfortunately Cavalcade is another Best Picture winner that hasn’t aged particularly well. While engaging and somewhat enjoyable, the film is far from something we’d call a classic. Beating films like 42nd Street and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is hard to comprehend, as both films are far superior, particularly 42nd Street, which is perhaps one of the finest movie musicals of all time. And yes, this was also the year King Kong was released, yet wasn’t nominated. A total travesty.

The film’s epic scope is certainly admirable, but ultimately becomes its biggest downfall. It tries to do too much and delivers far too little. While it attempts to deliver an anti-war sentiment, it fails to full properly comprehend the devastating psychological effects of war. There’s a strong implication that only those of the lower-class were deeply affected by what they witnessed on the battlefield, and the character of Alfred is so poorly written, it’s mildly offensive. He’s portrayed as weak and cowardly, due to his failings at being able to put the war behind him, and it’s a true shame the film can’t justify his actions more sympathetically. It attempts to bash its message of “chin up and carry on” so bluntly, you can’t help but find the whole thing far too sentimental and cheap.

Its scenes which attempt to tug at the heartstrings and deliver some sort of emotional impact are decidedly ridiculous and camp. The scene set on the doomed Titanic is particularly silly. Picture this – a newly-married couple, standing on the deck of a ship, making impassioned declarations of love, and the camera moves around them to unveil a life buoy with the name TITANIC written on it. Gasp! Perhaps they worked better in the context of 1933, but in a modern-day setting, the film is rather ludicrous and terribly dated.

It seems the film only won because it was desperately holding on to the past, and refusing to embrace the future, especially with its upper-class British setting. Sentiment often captures Academy voters, and it clearly did here. That doesn’t make it any more or less deserving, but it doesn’t argue its case for winning particularly well. There were far more deserving winners this year, and this is the first truly baffling decision by the Academy I’ve come across.