Friday, November 5, 2010

Changing Times, Esoteric Speech, No Stiff Upper Lip, And VHS, Cavalcade Is Still Boring!

The Good: Decent direction
The Bad: Melodramatic acting, Poor character development, Meandering plot, Hammy overall
The Basics: A disappointing film, Cavalcade plods through the first few decades of the twentieth century through two families marginally involved in historic events of England.

As my quest to watch every film that won the Best Picture Oscar wound down, I found myself encountering a very odd problem. First, the library I began my project at was going far too slowly for my tastes. Second, one of the films that won the Best Picture was never released on DVD. In a rather irksome turn, one of the winners of the Best Picture, Cavalcade, was going to force me to devolve my technology. After several day’s search, I managed to find a VHS player I could play the video my local library managed to get in for me and this morning, I took in Cavalcade. I’m almost sorry I bothered.

Before I saw this film, the only "cavalcade" I had seen was Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade Of Cartoon Comedy (click here for that review!) and that was not something I particularly enjoyed. And all I had heard about Cavalcade was that it was a Best Picture winner and it was set on the Titanic. Alas, it was not an extraordinary film and there is only a single scene set on the doomed ship Titanic. When it began, it had a lot more in common with Gosford Park than it did Titanic. Instead, this early black and white film in unsurprisingly not upgraded to DVD; it is a cinematic mess and the story being told is alternately boring and uninspired.

On New Year’s Eve 1899 (going into 1900), the Boer War is raging through South Africa and in London, the wealthy Marryot family finds themselves considering the large political event with a very personal bent as the family patriarch, Robert Marryot, is enlisting to go to fight. As well, the family’s butler, Alfred Bridges, is abandoning his wife – the maid – to fight in the war as well. By 1908, the war is over and Alfred and Robert return, with Alfred moving his mother and wife out of the Marryot house in order to come work at his newly bought bar and raise their standard of living.

But as time goes on, Alfred becomes a drunk and more or less abandons his family, including his young daughter, Fanny. Robert and Jane’s sons, Edward and Joey, grow up and Edward marries, but tragically loses his life when the Titanic goes down. Joey, then, suddenly finds a sense of adult purpose at the outset of World War I when he enlists to go fight the Germans. Against all odds, Joey survives to return on leave to the blooming Fanny and the two grow closer, looking to have an enduring love when the war is over!

Cavalcade is a mess and there are so many problems with the film that one has to wonder how it ever won the Best Picture. The chief problem, though, comes in the fact that this is a plot-driven film with a plot that meanders so drastically it is hard to say it even has a cohesive narrative. Instead, the film bounces along various historic events and the Marryot and Bridges families have a part in the great events of the day. There are moments the film is actually insightful and captures a reality not displayed in the history texts. So, for example, most of the women know that the Boer Wars are terrible and the consequences of the war are potentially catastrophic, whereas the menfolk, embodied by Robert and Alfred, are blindly jingoistic and fight for an outdated notion of duty to country. As a result, the film captures snippets in time like the turn of the century, the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and the span of World War I.

The problem, outside the meandering narrative, is that the characters flow from tightly created to utterly pointless. When the story remains focused on Robert and Alfred and mirroring the privileged and in service classes, Cavalcade is interesting enough, though terribly shot. But with the death of Alfred astonishingly early in the film, the movie lists and becomes a journey through characters increasingly less empathetic. To wit, the final twenty minutes of the film are virtually unwatchable if for no other reason than there are no characters the viewer cares at all about.

As well, there are pretty obvious continuity issues that are made more difficult to justify by the fact that Cavalcade references specific years. So, for example, in 1899, Fanny has not yet been born. At the outset of World War I when Joey would be in his mid-twenties, Fanny should be fourteen. The woman seen singing and dancing at a London nightclub is NOT fourteen!

Cavalcade is hampered by a poor technical sense to the film. Arguably the reason this film has never appeared on DVD is that with all of the washouts and terrible editing cuts, the effort to restore this to a digital print would be drastically disproportionate to the interest in the film. Alas, significant characters are virtually invisible at key moments as their facial expressions are washed out by the theatrical lighting. Even the writing is not at all exceptional. The film is written and performed with an over-the-top sense of melodrama to it that is hokey at best and embarrassing at worst.

That said, the acting is not entirely terrible. Diana Wynyard does a fair job with what she is given to play the Lady Marryot and Clive Brook portrays Robert through the years with a consistency that is admirable. But when the character of Alfred departs the film, the most likable and watchable actor departs. It takes far too long for Frank Lawton to make Joey Marryot interesting and he and co-star Ursula Jeans (Fanny) have less than zero on-screen chemistry. Instead, most of the acting is melodramatic and while there is some mildly clever wordplay at points, it is hardly enough to justify the meandering lousiness of the rest of the film.

Ultimately, Cavalcade fails mostly because it is boring and the story fails to be engaging because it is more about the times changing in a general sense than through any characters the viewer actually empathizes with.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]

For other dramas, please check out my reviews of:
Charlie Wilson’s War
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here for an organized list!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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