Unlike the big Oscar winners of later decades, the Best Pictures of the 1930s have largely been neglected (the only notable exceptions being It Happened One Night and Gone with the Wind). Of them all, Cavalcade is perhaps the most rarely remembered, and if remembered at all frequently dismissed as a dated, stagy melodrama, a product of an embarrassing era in cinema's history that even film buffs tend to shy away from, without even the added attraction of some pre-code naughtiness. But are bare legs, innuendo and mean-faced gangsters the only things worth salvaging from this era? The accusations of staginess are not surprising, Cavalcade being adapted from a Noel Coward play. But while Coward may have been a bit of a theatre snob with a naively upper-class attitude, he is not as impenetrably British as he may appear at first glance. Although Cavalcade focuses ostensibly on the concerns of a typical well-to-do English family, Coward strings together his story from universally emotional events, many of which would have related to the lives of people all over the world, and most of which still bear a kick today. Granted, Cavalcade's social conservatism and stiff-upper-lipped fustiness can be a little alienating, but this is not a preachy movie and nothing is forced home or laid on too thickly. Besides, Coward's warm humanism pervades even the most clichéd of characters.
The director is Frank Lloyd, himself an unfairly forgotten man of old Hollywood. Many will not understand why Lloyd one an Oscar for his work on Cavalcade, because he does not use any overt camera tricks, but the truth is Lloyd is too much of a master to need any tricks. Many of the claims of stiltedness probably stem from the fact that Lloyd uses a lot of long and often static takes, but there is still subtle and clever technique at work here. Take that first scene of Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook making their preparations for New Years Eve. A large chunk is done without a single edit, yet with a few simple panning manoeuvres Lloyd's camera is smoothly changing the focus and keeping things feeling fresh, at one point having Brook's face appear in the mirror, then following her over to the table where the two of them stand with a garland of flowers framing the lower edge of the shot. Another director might have used a dozen cuts in the same scene, but Lloyd does it with just one or two. And the great thing is you don't notice. Often he will shift our attention from one place to another, but do it by having the camera follow a walking character to disguise the movement, such as the father carrying off a crying child on the beach. In spite of this unostentatious approach, the style is purely cinematic.
To be fair however, most of the accusations of theatricality fall upon the cast. I would however describe the performances here as being stereotyped rather than grandiosely hammy. Diana Wynyard was the only Oscar nominee for acting, although she does little here but emote rather wetly. In her favour she does put a lot of expression into her small gestures, and as the picture progresses she ages her character convincingly. More realistic turns however are given by Clive Brook and Irene Browne. The real surprise performance of the lot though is Herbert Mundin. In his many supporting roles Mundin typically played a bumbling yet lovable comedy character, but here he is forceful, passionate and rather moving. Had such a thing existed in 1933, he could have been in line for a Best Supporting Actor award.
But, aside from all these qualities, why did Cavalcade of all things appeal to the Academy, which was not exactly cosmopolitan in those days? The answer may be that the mood of the picture was very apt for the times. This was of course the height of the depression, and despite appearances Cavalcade is a rather downbeat affair. The gung ho optimism of the Boer war is replaced by the bitter folly of the World War; characters disappear from the narrative, everyday life becomes increasingly impersonal, until the final scenes are almost despairing. And yet this is not some tale of personal tragedy. Crowds are a constant presence in Cavalcade, with Lloyd using them as a backdrop to a teary farewell, the bookends to a scene or even just a noise heard through a window. In Coward's play characters are killed off in significant events making them symbolic of the losses of a nation. This is a story of great suffering, but it is a story of collective suffering, and this makes it comparable to the most poignant and affecting pictures of depression-era Hollywood.