Thursday, April 2, 2015

Audient Auscars: Cavalcade

This is the third in my monthly series Audient Auscars, in which I'm watching all the remaining best picture winners I haven't seen, in chronological order.

Remember in February when I said I went into the 1931 best picture winner, Cimarron, with trepidation, because I had been told it was a real chore?

Well, I realized soon after posting that this warning had actually been directed at the 1933 best picture winner, Cavalcade, so I promptly shifted that trepidation forward a month to March.

In fact, I carried so much trepidation into the viewing that I didn't start it until the final 24 hours of its 30-day iTunes rental period, and didn't finish until its final 90 minutes. I carried things right down to the wire with Cavalcade, and thought I might miss seeing the ending after the movie crapped out with twentysome minutes remaining because part of it had been copied to my iPod. I had actually wanted to copy the whole thing, but it would never complete the copy. The part that was successfully copied was inaccessible through iTunes on my PC, and iTunes warned me that if I deleted it from my iPod I'd have to rent it again. Fortunately, that did not prove to be the case.

And it was fortunate, actually, because Cavalcade was not as bad as I was warned. In fact, I ended up liking it, if recognizing it as a little bit dull.

It actually makes a good next movie to have watched after Cimarron, because the movies are structurally similar. Both span at least three decades during a period of great change in their respective countries' histories, though that would be the United States for Cimarron and England for Cavalcade. In fact, the title is an explicit reference to the "cavalcade" of change visited upon England starting in 1899, and carrying through to what was then the present day. (One could argue that any 30-year period is a period of great change for a country, but I digress.)

A second point of comparison might actually be Downtown Abbey. Not only are some of the same historical events covered -- the sinking of the Titanic and World War I -- but the central characters are an upper class English family and their servants. The aristocrats (Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook) have two young boys who play with the young daughter of their servants (Herbert Mundin and Una O'Connor). The action opens with Brook's Robert Marryot and Mundin's Alfred Bridges going off to the Boer War, leaving their anxious spouses and children at home. They both return from the war to different fortunes, as the Marryot's can no longer afford servants and the Bridges come up in the world to buy a pub. However, war has had its lasting effects on the men, especially Alfred Bridges, who indulges in a rather disastrous drinking habit. Their lives progress through the decades as the children grow older and fond of each other, and the adults navigate an awkwardly shifting social landscape in which they become equals of sorts. Tragedies befall them, as do happy times. Etc. etc. etc.

If we are going for modern points of comparison like Downtown Abbey, let's throw in another: Forrest Gump. It's part of the joke of Forrest Gump that its title character gets involved in nearly every major news event from the 1960s to the 1990s, but that's kind of what happens unironically here. This is surely a function of the type of irony we've become accustomed to, but you have to kind of laugh when two characters are standing on a boat, talking about the great futures ahead of them, and they step away to reveal a life preserver that reads "RMS Titanic." Groan. The visual gag might have worked a little better if a title card before the scene didn't list the date as "April 14, 1912," which everyone whose anyone knows is the date the Titanic sunk. That's probably a pretty good indicator of this movie's tendency to lay everything out on a platter.

Here's another: When one character goes off to serve in World War I, he has no fewer than three farewell scenes that are pregnant with meaning, giving a completely unambiguous type of foreshadowing that he's destined to die in the war. Only adding to the "irony" is that he arrives with only weeks before the armistice ... but he still dies.

Of course, in this situation one must be mindful of the fact that much of this stuff was not cliche yet in 1933. That doesn't make watching it in 2015 considerably more profound, however.

Still, this movie does a lot of things right, and is certainly a grandiose achievement in terms of its production. A scene of soldiers leaving on a ship to Africa seems especially large-scale and accomplished. Something that was a big spectacle spanning many decades, yet also spared time for some intimate character moments, had a real good shot at winning an Oscar in the early 1930s. (And really, still does today.) So Cavalcade's win should have come as no surprise.

Another thing I liked is that each new time period was introduced with a musical number that kind of set the stage for the new chapter in England and in the world. This could have been hokey, but the musical numbers are incorporated into the action, rather than being the types you'd see in a Hollywood musical. It was a useful form of narration, and relieved me from the drudgery when the plot did sometimes take a particularly long time to progress.

I was surprised to learn that this movie is nowadays considered with great scorn. Very popular in its day, the movie was apparently unable to be seen for many years, and when it emerged from that period, it was not with kindness. Seeing it now without knowing that baggage, I found it just to be a handsomely mounted, stately epic. Not memorable, perhaps, but far from the worst movie that has ever won the top Oscar. I'm not even sure it would be in my bottom ten.

Okay, one last best picture winner in the 1930s, then we jump ahead all the way to the end of the 1940s in May. But first up in April: The Life of Emile Zola, the 1937 winner.

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