Thursday, August 21, 2014

In One Era Out The Other

When I was discussing Jesse Walker's top ten list for 1933 we both agreed the Oscar winner for the year, Cavalcade, isn't much of a film.  I recently had another chance to watch it, and while I didn't change my opinion, I can see why it succeeded in its time.

It about an upper class British family through the last thirty years, starting at New Year's Eve 1899 and going through such events as the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the Titanic, World War I and the Jazz Age, ending up in the present--1933 in the film.  It was based closely on Noel Coward hit 1931 play of the same name.  The original British stage production was an extravaganza with hundreds of actors and gigantic sets, and included several musical numbers, both songs of the times and Coward originals.  I think the idea of the film was to get as close to the original as possible, though spectacle comes easy to Hollywood and as such the film isn't quite so dazzling. (It's often mistaken for a British film, but while the cast is from across the pond, it was shot here at Fox studios).

The plot is simple, close to generic, and the characters are drawn with simple strokes.  The kids grow up, fall in love, some of them die--both in war and on the Titanic--all while the parents take it with a stiff upper lip.  It's full of short scenes where the family and its servants react to the greater events of the day with plenty of Coward's brittle dialogue--which generally plays better on stage than in movies.

I'm sure it must have resonated more strongly when it was still the recent past. (The most recent past in the movie--the Jazz Age--Coward barely knows what to do with since he has no perspective. For that matter, he doesn't even mention the Depression--of course, though the movie ends as 1933 dawns, it's really following the play, which ends on New Year's Eve 1929.)  And so the audience could fill in the meaning to the shorthand scenes. The audience of the time also preferred the melodramatic style in which the movie is written and acted.

It's possible to make any part of history come alive through art, but this is a film for its time.  It's still, I suppose, set in "modern" times--that to me includes anything in the 20th century--so the events don't seem impossibly distant, just not personal.  Imagine a film set in 1840 that looks back to the old days of 1810, or 1770 looking back fondly on the simple days of 1740, or 1520 looking back at the wild times we all had in 1490.

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