Cavalcade was the Best Picture winner of 1933, raking in big bucks at the box office. A nearly forgotten film today, Cavalcade is the latest catalog Best Picture winner to see release on home video. Covering the lives of a rich British family in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, it uses major historical events as reference points. Adapted from the popular stage play by Noel Coward, Cavalcade is firmly a product of its time. It remains mildly entertaining for Anglophiles.
Cavalcade almost works as a distant ancestor to Downton Abbey. A principal focus are the differing attitudes found between classes of British society. While the movie was filmed in America by a Hollywood studio, its roots are almost entirely British in origin. Twentieth Century Fox sent cameramen overseas to film the stage production of Noel Coward’s play in England, as a guide for their epic movie.
The story focuses on the upper-crust Marryot family and their servants, the Bridges. Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) and Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) have two children and a household full of servants. The film opens in 1899 at the dawn of a new century. Alfred and Ellen Bridges, a married couple, are servants in the Marryots’ home. Cavalcade frequently contrasts the reactions of the working-class couple’s perspective against the wealthy Marryots. It also likes to make the point that events such as the first World War impacted both classes in much the same ways.
Cavalcade advances its narrative by jumping through important historical events from a British perspective. Beginning with the Boer War, as both Robert Marryot and Alfred Bridges are called off to conflict in South Africa, their spouses are left behind to lament the toll of war. Jane Marryot is frequently given the task of delivering long-winded monologues, filled with pithy sentiments directed at the audience. Jane is the lynchpin that holds the story together, as she loses one son on the Titanic and another to war.
One of the most dated aspects of Cavalcade is Diana Wynyard’s delivery of Jane’s lines. Contemporaries praised her performance in 1933, but she plies a brand of stage acting in Cavalcade that Hollywood would quickly figure out was inappropriate for film. Her speeches directed at the camera and audience are tough for a modern audience to blindly accept.
Cavalcade is an interesting historical time capsule of a movie. Filmmaking was still in its relative infancy in 1933 and some aspects of Cavalcade are dated for modern audiences, including an over reliance on musical numbers for a dramatic film. It documents the changing nature of British society in the early Twentieth Century, as England moved from the Victorian Age to a new understanding after the horrors of World War One. Cavalcade provides a snapshot of its era in a well-paced manner, tied to the triumphs and tragedies of one family.
Cavalcade was an epic production in its day, requiring 25,000 costumes and thousands of actors. It also won the Oscar for Best Art Direction. Sadly, little of that extravaganza remains in brilliant condition. The black-and-white presentation is disappointing, even when one makes allowances for Cavalcade’s age. Presented at 1080P resolution in its proper 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio, the extant film elements are in horrific condition and look little better than DVD quality at times.
Fox has given incredibly high parameters to the AVC video encode. Averaging 38 Mbps on a BD-50, compression transparency is the last thing one has to worry about with Cavalcade. It is the film elements themselves that pose a problem, spotted with print damage and other assorted film defects. Wavering contrast and pulsing black levels hurt the integrity of Cavalcade’s old-school cinematography.
Fox has decided to leave the transfer alone instead of using egregious processing to clean the image up. There are no serious indicators of ringing or digital noise reduction, or any real attempt at removing the various scratches embedded in the surviving print. I guess one would call the transfer film-like, but Cavalcade is far removed from the experience of vintage movies which have received expensive restorations on Blu-ray. Its resolution is inherently limited by badly-worn film elements and a lack of serious restoration.
It was nice that Cavalcade finally saw a release on DVD and Blu-ray, but do not expect much difference between the two formats in terms of visual clarity. The Hi-Def presentation is a very mild upgrade over the DVD.
A 1.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack serves as the lone audio selection for Cavalcade. The monaural mix has made it to 2013 in better apparent shape than the movie’s original film elements. Several musical performances are included in the plot and their audio is in solid shape. Fanny Bridge’s performance as a showgirl in the Roaring Twenties is presented in fine fidelity. Some minor distortion creeps into the sound at times, especially during the various montages. Given the inherent limitations of a recording from 1933, this is a fine effort to preserve Cavalcade’s sounndtrack.
The included optional subtitles are English SDH, Spanish, and French, displayed in a white font.
Commentary By Film Historian Richard Schickel – There is probably too much dead air in this commentary, which does shares a fair bit of information on the production’s background. Schickel is honest about Cavalcade and its status in history.
Fox Movietone News: Cavalcade Wins First Honors (01:00 in 480i) – A vintage newsreel featuring director Frank Lloyd and his two lead actors, touting the film’s win for Best Picture.
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