Directed by: Frank Lloyd
Written by: Reginald Berkeley & Sonya Levien
Starring: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook, Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin
Tragedies occur in every generation but a series of endless ones may have people feeling like they have it the worst. The era covered within the lifetime of the characters in Cavalcade certainly makes a good point to prove how much one family can suffer, but the film unfortunately had no interest in really letting these characters process any of it.
At the turn of the 20th century, Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Robert (Clive Brook) Marryott look forward to a hopefully positive future. This gets challenged as years pass by and the family deals with the ramifications of several wars and other nation-changing events in England.
Opening with the final minutes of 1899 with glorious hope, Cavalcade sets up a story where this upper-class family will thrive. They have everything going for them, from their status, wealth, and appreciation from their staff. This family seems like a group of decent folks, but the film shows the attrition that can occur to a family even with this amount of power and position. It all begins with the Second Boer War occurring in South Africa, where Robert enlists to help the cause. The film almost teases this being the beginning of the downward trajectory of the characters in the story, but he does come back unharmed. This first instance does carry relevance in the story, as it’s the first time it really shows the impact all of this has on Jane. She understands why her husband goes and keeps a brave face, but she breaks down in moments because she cannot bear the thought of losing her husband in battle. A valid concern to have, but things get much worse throughout the film, and the story forgets to show the incredible impact as shown in the beginning.
It almost becomes comical later on when characters in the story begin to perish through different events happening in the world. The one where I almost gasped and laughed at the same time came when some of the characters were speaking on a ship. A lovely scene by all stretches but then, as they walk away it zooms in to see the name of the ship, which said “Titanic.” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say exactly what happened on this ship, but at the very least I can say not many people make it to their destination. This really begins the downward trend of pain this all has, but it also just breezes by in the story. There’s barely a mention of their deaths later on in a rather bizarre way. The story made a point to emphasize the impact the mere thought of death has on Jane, but when one actually occurs to her kin, it simply gets glazed over.
Ultimately, this is where the film falters for me in its presentation. The moments of devastation occur and they come in massive waves, but the film just carries on. It would be one thing for this to be the stereotypical emotionless approach some British folks may have but the film already established it’s not afraid to show vulnerability in these characters. The lack of consistency becomes quite boggling as a result. The people Jane loses throughout this film could break someone’s resolve in such a damaging way, but the story continues like these characters were just bait. It also doesn’t help that the pacing of this film moves like the iceberg the Titanic crashed into. The plotting became fairly predictable with the same results occurring, but it took a while for each moment to get there. Almost to an absurd degree, the film felt like a 3-hour epic with not nearly as much substance as one would want. In a weird way, the narrative felt rushed in the way it glazes over the deaths of certain individuals but then truly dawdling in other moments. A real mixed bag there.
Not often talked about and only relevant today because of it being a Best Picture Winner, Cavalcade has good roots in its story, which could be expanded upon, but it did not receive the proper care from its director and writing team. It sets a clear collision course throughout the narrative without ever establishing what kind of film it wanted to be. By the end, it comes around to an acceptable conclusion, but in the end the feeling of hollowness cannot escape me.