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Cavalcade A British family survives war and changing times. MORE > $12.95 Regularly $19.99 Buy Now


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teaser Cavalcade (1933)

Cavalcade (1933), which won an Oscar® for Best Picture of 1932/1933, remains notable today as a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a Noel Coward play which you're unlikely to see on the stage anytime soon. Although it has been revived periodically, the large cast it requires--literally hundreds onstage for its crowd scenes--and the sheer logistical challenge of its many scene changes have meant that it doesn't get performed nearly as often as plays such as the intimate, five-character comedy Private Lives (1930). But while Cavalcade is not as well known today, the patriotic drama was wildly popular in its initial London production and helped make Coward one of the wealthiest writers of the era.

According to Coward, while Private Lives was still running in London he conceived of the notion of a play constructed out of a series of historical tableaus. He later honed in on the Boer War as a starting point after happening across old issues of the Illustrated London News. A picture of a ship bearing troops further sparked childhood memories of tunes from the era. The finished play consists of three acts divided into 22 scenes, spanning from December 31, 1889 to 1930. It follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Marryot family and their servants, the Bridges, over a period encompassing the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, and the onset of the Great Depression. Coward also includes several popular songs from the period such as "The Soldiers of the Queen," "Auld Lang Syne" and "Land of Hope and Glory," alongside his own compositions such as an excerpt from the operetta Mirabelle and the song "Twentieth Century Blues." The play's last scene, entitled "Chaos," consists of several vignettes playing onstage simultaneously, with spotlights shifting rapidly from each "vision" to the next. The effect is much like a montage sequence in film, and the film adaptation in fact closes with a montage sequence that closely follows the idea of the original scene.

Cavalcade was above all a triumph of production design, thanks to Coward and his regular collaborator, the stage designer Gladys Calthrop. The stage at the Drury Lane Theatre contained several hydraulic lifts and a complex automated lighting system. On top of that, each of the play's twenty-two scenes took place in a different time period and often required a complete change of scenery. While casting the play's extensive crowd scenes (which required some four hundred extras), Coward and the play's producers were besieged with applicants: over a thousand people applied despite the low pay. England was, after all, just barely emerging from the depths of the Great Depression. Ultimately, the play's stoic treatment of personal and public tragedy resonated deeply with British theater audiences at the time and left them with strong feelings of national pride. Coward himself said to the audience on opening night: "I hope that this play has made you feel that, in spite of the troublous times we are living in, it is still pretty exciting to be English."

In his autobiography, Coward later seemed ambivalent about the play's success as an expression of patriotism and nostalgia. On the one hand, he took pains to distance himself somewhat from the public's embrace of the play as some kind of patriotic statement: "I hadn't written the play as a dashing patriotic appeal at all. There was certainly love of England in it, a certain natural pride in some of our very typical characteristics, but primarily it was the story of thirty years in the life of a family. I saw where my acute sense of the moment had very nearly cheapened it." Coward also made a dismissive remark about "cash[ing] in on all the tin-pot glory" and pointed to the "irony of the war scenes" to suggest that there was something more complex going on underneath the surface. On the other hand, he wrote: "I know that it made many people cry and gave to some of them a feeling of hope for England's future, so perhaps I did do them a service after all, for it is better to hope than to despair." The play's critical reception in England was in fact divided, with a number of prominent critics accusing it of jingoism and classism. The playwright Sean O'Casey wrote a series of essays singling out Coward for writing a "tawdry piece of work."

Late in the play's initial run in London, the wife of a Fox studio executive saw a performance and recommended that the studio buy up the rights. A crew then came to film a stage performance, which was used as a reference for the film version; they hired Frank Lloyd, an English director, to direct the picture. Fox also invited Coward to Hollywood to attend the initial story conferences, though in his autobiography Coward recalled excusing himself from the proceedings after one executive proposed opening the film with the image of a bird in winter, sitting alone on a branch before a flock lands to join it.

Three actresses from the London stage production -- Una O'Connor, Irene Browne and Merle Tottenham -- recreated their roles for the film. Ernest Palmer, the director of photography, had earned a reputation as one of the finest cinematographers working at Fox and in Hollywood at that time generally. Earlier films which Palmer photographed include Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and The River (1929), and F. W. Murnau's Four Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930). Although some sources allege that Cavalcade was one of the films in which Fox recycled war footage from Raymond Bernard's French production Wooden Crosses (1932), a close examination of Cavalcade's footage confirms that it was not from Wooden Crosses but was newly shot for the film, presumably by William Cameron Menzies, who is listed in the credits. Coward himself was delighted with the finished film as a whole, apart from a few minor details. He wrote: "As far as I can remember Cavalcade opened more or less simultaneously in Hollywood and New York and was acclaimed on all sides as one of the greatest pictures ever made which, at that time, I honestly think it was."

The London Times praised Cavalcade as "the best film of English life that has ever been made," describing it as "pictorially alive from beginning to end." The reviewer also thought that the film's added dialogue was written with great skill, though he argued that the big historical scenes on stage were more effective than their film counterparts thanks to their simplicity. Besides the Oscar® for Best Picture, Cavalcade won awards for Best Director and Best Art Direction; Diana Wynyard earned a nomination for Best Actress as the long-suffering mother, Jane Marryot.

Producer/Director: Frank Lloyd
War scenes: William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay: Reginald Berkeley; based on the play by Noel Coward
Director of Photography: Ernest Palmer
Art Director: William Darling
Film Editor: Margaret Clancey
Costumes: Earl Luick
Music Director: Louis De Francesco
Cast: Diana Wynyard (Jane Marryot), Clive Brook (Robert Marryot), Una O'Connor (Ellen Bridges), Herbert Mundin (Alfred Bridges), Beryl Mercer (Cook), Irene Browne (Margaret Harris), Tempe Pigott (Mrs. Snapper), Merle Tottenham (Annie), Frank Lawton (Joe Marryot), Ursula Jeans (Fanny Bridges), Margaret Lindsay (Edith Harris), John Warburton (Edward Marryot), Billy Bevan (George Grainger), Desmond Roberts (Ronnie James), Dick Henderson, Jr. (Master Edward [age 12]), Douglas Scott (Master Joey [age 8]), Sheila MacGill (Edith [age 10]), Bonita Granville (Fanny [age 7]).
BW-112m. Closed Captioning.

by James Steffen

"'Cavalcade': the film of Mr. Coward's play." The Times (London), February 16, 1933, p.10

Coward, Noel. Autobiography: consisting of PRESENT INDICATIVE, FUTURE INDEFINITE, and the uncompleted PAST CONDITIONAL. With an introduction by Sheridan Morley. London: Methuen, 1999.

Hoare, Philip. Noel Coward: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.

Mander, Raymond and Joe Mitchenson. Theatrical Companion to Coward. Second Edition, updated by Barry Day and Sheridan Morley. London: Oberon Books, 2000.

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