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Cavalcade: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Review

Cavalcade (1933) movie poster Cavalcade

Theatrical Release: April 15, 1933 / Running Time: 112 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Lloyd / Writers: Noel Coward (play), Reginald Berkeley (screenplay), Sonya Levien (continuity)

Cast: Diana Wynyard (Jane Marryot), Clive Brook (Robert Marryot), Una O'Connor (Ellen Bridges), Herbert Mundin (Alfred "Alf" 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), Dickie Henderson (Master Edward Marryot), Douglas Scott (Master Joey Marryot), Sheila MacGill (Young Edith Harris), Bonita Granville (Young Fanny Bridges)

Buy Cavalcade from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD VHS

Three years ago, I set out to see and write about every winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Though I ended up only writing about ten of them, I did get to see or revisit more than half of the now 85 films awarded that industry's top prize and I assigned each of them a score out of ten (down to quarter-points). No winner received less than a 5 of 10 and only two scored that low:
1929's The Broadway Melody, the first film I watched for the project, and 1933's winner Cavalcade. Of the two, I would have to give the dead last ranking to the latter, though there are definitely a few others that would enter into the conversation (e.g. Cimarron and Tom Jones).

My biggest problem with Cavalcade was that I found it hopelessly boring. So boring that after it was finished, I tried to go through it once more to see if I had missed something. As far as I could tell, I didn't, and the numbing experience probably contributed to me abandoning the writing part of the project shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, I assign some blame to the medium. As of the spring of 2010, Cavalcade was one of only two Best Picture Oscar winners that had never been released to DVD. I saw it on a videocassette borrowed via interlibrary loan. Viewing a visibly degraded copy of a film of such age on an outdated format is not the ideal and I chalk up a tiny bit of my reaction to those conditions.

Cavalcade did finally make it to DVD in December 2010, but only as one of 76 discs in the Twentieth Century Fox 75th Anniversary Collection, a box set with a $499.98 suggested retail price that could not have sold more than a few dozen copies. Though well behind the curve on DVD, Fox recently released the film to Blu-ray Disc, ahead of many a Best Picture winner and most from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

Aware of my past difficulties with the movie, I made a concerted effort to stay invested for this review and, with the aid of English SDH subtitles, succeeded wholly. And while I don't think my opinion of the film has improved at all, my understanding and knowledge of it have, enabling me to better explain why Cavalcade leaves me so cold.

Jane (Diana Wynyard) and Robert Marryot (Clive Brook) are ready to ring in the 1900s in the 1933 Best Picture winner "Cavalcade." Former butler Alf Bridges (Herbert Mundin) sees his life go downhill after he opens a bar and drinks the profits.

Adapted from Noel Coward's 1931 play of the same name, Cavalcade sets out to tell "history through the eyes of a wife and mother." It proceeds to run us through 33 years of experiences, many of them involving things that shaped the world in that time. The film opens on the final night of 1899, an evening that has England's Marryot family excited for the new century (prematurely, nitpickers will note). Robert (Clive Brook), the patriarch, encourages Jane (Diana Wynyard), his wife, to let their two young sons stay up to welcome in the 1900s.
Though festive, the evening is also tinged with sadness, as Robert will soon be making the 16-day journey to South Africa, where his nation is embroiled in a war with the Boers. That conflict also stands to separate Marryot butler Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin) and maid Ellen (Una O'Connor), a married couple with a newborn daughter.

Though the wives miss their husband and check the casualty lists, the war ends soon enough, with both Robert and Alfred unscathed. Each returns home to soon enjoy elevated status. Robert is knighted and Alf puts together enough money to buy the local pub of his friend still stationed in Africa. The death of Queen Victoria is covered as a sufficient enough milestone to allow the film to advance again. It jumps to 1908, a year that finds the Marryot boys grown up (the elder, Edward, is attending Oxford). Alf, meanwhile, has hit hard times, drinking away the profits of his bar to his wife's growing concerns. A drunken Alf dies a disgraced public death while his 8-year-old daughter dances nearby.

It seems that anyone's passing is suitable to fast-forward ahead. Now, it's the early 1910s and Edward (now John Warburton) has fallen for Edith (Margaret Lindsay), his childhood playmate (and first cousin?). After the date of April 14, 1912 is established, the young married couple is seen having a heart-to-heart talk about their future aboard an ocean liner. In case, you missed the significance of that date, the conversation ends with the shot of a life preserver confirming that the two indeed are aboard the Titanic and about to die. Edward does, at least. We never see or hear about Edith again, so maybe she drowns too.

That renders Joey (Frank Lawton) the only living Marryot of his generation. He reconnects with another girl from his childhood: Alf and Ellen's Fanny (Ursula Jeans), who has grown up into a dancer and star of stage musical comedies. Joey, or more adultly, Joe joins the army at the start of the Great War, a period that the movie opts to depict with a series of montages, featuring soldiers on the move, explosions and such. It thinks more of these overlapping visuals than it should and continues to employ the device long after the novelty has worn off.

At one point, Joe is the only surviving officer in his battalion, but Cavalcade is all about having historical events kill off the Marryot children, so his mother receives the devastating news during a meeting in which Ellen is advocating that Joe and Fanny marry.

The end of the war should be cause for celebration, but Cavalcade instead sees it as an era of financial and, more importantly, moral decline. Another montage shows the rise of communism and atheism as proof that the world is falling apart. The film brings viewers into the then-present day with Fanny singing about "20th Century blues", Jane not feeling the Jazz age, and Aunt Margaret (Irene Browne) wowing her relatives with talk of flying in and out of Paris. The film closes on the eve of 1933, with Robert and Jane older, wiser, childless, and still in love with one another.

Young married couple Edith (Margaret Lindsay) and Edward (John Warburton) have a chat about the rest of their lives, which end up being short, as they are aboard the Titanic. Childhood housemates Joey Marryot (Frank Lawton), a soldier, and Fanny Bridges (Ursula Jeans), an entertainer, reunite on the brink of World War I.

The premise of using one family to revisit the past thirty years is a nice one, but Cavalcade is clunky, heavy-handed, and off-putting. We're never given any reason to relate to or identify with the affluent Marryots. Mother and father seem to exist only as history's pawns. Privileged from start to finish, they do little to endear to us. The father goes off to war because that's what men do. The mother worries about her men, because that's what women do. And their sons quarrel over cake, grow up, fall for girls from their childhood, and die...because that's what Marryot boys do, I guess. The family's servants are more clearly defined, albeit in insultingly broad strokes. These lower-class types are depicted as ignorant (none of them knows where Africa is!) and destined for alcoholism and destitution. Though their daughter Fanny achieves some success in the arts, Mrs. Marryot still seems disgusted by the prospect of the family friend marrying her son, although she is preoccupied with warranted worry for his well-being.

In some ways, the film plays out like an extremely boring version of Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, the revolving Disney World attraction that charts the technological advances of an Audio-Animatronic family that never ages.
There's more warmth in each of the vignettes that make up that enduring show than in the entire 112 minutes of Cavalcade. This drama feels smug and cheaply uses history to do its storytelling for it.

The passage of eighty years does different things for a film. For the average viewer, the distance from the present day creates a disconnect both from personal experiences and the prevailing filmmaking methods they're accustomed to. Oft insurmountable, it's the reason why the vast majority of movies fall into obscurity within a few decades. For the critic, the distance provides a wealth of context and elevates historical significance. The critic might not really enjoy the film in the way that you enjoy your favorite movie of 2013, but they likely respect it and appreciate it how it fits into the evolution of the medium.

Alas, Cavalcade is tough to love from either perspective. Sure, it's kind of interesting in the sense that the 19th century wasn't that long gone in 1933 and that people in the 1930s were interested in world events that still fascinate us today. But, consider how tacky a movie taking this same approach to our recent past would feel. Imagine a movie killing off a character with a short scene set on 9/11 or even amidst the Challenger explosion or TWA Flight 800. It would be just as tasteless and laughable as Cavalcade seems today, like a maudlin, super-serious version of Forrest Gump with no characters whatsoever to latch onto.

Cavalcade beat out nine other nominees for Best Picture, including 42nd Street, well-known adaptations of A Farewell to Arms and Little Women, the non-musical version of State Fair, the Paul Muni crime drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. All of these and the others I didn't mention presently hold a higher user rating on IMDb than Cavalcade's lowly 6.2, which trails all but Cimarron (6.0) among Best Picture winners. It's safe to say some of the disappointment surrounding Cavalcade stems from its receipt of the industry's highest honor. It's easy to recognize that the 1933 movies best-known and most-adored today -- King Kong and Duck Soup -- are ones that didn't have a shot of winning major artistic awards back then. At the same time, it's staggering to discover the huge gap in quality between Cavalcade and the next Best Picture Oscar winner: Capra's ahead-of-its-time screwball romantic comedy It Happened One Night.

Cavalcade hit Blu-ray last week with a DVD in tow, making this the rare (and quite possibly the only) combo pack to carry the 20th Century Fox Studio Classics banner.

Cavalcade: Blu-ray + DVD Combo cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Blu-ray: 1.0 DTS-HD MA (English)
DVD: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
BD Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; DVD: English, Spanish
DVD Movie Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Two single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25 & DVD-5)
Eco-Friendly Blue Keepcase
DVD still available in 76-Disc Twentieth Century Fox 75th Anniversary Collection ($499.98 SRP; December 7, 2010); Previously released on VHS (January 1, 1998)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Cavalcade is presented in Academy Ratio and monaural sound, the formats in which it was made. Clearly, Fox has put some work into restoring the film, but the 1.33:1 picture is a far cry from the best restorations of 1930s films. The element is unmistakably aged. It often lacks sharpness and frequently displays scratches, lines, and heavy grain. You've got to cut an 80-year-old film some slack. It's not like you expect Fox to do for this what Warner does for The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Still, without the sharp, clean subtitles activated, it's tough to recognize this as high definition.

There's not too much to say about the 1.0 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack. The recordings are clearly dated and not always easy to make out. Fortunately, assistance lies in the English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles provided. They translate all but some unintelligible song lyrics. It's worth noting that the DVD also holds a 2.0 stereo remix evidently deemed unworthy for inclusion on the Blu-ray.

Stars Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard listen on as a Fox executive celebrates "Cavalcade"'s awards win in this 1934 Fox Movietone newsreel. The DVD's recycled main menu makes "Cavalcade" look like a silent film.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Cavalcade is joined by two bonus features on Blu-ray. First, film historian Richard Schickel provides a feature audio commentary.

He is a fountain of information, having many facts to complement what's onscreen at all times. Discussing the cast, the play on which the film is based, and the world the movie reflects, Schickel manages to admire the film without overstating its modest achievements. There are gaps, especially late in the game, but who could blame Schickel for dozing off to this?

Beyond that, a "Fox Movietone News: Cavalcade Wins First Honors is a 1-minute, standard-def newsreel that sees a studio executive offer public, calculated praise to the film's two lead actors and someone else.

Although the rear cover suggests otherwise, the DVD, whose file dates indicate is the very same one released in the big $500 box set back in 2010, includes both of the same bonus features.

The Blu-ray's static menu attaches score to a wide formatting of the cover art. The Blu-ray supports bookmarks and also resumes playback, making up for the long time it took to initially load. The DVD's menus place stills within borders resembling those used on silent movie intertitles.

The solidly-labeled discs claim opposite sides of the eco-friendly Blu-ray case, which isn't joined by a slipcover, insert, or reverse side cover art.

Having survived wars and depressions and outlived both of their children, aging Robert (Clive Brook) and Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard) are prepared to take on 1933 at the end of "Cavalcade."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As an early winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Cavalcade is one of the weaker films to hold a place in film history books. Its claim to fame has won it more exposure than many a stronger contemporary and continues to earn it more attention than it deserves. This flavorless family drama will hold little interest except for those aiming to see and/or own every film to win the Academy's highest honor. As part of that demographic, I am unlikely to part with this set, even if revisiting the film seems like an unappealing task.

Fox's Blu-ray combo makes this film a lot more accessible, which is good news for those devoted to such a Best Picture project. The two-disc set's feature presentation leaves a little to be desired, but it and the two fitting extras meet expectations for a vintage movie allowed to remain unavailable for so long.

Buy Cavalcade from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD / Fox 75th Anniversary DVD Collection / VHS

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Reviewed August 15, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1933 Fox Film Corporation and 2013 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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