Oddly enough, the Best Picture Academy Award winner Cavalcade is the very last to get a dedicated DVD release—or close enough, in Fox's new Blu-ray + DVD combo pack. (Oddly enough, this veddy British story isn't getting a concurrent release in the U.K., to the chagrin of British cinephiles.) The new release comes not from a Fox Home Video decision, per se, but as a direct result of Cavalcade being the highest write-in vote getter in a recent Fox poll. Perhaps the contemporary lack of corporate love for Cavalcade owes to the film's perhaps uncommercial particulars: lacking in traditional star power, Cavalcade today plays as a dated and preachy curio, a self-consciously epic melodrama that could have been called "The Early Twentieth Century's Greatest Hits."
Frank Lloyd's film depicts "the headlong cavalcade of the Twentieth Century"—symbolized by sweep-of-history transitions of travelling medieval figures—through the side-by-side stories of two families. Principally, Cavalcade concerns the upper-crust Marryots: Jane (Diana Wynyard, in an Oscar-winning turn), Robert (Clive Crook), and their boys Edward (Dick Henderson Jr., then John Warburton) and Joey (Douglas Scott, then Frank Lawton). But we also trace the fortunes of the Bridges family: Alfred (Herbert Mundin) and Ellen (Una O'Connor)—who are in the Marryots' employ—and daughter Fanny (Bonita Granville, then Ursula Jeans). The action proceeds from the last minutes of 1899 to the dawning of 1933 with something like novelistic ambition, though dulled by a rather obvious script adapted by Reginald Berkeley from Noel Coward's 1931 play.
Lloyd, otherwise best known for his 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, gives the material the kind of elaborate production the studio publicity machine could and did crow about at the time: 150 speaking parts! 15,000 minor characters! 25,000 costumes! A scene requiring more than 2,500 actors! Yes, Cavalcade has a cast of thousands, displayed in a cavalcade of crowd scenes, from bustling docks and nightclubs and city streets to a packed house where we can witness a full theatrical production interrupted by news of the Boer War. Spectacle and song (from show tunes to war songs to torch songs) buoy the story between bouts of drama as presentational pronouncement. It's hard not to see Cavalcade today as a corny contraption, especially when it arrives at a WWI montage (overseen by the great production designer William Cameron Menzies), followed soon thereafter by a montage of the world going to hell in a handbasket because of the onset of the iniquitous Jazz Age and the rise of atheism.
That montage is certainly fascinating in hindsight, as a reminder that every time has those who feel the world is coming to an end marked by values careening down slippery slopes. "Something seems to have gone out of all of us," frets Jane, "and I—I'm not sure I like what's left." Coward points out how greater forces than we can control—that sweep of history or, perhaps, fate or God—shape our lives, and change who we are, whether through social influence or simply by the ravages of time and loss. That reflectiveness might well be too little, too late after too many starchy, curiously uninvolving scenarios (the exception being a horrifying, if gaudy, passage about the effect of demon drink on a good man). Wynyard and Brook do a fine job of aging their characters over the course of the film, Lawton injects some much needed naturalism, and Jeans holds sway with her moody rendition of "Twentieth Century Blues," written by Coward for the play. "Everything passes—even time," concludes Cavalcade, unwittingly describing its own diminishment.
With the original camera negative of Cavalcade almost surely lost to time, Fox has delivered what's likely to be the best-possible version of Cavalcade on home video. The source suffers from scratches, dust, and a general softness no doubt owing to the use of a dupe print for the source; these qualities are to be expected of a film of this vintage that hasnb't undergone a restoration. On the plus side, there's no digital tinkering, and the film grain, though a bit heavy, is pure. Knowing I was watching a 1933 film, I had no complaints about the hi-def Blu-ray picture here, which certainly looks worlds better than the standard-def equivalent included on the Blu-ray + DVD combo pack's other disc. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is likewise as good as it gets, understandably a bit harsh, but nicely relieved of hiss.
Extras include a commentary by film historian Richard Shickel that's a bit spotty but intermittently interesting. Shickel should have prepared better for this job, leaving fewer gaps and presenting more assured information to go with his reflections on the film as social commentary. Few will probably have the patience to make it through the whole track, but it's certainly good of Fox to include it.
The only other bonus feature is "Fox Movietone News: Cavalcade Wins First Honors" (1:00, SD), which depicts Lloyd congratulating Wynyard, Brook, and producer Winfield Sheehan on the film's Oscar-winning success.
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