Based on the elaborate stage production by Noel Coward, Cavalcade follows the lives of an upper-class British family, the Marryots (Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard) and their servants, the Bridges (Una O'Connor and Herbert Mundin) during the early decades of the 20th century. When the film is written about today, it is all too often held up as an example of the one of the least worthy films to receive the Best Picture Academy Award.
Unfortunately, to think of it only in terms of its place in the history of the Academy Awards is to overlook the power of Coward's approach to the story, interweaving his characters against the backdrop of key events in early 20th century British history, which gives the film a truly epic scope. Diana Wynyard turns in a fine performance as Jane Marryot, who serves as the emotional center of the film. Only 27 when the film was made, she does a remarkable job at portraying Jane at various ages over time ranging from 1899 to 1933.
The film is a clear model for such latter programs as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey in its focus on contrasting upper-class and servant-class families against an historical backdrop. This narrative tapestry works best in the format of long-form programs like "Masterpiece Theatre", which can devote more time to individual characters and events, whereas Cavalcade frequently feels episodic and rushed. There are also a few moments, including the sinking of the Titanic, which feel almost unintentionally comical in their brief and ironic treatment.
Director Frank Lloyd (who won a Best Director Academy Award for his work on this film) does a fine job helming this massive and handsomely-mounted production. Its sets, which won their designer William Darling an Oscar for Art Direction, suggest a scale surpassing that which we see in the frame. The war sequences were directed by William Cameron Menzies, who creates a dizzying montage of shots depicting the Great War, accompanied by an equally rich soundtrack, intricately mixed to combine the sounds of battle with the voices of the soldiers singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", creating a powerful contrast. The film was shot by Ernest Palmer, Murnau's cameraman on 4 Devils and City Girl, and Frank Borzage's cinematographer on 7th Heaven.
It's too easy to dismiss the film on the grounds of its somewhat staid cinematic style and obvious theatrical origins. Instead, when viewed as an innovative approach to weaving personal stories against the tapestry of history, told with taste and restraint, Cavalcade represents a noble effort to tell an epic story through the eyes of characters swept up in the events.