Lloyd’s exceptionally rendered treatment of Noel Coward’s masterpiece, Cavalcade, took Best Picture in 1933.
Concluding with the hope that England “will find greatness and dignity and peace again” (delivered with an exceptionally regal style, foreshadowing Queen Elizabeth II, by Diana Wynyard), Coward’s much more realistic vision ends his original play with “Twentieth Century Blues” rather than Lloyd’s more jingoistic approach.
The playwright’s ballad does get a fine rendition as Fanny Bridges (Ursula Jeans in superb form) bemoans life after “victory.” But with lyrics including: Why is it that civilized humanity/ Must make the world so wrong?, the filmmaker moved the telling song ahead of the New Year’s toast; both versions conclude the musical portion with “God Save the King.”
The film begins with the turn-of-the-century New Year’s Eve (1899/1900) and the heady prospect of “victory” in the Boer War: “Mafeking must be relieved.”
At this juncture, the notion of class is delineated by the well-to-do Marryots (Wynyard along with Clive Brook as her stoic husband) and their servants, notably Una O’Connor as Ellen Bridges and hubby Alfred—Herbert Mundin gamely endures the worst bit of characterization as he descends into drink before being ever-so-conveniently trampled to death by the fire brigade.
The Marryots also have two sons (Edward—John Warburton; Joey—Frank Lawton, who has more than a passing resemblance to Coward in his salad days) who are artfully employed to underscore the events of the era from the sinking of the Titanic to the miserable irony of inking the Armistice a couple of days too soon for some in WW I.
But it’s Lloyd’s savvy cinematic storytelling (marvellously aided and abetted by the camera and editing departments) that give the film is finest moments. By far and away the best sequence is the dialogue-free depiction of the Great War. The extended montage begins with the obvious enthusiasm of the boys going off to battle (“three months—tops”) intercut with beautiful women singing their praises in London’s upscale clubs. It doesn’t take long for the grisly reality of death by bombs, bayonets and gas to turn the tone to abject horror even as the interwoven national anthems of the United States and France remind one and all that Britain was not alone in the struggle. A frequent metaphorical image—Christ on the cross even as his “children” were slaughtered—provides another dose of irony.
Seen in 2016, the saddest thing of all comes from the realization that the search for “greatness, dignity and peace” is just as elusive as ever. No doubt if Coward were still alive today, his “Twenty-first Century Blues” would top the charts. JWR