Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Cavalcade" (1933)

Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: April 15, 1933
Director: Frank Lloyd
Written By: Reginald Berkeley (screenplay), Sonya Levien (continuity), Noel Coward (play)
Starring: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook, Una O'Connor
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 112 minutes

Oscar Nominations: 1
- Best Actress (Diana Wynyard)

Oscar Wins: 3
- Best Picture
- Best Director (Frank Lloyd)
- Best Art Direction

Other Best Picture Nominees

- 42nd Street
- A Farewell to Arms
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
- Lady for a Day
- Little Women
- The Private Life of Henry VIII
- She Done Him Wrong
- Smilin' Through
- State Fair

And the winner is...

There isn't a lot that is immediately extraordinary about Cavalcade. For starters, it is the third war film to win Best Picture within the first six years of the award. It also doesn't have any certifiable household names by today's standards, save for an uncredited appearance by Betty Grable. It has the lowest IMDb user votes of any Best Picture as of February 2015. The film is in a lot of sense lost to times and likely would be forgotten had it not been for this Best Picture win, especially since it doesn't even have a standalone DVD release to its name - it is currently on blu-ray, VOD services and for free in decent quality on Youtube. So what makes Cavalcade worth remembering then?

There is a certain fascination with how the first decade defined the Academy Awards. They could have been anything in 1933. Instead, it was looking to a certain face that would become a mainstay with the Academy for quite some time. Director Frank Lloyd wasn't a newbie when he approached this British culture during war film. He had been previously nominated three times in 1930 (Weary River, Drag and won for The Divine Lady) for Best Director. He was the first to have the triple threat in the category and has received five nominations total. He would even become head of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) for the following year. He is by every means one of the most noteworthy faces of the early Oscars run, and you can kind of see why with his first of two (the other being the superior Mutiny on the Bounty) Best Picture winners.

Much like Cimarron, Cavalcade was a film that was largely successful thanks to its epic premise. It followed the course of British families from New Year's Eve in 1899 to New Year's Day in 1933. It covered such events as the Second Boer War, the sinking of the Titanic, and World War I. From there, it went on to follow ongoing romances as characters aged and had to face tough decisions regarding patriotism. While it takes its time to get moving, it eventually unveils its complexities and becomes a curious film. While its transparent imagery that create montages of war as women sing feels clunky by today's standards, it manages to progress the story in inventive ways that hadn't been done before. Most of all, it gave the audience protagonists that were accessible and familiar, causing any turmoil to feel more personal.

The film was based on Noel Coward's very successful play. Fox's camera crew filmed the stage version for reference while making the movie. It became the second most successful film of 1933. It also became Fox's first Best Picture winner and shares a lot of similarities to later winner Titanic (1998). Beyond both featuring sequences aboard the aforementioned ship, both won the same awards, featured sequences set to "The Blue Danube" and shared Fox as a distributor. Coward would come to praise the film, specifically Diana Wynyard's performance.

Cavalcade had a lot going for it on Oscar Night. It won 3/4 of its awards and became the fourth to win Best Picture without a writing nomination - the last until Hamlet (1948). In one of the most memorable Oscar moments in history, Will Rogers presented the Best Director category only to have an odd mix-up. Lloyd was competing against George Cuckor (Little Women) and a fellow Frank by the name of Capra (Lady for a Day). Upon announcing the winner, Rogers stated "Come up and get it, Frank." This sparked confusion and resulted in both Capra and Lloyd walking up to the stage. To breeze over the awkwardness, they invited up Cuckor. All three would go on to have impressive careers, including more than five Best Director nominations each and a win. 

Despite being largely forgotten, Cavalcade and Lloyd remain early signs of what interesting cinema could be. It challenged how the narrative could be advanced by having montages and complex romances that spanned several decades. Maybe the film is in a lot of respects slow and dated, but it wouldn't be the last time that a film explored historical events over time through the common man. Films like Forrest Gump continued to challenge this idea with interesting results. Still, for being only the sixth Best Picture winner, it has a lot of strong merits that have influenced cinema for the best. And as will be discussed more in the Mutiny on the Bounty entry, Lloyd has become an underrated director through time. For now, there's this odd war film that may have been the third winner, but still brought something new to the game. That's pretty impressive as it is.

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