Wednesday, July 04, 2007


These two movies are both based on plays by Noel Coward, both celebrate the British and their way of life, and both are structured in a very theatrical fashion, each as a parade of episodes spanning a number of years in the life of a family. CAVALCADE won the Best Picture Oscar, but has largely been forgotten, even dismissed by some critics as the worst movie to win the top prize. It is hardly that--BROADWAY MELODY is much harder to sit through, and for my money there are several later films that are less entertaining, such as LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA and CHARIOTS OF FIRE. It is, though, very much a product of its time. A concise plot summary is provided by a title card at the beginning: "This is the story of a home and a family--history as seen through the eyes of a wife and mother." An upper-class wife and mother (Diana Wynward), as it turns out, whom we first see toasting in the new century on New Year's Eve, 1899. She is nervous about her husband (Clive Brook) heading off to fight in the Boer War. Downstairs, the maid (Una O'Connor) is also upset about her husband, the butler (Herbert Mundin) doing the same thing. This theme of war worries remains a primary narrative thread, not a consistent pro or con view, but more an acknowledgment that war is a scourge of civilization that will never go away. The rest of the film consists of a series of short scenes that follow the fortunes of Wynward's family (and, when they overlap, the fortunes of O'Connor's as well) over the next 30 years. Both men return from war; Brook is knighted and Mundin buys a pub, taking O'Connor with him. The two women stay in touch for a while, as do the kids of the two families. By 1908, Mundin has let his regular customers get away with not paying, and turns to drink himself, coming to a tragic end. In 1912, Wynward's oldest son (John Warburton) goes off on his honeymoon which we discover at the end of the scene is on the Titanic. In 1914, her other son (Frank Lawton) goes off to WWI, but not before he falls in love with chorus girl Ursula Jeans who is O'Connor’s daughter. And so on, until the last scene, with an aged Wynward and Brook toasting in the year 1933. The stagy dialogue scenes are OK, though to today's viewers, they seem the epitome of the brittle British stiff-upper-lip stage melodramatics that have been so often parodied over the years. These sequences are interrupted by some fairly exciting montages, some created by renowned production designer William Cameron Menzies, mostly of the war and the Lost Generation era afterward. Wynward is a British Norma Shearer, or at least a version of Shearer's respectable wife persona of 1939's THE WOMEN; she's good, but a sometimes a bit over-the-top in her suffering. The cast includes Bonita Granville (later to play Nancy Drew) and Margaret Lindsay. Almost every sequence has a musical number of one sort or another in the foreground or background, with the highlight coming late in the film when Jeans sings "20th Century Blues." [VHS]

Eleven years later, in the middle of WWII, David Lean directed an adaptation of Coward's THIS HAPPY BREED, basically a between-the-wars CAVALCADE which follows a middle-class family from the time they move into a suburban house in 1919 until they move out in 1939. The same structure is used, with a focus on Mr. and Mrs. Gibbons (Celia Johnson and Robert Newton) and their family and friends. A Christmas scene in 1925 sets up the primary relationships which are then tracked in a series of episodes that barrel through the 20's and 30's: one daughter (Kay Walsh) is in love with a neighboring sailor (John Mills) but also vaguely unhappy with her stifling middle-class life, and she runs away from home and takes up with a married man; another daughter (Eileen Erskine) falls for a political radical (Guy Verney) who softens into complacency over the years; the son (John Blythe), who falls under the influence of Verney early on, becomes a labor agitator and is in constant strife with his father until he too embraces middle-class values and gets married. We also get to know Mills' father (Stanley Holloway) who is an old friend and drinking buddy of Newton's, and a cranky spinster aunt who is constantly clashing with Johnson's cranky mother until she gets a vague form of religion. Despite having been made in the thick of WWII, war is not a theme here, though the march of time is marked by references to historical events (the death of King George) and pop culture (the Charleston, the rise of the talkies), and it winds up being lighter in tone than CAVALCADE, though the families still have occasional domestic tragedies. It's in color, and the acting is much less stagy than in the earlier film, but I still think CAVALCADE is a more entertaining film. The later breed may have been a bit happier, but the earlier breed was apparently more interesting. [TCM]

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