Like Cimarron, Cavalcade belongs to the near-extinct genre of the family saga. The film focuses on family life and how it corresponds to the external forces which shape it. Where Cimarron uses masculinity as the film’s dominant force, showing us the wild west from the eyes of the male subject, Cavalcade presents the turn of the century largely through the experiences of women, with the world and their families changing rapidly around them.
From the opening shot of Big Ben in London, I felt more connected with this film than I did with Cimarron. Both films are ‘epics’ set within a historical context, but the difference is that rather than watching a story which represents a nation which is not my own, Cavalcade is a story of people with which I have a shared history. And although Cavalcade was written as a period piece, it’s charm has ripened mightily over the last eighty years.
The tale begins with the turn of the 20th Century, establishing an upper-class household and its servants as the protagonists of the story. The film chronicles the passage of time as the servants move on and start a business, the children grow up, and the families are shaken by key events of the early 20th century. It all feels quite staged but is still very engaging.
The upstairs/downstairs dichotomy allows the characters and their stories a lot of room to breath. When we’re getting tired of one character it’s never long before the focus moves to somebody else, or we shift ahead to show the children growing up in the midst of change. There’s little chance to become bored as we’re taken rapidly through a world where time shifts as quickly as a change in music.
This theme of change is the main thrust of the story in Cavalcade, and it is the women who really convey the sadness and heartache which accompanies it. Irene Dunn performs expertly, as does Una O’Connor as Mrs Bridges. But the men are useless as actors. Their characters return from the Boer War with no visible signs of change, not even subtle shifts. They might as well have stepped out for a cup of tea. The only reason we know that the war is a big deal is because the women tell us so. And the young man playing Joe looks like he’d be more comfortable with a man in his arms than a Fanny. Very unconvincing.
Thankfully, there is a redeeming war montage towards the end of film which is poignant and exciting, and I find it quite interesting that Hollywood asserts itself in these early films as anti-war, or at the very least offers quite a harsh critique of war. I suspect and hope that this is something that will continue.
But by far the best moment of this project so far:
Annie: Where’s Africa? I know where it is, but where is it really?