In 1933 the Academy could nominate as many films for Best Picture as now, and members had a slate of ten pictures to choose from. Some of the pictures we now rank among the best of that year didn't make the shortlist; there's no King Kong or Duck Soup or Dinner at Eight or The Invisible Man. But there were 42nd Street, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII and Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. Capra was confident of victory for himself and his picture -- so confident that he took if for granted when Best Director presenter Will Rogers announced the winner, in his folksy way, by saying, "Come up and get it, Frank!" that the Oscar was his. He had forgotten that one of his two rivals (yes, there were only three nominees apiece for the major categories of individual achievement) was also named Frank. And to this day Cavalcade, directed by Frank Lloyd, continues to be forgotten. It is probably the least known of all the Best Picture winners, being rarely shown on American TV in modern times and rarely revived, to my knowledge, in the repertory houses. Most movie buffs knew it only by second-hand descriptions that did not sound promising. Lloyd's film adapted a Noel Coward pageant (with songs by himself and others) of recent English history, following the fortunes of two families, one aristocratic, the other their servants, from the end of the 19th century to the present day, first of the play and then of the film. The content might be summed up by the song performed in the film by the maid's daughter (the maid is Una O'Connor from Invisible Man) -- "Twentieth Century Blues." Misfortune plagues the steps of the aristocrats while the servant family rises to wealth as the daughter (Ursula Jeans) becomes a popular entertainer. It's not enough that the aristocrat family loses a son to the Great War; they have to have lost one on the Titanic earlier. But the old folks carry on, stumbling a bit at times -- the mother does a full faint when she gets the war news about her boy, injury added to the insult of the maid's revelation of her girl's love for the doomed boy -- and hope for the best, that being a revival of the ancient British spirit, represented in the film by the literal cavalcade of men and women on horseback, first seen over the opening credits and finally superimposed over the London skyline.
Coward envisioned Cavalcade as an epic stage spectacle with a cast of hundreds. A certain abstract artifice is probably inherent to such a concept, and is certainly lost when you translate the concept to film. The stage show must have been a success or else Fox Film would not have sought film rights, and I suspect that there was some concentration of vision and emotion under the proscenium arch that must dissipate across the expanse of filmed space. What may have been an enchanted castle becomes a field of corn under Lloyd's husbandry; Capra should have snatched that Oscar and run with it. To be fair, Lloyd must share the blame with the usually dependable production designer William Cameron Menzies, who was tasked with representing World War I without staging any battles. He comes up with the most inept sequence of film I can associate with him. Basically, as the already-standard medley of Great War songs (Tipperary, etc) plays we see a constant line of British soldiers marching through Europe. Periodically three female singers in military drag last seen serenading soldiers in a London nightclub reappear to mouth their lines. We take closer looks at the marching ranks and files, many of whom more or less faint to the accompaniment of explosions and machine gun fire. Repeat for each year of the war. This sequence alone earns Cavalcade a spot on the short list of worst Best Picture winners, but the rest of the film isn't much better. The Titanic sequence is risible, for instance, opening as the horsey set trots across a screen giving the date of the doomed ship's sailing, and closing, for those who missed all the other clues, as the scene's doomed lovers exit the frame to reveal a Titanic life preserver. The final insult is the "Twentieth Century Blues" sequence, set in Coward's representation of modern decadence -- a subject on which he had some expertise. Fanny Bridges sings with a black jazz band while among the spectators we see one woman seducing another, and one man seducing another. The horror! The races are mingling and the sexes aren't! Perhaps on stage this business, including the indignation of the old aristocrats, had a camp irony to it that's anything but apparent on film. Instead, the Cavalcade movie ends on a reactionary note that further alienates it from modern viewers. I can only attribute this film's Oscars to a fit of Anglomania in the Academy, and its later obscurity to their subsequent embarrassment. Historically, the Best Picture of any given year rarely has been even the best American picture, but the Oscar winners are a historic guide to what each generation of Academy members thought should be the best. We should be more familiar with Cavalcade, whether we like it or not, if we want to understand Hollywood's self-image and self-consciousness at the climax of the Pre-Code era, and how different from Pre-Code movies they were.