Friday, January 29, 2010

Cavalcade: Upstairs, Downstairs, But the Monkey Should Have Won

Cavalcade (1933)

Director: Frank Lloyd

Starring: Diana Wynward, Clive Brook, Herbert Mundin, Una O’Connor

Studio: 20th Century Fox

I have to admit, I’m probably being unfair to Cavalcade. I watched the film about three months ago, around the time I watched Wings. Like Wings, Cavalcade is only available on VHS (and thanks to the awesome 2 for 1 on Wednesday’s promotion at Seattle’s Scarecrow Video I picked up both films at the same time). Unlike Wings—which I was blown away by—it’s easy to see why Cavalcade is only available in the old format; the film isn’t very impressive. Personally, if the film was great, I’d have more to say about it.

Cavalcade isn’t terrible in the way that Transformers 2 or Twilight are. The film is adapted from an acclaimed Noel Coward play, but I think this is a classic case of what works well on the stage doesn’t exactly translate well to film. The story follows two London families: the upper-class, stiff upper lip Marryots (Diana Wynward and Clive Brook) and their servants, the Bridges (Herbert Mundin and Una O’Connor). Both families experience mostly hardship and tragedy during the years 1899 to 1933 (which would be the present day when the film was released).

Where the film fails is in the execution of the storytelling. Director Frank Lloyd and screenwriters Reginald Lloyd and Sonya Levien seem more concerned with taking the two families and the audience on a greatest hits tour of turn of the (20th) century England. We are given a grocery list, and the filmmakers are all too eager to check items off. Death of Queen Victoria? Check. Boer War? Check. Sinking of the Titanic? Check. WWI? Check. So much history is being presented so quickly that I never felt a connection to the characters. When tragedy strikes, as a viewer, I felt no personal or emotional investment. Worse, the far more interesting of the clans—the Bridges—is given the short shift and the most interesting character—Mundin’s patriarch—is killed a third of the way into the film.

In many ways, Cavalcade is alike Cimarron in that a chunk of history about a specific region is presented to an audience in a short amount of time. I also thought Wesley Ruggles’ film sprinted through history, and in spite of the racism in Cimarron (one benefit of Cavalcade is that it is sensitively staged—in one scene, if you are an astute viewer, a homosexual male couple can clearly be seen) the characters kept my attention and the script made a point to get the audience invested in the growth of Osage. Unless one has a huge fondness of Coward, studying the time period presented in the film, or a huge Anglophile, I don’t see how Cavalcade can earn the interest of a general audience. I don’t care what the subject of a film is. It could be early 20th Century London, rural Oklahoma, or outer-fucking-space, but if the filmmakers don’t make a case for me to make an emotional investment, than why should I, or any audience, be interested?

That said, I think this is a perfect opportunity to start talking about one of the issues I wanted to bring up when I started this project: If a film didn’t deserve to win Best Picture in the year it won, than what should have? (I’m also going to look at some shoulda been a contenders from 1931 and 1932.)

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is, of course, King Kong (1933) (dir—Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack). King Kong remains one of the most popular and influential movies ever made (interestingly, the film was a favorite of Adolf Hitler—go figure). Peter Jackson—whose Lord of the Rings saga was collectively nominated for thirty Oscars and won seventeen—has cited viewing King Kong as his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker (and in 2005, he had the balls to remake the film). Where would the Godzilla films—or any movie or TV show with a giant monster be—if Kong hadn’t come first? And of all the hundreds of films that have used New York as a setting is there any film more closely associated with New York than King Kong? Hell, the movie made the Empire State Building iconic.

Aside from the obvious reasons, many people don’t know that King Kong is credited as having the first true all-original film score (by Max Steiner, who won three Oscars, most famously for the music from Gone With the Wind). What is a film nowadays without a score to accentuate it? Kong himself is also the first completely animated central character in a film. The stop-motion work is essentially the great-grandfather of the intricate CGI work now seen in films like Avatar.

How many Oscars was King Kong nominated for? Zero.

What about Duck Soup (dir—Leo McCarey), the most famous film from the Marx Brothers? This political satire was so offensive, so on target that Benito Mussolini had it banned in Italy (a gesture which thrilled the Marx Brothers). It also showcases some of the finest physical comedy ever put to film—look no further than the mirror sequence where Harpo mimics Groucho. The film is a forefather of such works as Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H, or any film satirizing politics and war.

How many Oscars was Duck Soup nominated for? Zero. (The Marx Brothers themselves were also never nominated for a competitive Oscar.)

As far as comedies go, Charlie Chaplin was also an Oscar bridesmaid two years earlier. His City Lights—whose various admirers include Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini and Albert Einstein—was also snubbed by the Academy. When the American Film Institute revised its list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, Chaplin’s film jumped from #76 to #11—the highest jump of any film on the list, suggesting that it has gained appreciation over time. (AFI also named City Lights the #1 romantic comedy of all time.) Not that the Academy cared to notice, as the silent City Nights was seen as inferior to the talking films that replaced them. (Though when dialogue is used to point out the presence of watermelons to a black child in the Best Picture of 1931, perhaps silence should have been golden.)

Chaplin’s total career competitive Oscar nominations—complicated. (His 1927 film The Circus was in official competition but since Chaplin did the directing, acting, producing and writing, the Academy pulled the film from competition and awarded Chaplin a special Oscar. Collectively, his films received seven nominations, with his only win coming for the score to Limelight in 1973—twenty-one years after that film was released. Chaplin has also received the Academy’s Honorary Award, and he came out of exile to receive it. He was greeted with a five-minute standing ovation, which still holds the record for applause at the Oscar ceremony.)

What about this pair from 1931: Dracula (dir—Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (dir—James Whale)? Dracula isn’t the best adaptation of the Bram Stoker’s novel (that would be F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1925), which pre-dated the Oscars), but Bela Lugosi’s performance helped popularize the modern image of the vampire—characters whose popularity hasn’t abated in the slightest. Whale’s film is considered to be the finest early horror film—if not the finest in the genre. One walks away with enormous sympathy for the monster (give a huge portion of the credit to Boris Karloff for that one) when watching the film, and the makeup techniques used to create him set a standard for decades to come.

Total nominations for The Count and Frank? Zero.

Finally, how about Scarface (dir—Howard Hawks)? Many excellent gangster pictures were made in the 1930’s, but this one from 1932, with the fantastic Paul Muni in the lead role, is a thinly veiled look portrait of Al Capone. Hawks’ film uses cinematography to fantastic effect, and Muni’s character is filled with moral complications (and homosexual undertones). In many ways, Scarface helped to set the template for the gangster film that alternately glorifies but ultimately condemns its subject. What would Scorsese be without this film? Or Coppola? Or gangster-rap for that matter (thanks in no small part to Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake with Al Pacino)?

How many Oscars was Scarface nominated for? Zero.

Observing the trend, it is clear what types of films the Academy finds worthy of its Best Picture honor. A stuffy, sensitive, inoffensive film coming from a respected pedigree—in this case an award winning play (and to Noel Coward fans out there, I mean no offense) is almost always going to win the Oscar over a picture that frightens, thrills, makes an audience laugh, makes an audience think, or is so controversial it offends. Cavalcade is exactly the type of film that the Academy wishes to represent itself with—it is seen as something serious, it is seen as high class, it is seen as art. However, the film is so unremarkable it hasn’t been released on DVD. All of the other films I mentioned continue to endure, influence, and attract audiences seven decades after they have been released. Certainly, hindsight is 20/20, and not always is the entertaining picture a better film than the “serious” picture, but history is often unforgiving in weeding out greatness, and Cavalcade is a mere artifact.

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