Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 September 2014


I've been watching Oscar-nominated movies for a lot of years, and I had seen all of the Best Picture winners except one... until last night. (I've also seen nearly all of the films nominated for Best Picture – 482 of the total 515, or 93.6%.) But last night I finally saw my one holdout: Frank Lloyd's Cavalcade, which is based on Noël Coward's 1931 play of the same name.

And I sort of hated it. It is indeed a cavalcade – a Forrest Gump-like parade of historical events from 1899 to 1933 from the perspective of two families – and all of them tied very much to a sense of British nationalism and (considering the time period, of course:) war. The first event in this history is the Boer War, and this means that as soon as we started I was already calling bullshit on colonization and angry about what the film wanted me to lionize. Apparently this was supposed to be an anti-war film (I surmise this from the performances in it), but Frank Lloyd appears to have split his budget between parade sequences and huge, beautiful sendoffs, and sincerely scrimped when it came to paying for war sequences. The pro-war pageant sequences look gorgeous, in other words, and the wars itself are given short shrift. There is one (overly long) sequence covering the 1914-1918 World War, but the film seems to object only to that conflict's duration rather than understanding war, world war, and, oh let's say chemical warfare and the decimation of an entire generation, as essentially problematic. Even the bombing of London is portrayed as a romantic bit of fun.

All of this is, frankly, just conservative filmmaking, and it didn't bother me too much, because I spent most of Cavalcade complaining not about the film's politics but about the film's star Diana Wynyard. When her husband goes off to the Boer war in 1900, she totally loses it. She's mean to the children, she can't seem to enjoy anything, and she moons at the camera as though he's already dead. Spoiler alert – he's in the rest of the movie. I don't object to this in theory, but the rest of the film is set around the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and the first World War, so Wynyard really hems herself in. If you totally lose it in the film's first act, there's usually nowhere to go. And indeed there is not in Cavalcade. We've seen everything Wynyard has to offer by way of emotion in the movie's first thirty minutes. And then...? Well more of the same. I haven't seen anyone mope through a movie this much since that Katniss Everdeen girl could only make one face throughout the entire Hunger Games. A little variation, please!

Well, after that, people fall in love, the Titanic sinks, kids go off to war. And I was sort of fine, if a little bored, by the movie's perspective on the new century, on British modernism and the feelings of the film's young adults about the future. It's been eighty years (and a pretty rough century), so even I was sentimental about all of this.

But then the last fifteen minutes of the film happened. Now, in the original Noël Coward play, the main characters have become quite old and toast to the new year, hoping that Britain can come to regain the dignity it once held. And then the scene changes to one that gradually becomes (as Coward puts it) chaos. This chaos is mostly achieved through the image of six "incurables" (not my word, obviously) making baskets, a lot of people dancing but not enjoying themselves, an awful lot of news bulletins, a bunch of discordant music, and the noise of industry. The twentieth century is not quite what everyone has imagined: things move faster, but no one is actually happier. Fine.

In the film, we get the blind men making baskets and the discordant music (it's actually a really fun Coward song called "Twentieth-century Blues". And we also get a lot of people yelling at the camera: a generic atheist tells us there is no god and then an Anglican minister yells his sermon about the godlessness of the world – pan out to the six people who comprise the congregation sitting in a nearly empty cathedral. My red flags went up at this point. Is the message of this film that we all need to go back to church? 

And then the news items look like this:
Vice orgies? The age of "unfaith"? Husband and wife murder? It's news to me, but apparently there are much worse things out there than the sixteen million deaths and 20 million wounded who were casualties of World War I. Oh yes. Much worse than all that: degeneracy and vice orgies.

And if you are wondering what a vice orgy looks like (perhaps you'd like to attend one?), wonder no further. The camera finds a white man and a white woman on a chaise longue. She's drinking out of a martini glass and giggling; he's groping her. The camera moves to a sexy dark-haired white woman who, it appears to me, is adjusting a radio. 

Then the camera moves between some dancers to find this:
I wasn't totally sure that this woman to the right was one of the evil lesbians that are so common in this period (The Children's Hour would appear on Broadway one year later), but then we move a little closer:

Only one of them is having fun here. Look at how miserable the sweet young thing on the left is! She doesn't want to be here! If only she had listened to her mother and gone to church instead of this vice orgy. And the lesbian's grip now appears to be something more akin to coercion or assault. I will say, though, that I bless this actress who has been cast as the lesbian. Lesbianism in this period is almost always framed as predatory, frequently as vampiric. Further, the lesbian herself is often creepy, mysterious, mystical (mysticism is usually attendant to vampirism), and almost always older than her young, white, innocent prey. The dark cape is intended to convey this mysticism/darkness to us. She also has strange motley make-up around her left eye. But at least this lesbian is loving life, even as she physically assaults her unhappy victim.

And just so we don't leave out the gays – the camera moves to our next couple. You guessed it!

I'll just leave that there. It doesn't need any comment, and the film doesn't make one anyway, except to include this image in the "parade of horribles" that is supposed to represent the twentieth century's degeneracy. The film doesn't tell us who any of these queer people are, or where the party is, or anything like that. In fact, the people in this den of vice have no relationship with the other characters in the film. This sequence is supposed, instead, to be a brief portrait of the world in 1933 and of the overwhelming speed with which the twentieth century moves.

Honestly, it did move quickly. I get that. And technologies developed with increasing rapidity, and, well, it's all a little scary. I get, too, the kind of disaffection expressed by the song "Twentieth-century Blues": a feeling, perhaps, of emptiness or of soullessness. But to place the blame for that anomie with sex or dancing or jazz rather than with industrialization, the Great Depression, or the literal deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians in one of the deadliest conflicts the world has ever seen is a profoundly conservative gesture and one motivated by the ideology that blames sex for the world's problems instead of the collusion of militarism and industry. Cavalcade is, finally, a film that considers "good morality" the invasion of other countries in order to steal their natural resources and "bad morality" not going to church. Give me a break. We could make a long list of what was wrong with the twentieth century, but getting laid and going to parties won't be on there.