Cavalcade—And Noel Coward—Revisited

Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences capped off its magnificent gallery exhibition honoring Noël Coward with three nights of screenings. The series kicked off a week ago Friday night with an evening hosted by that renaissance man Stephen Fry, who also happens to be a Vice President of the Noël Coward Society. A few days before the Academy event he interviewed Coward’s cinematic collaborator Ronald Neame, who turns 99 today. Their video conversation was delightful and revealing, with Neame recalling how at one point during the preparation of Brief Encounter he became fairly adept at writing “Noël Coward dialogue,” and was complimented on his ability by the Master himself. He also said Coward was extremely unhappy with—

Blithe Spirit—which was made by Neame, David Lean, and Anthony Havelock-Allan while Coward was in New York—because they changed his original ending and “f—ked it up.”

Then we were treated to live performances of two unproduced Coward playlets by the esteemed radio troupe L.A. Theatre Works: Design for Rehearsal is a wicked look at the peccadilloes of Coward’s dear friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne that he must have shelved for fear of offending the couple. Lunt, Fontanne, and Coward were deftly portrayed by Michael Gladis (recognizable from the cast of Mad Men), Sarah Zimmerman, and Matthew Wolf. Age Cannot Wither is the last play he wrote, about the annual luncheon gathering of three lifelong female friends; it was performed with brio by Susan Sullivan, JoBeth Williams, and Juliet Mills, whose father John was closely associated with Coward.

The perfect master of ceremonies for a Noel Coward evening: Stephen Fry. (Courtesy of AMPAS)

After more witty remarks and Coward anecdotes, related in perfect clipped Coward-ese by Mr. Fry, the Academy screened a newly-restored print of Cavalcade, the Oscar winner for Best Director (Frank Lloyd), Best Art Direction (William S. Darling) and Best Picture of 1933. Based on Coward’s acclaimed London stage play, it was filmed in Hollywood with a (nearly) all-British cast, and no expense was spared to make it feel authentic.

I’ve always loved Cavalcade, but I haven’t seen it on a big screen in decades. Revisiting old movies is a risky business, not unlike meeting old friends you haven’t seen for years. Some are just as amusing as ever, while others aren’t quite as bright or appealing as you recall. What’s more, I find my perceptions of older films alter over time. What may have seemed effective in 1970 might creak rather loudly in 2010.

We all grow and evolve, and while there are times I’d like to put my head in the sand and pretend nothing has changed, I can’t.

I still have an abiding affection for Cavalcade, but seeing it again—especially with an audience, on the giant Academy screen—I can’t blind myself to its flaws. That it derives from a stage play is fairly obvious. I accept a certain theatricality in the acting of Clive Brook, Diana Wynyard, Una O’Connor, and Herbert Mundin, who carry much of the story, but Frank Lawton, who plays one of their sons, is overripe, to put it mildly, and has the misfortune of having to utter the film’s worst dialogue—first expressing the gee-whiz excitement of going to war and then extolling a love affair that’s “fun.” (He is smitten with Ursula Jeans and their verbal lovemaking is the stuff of high camp. When they press close together for a passionate embrace and, instead of kissing, suddenly turn their faces toward the camera, cheek to cheek, it’s a “pose” that prompts understandable laughter from a modern audience.)

Upstairs, Downstairs, Coward-style: Una O’Connor, Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook in Cavalcade.

No one admires William Cameron Menzies’ work more than I, but his war montages are almost amateurish; the raw components never mesh into a seamless whole. They can’t begin to compare to the work being done at the same time by the great Slavko Vorkapich, the master of montages.

These flaws are real, but not fatal. Cavalcade still has great appeal, especially to an Anglophile. The pageant of British life in the first decades of the 20th century remains dramatically effective and relevant, although one can question whether Coward was more concerned about the ravages of battles overseas or the inability of servants to know their place. (He was still poking fun at “uppity” servants in his final play, as we heard that evening.) The finale is quite pointed, even shocking, in its bitter condemnation of war and rebuke of society’s modern ills, as summarized in Coward’s great song “20th Century Blues.” Ursula Jeans sings it in a swanky nightclub, backed by a black jazz band. It is followed, soon afterward, by a collage of moral breakdown represented by lurid newspaper headlines that might have been written this morning, and a scene of permissive behavior at a party, including overtly gay male and female couples eyeing each other. (Was Coward actually suggesting that homosexuality remain in the closet? There wasn’t such a scene in his play, so this was probably the invention of screenwriters Reginald Berkeley and Sonia Levien, or director Frank Lloyd. But Coward always believed in discretion, and he gave the film his stamp of approval.)

Osgood Perkins (Anthony’s father) poses with Coward and “the Lunts,” Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, while rehearsing for Coward’s 1935 play Point Valaine.

In any case, Cavalcade isn’t quite as perfect as my rose-colored memory of it…but I still like the film, warts and all. Incidentally, one aspect of the picture that still amazes after all these years is its physical production. A massive scene involving a troop-ship farewell on the eve of World War One is as impressive as ever. And for a film of this vintage the aging makeup used on Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard is surprisingly subtle and effective. One would be hard-pressed to discern that this very English piece was shot in Hollywood, unless you’re aware of the fact that Margaret Lindsay, young Bonita Granville, Billy Bevan, Beryl Mercer, and a couple of recognizable bit players were based in Hollywood.

Highlighted at the Academy exhibit: one of Coward’s signature dressing gowns, at left, alongside a full-length velvet coat desinged by Molyneaux and worn on stage by Moira Lister in Coward’s play Present Laughter. (Courtesy of AMPAS)

I wish I could have attended the other weekend programs, featuring In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, and a compilation of footage taken during an original 1929 London stage performance of Coward’s show Bitter Sweet. The Academy audience had one great advantage over the rest of us clicking online: Coward aficionado Brad Rosenstein reconstructed the original sequence of the play, added titles and matched recordings of the proper music to each clip. This is part of the remarkable British Pathé newsreel library which is now, unbelievably, viewable online! It may be academic to watch silent footage of a musical play, but you can still see what the actors, sets, and costumes looked like if you click here.

The weekend-long program was produced by the Academy’s Ellen M. Harrington, who also expanded the original gallery exhibit called Star Quality: The World of Noël Coward, curated by Brad Rosenstein and Rosy Runciman. Ellen deserves a special round of applause for bringing such wonderful treasures—both tangible and cinematic—to Los Angeles.

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June 2024