And Busby Berkeley would sh*t, I know...
Drab ol' /
(bum, bum-bum, doo-di-doo...)
NICK: As we march through Best Pictures from the Outside In, we learn that certain maneuvers can always help if you're trying to net an Oscar. Grand visual scale. Weighty historical themes. But perhaps none is so effective as a one-word title that starts with C. You think I kid, but: Casablanca won Best Picture despite being over a year old at the time, and despite being the kind of timeless popular classic that inevitably loses. Crash won despite the Brokeback momentum and a low critical profile. Cimarron won with literally nothing on its side except the C thing. Chocolat and Cleopatra earned jaw-dropper nominations for no earthly reason. Cabaret came thiiiis close to swiping the top prize from The freaking Godfather. Shit, this trick even worked for Cher.
Certainly, this tried 'n' true shortcut to glory has to explain part of the Chicago and Cavalcade phenoms. Chicago had ace timing and good tonal judgment on its side: riding the crest of the musicals' resurgence; boisterous but still snarky (for the kids!); radiating a kind of holiday-season pedigree without being a downer like The Hours and The Pianist, or a head-scratcher like Talk to Her or Adaptation, or full of fat old naked people like About Schmidt. But you don't have to look long at Chicago, especially at its faux locations and its odd cast, to see how much Miramax was skimping on this production while hemorrhaging money into Gangs of New York, at least before Harvey realized somewhere around Christmas Eve that he'd bet on the wrong reindeer.
Still, if Chicago is, like its two snake-skinned protagonists, a slightly tattered winner, Cavalcade is a case of blatant, unremitting, left-the-house-but-forgot-to-put-pants-on Folly. I'm going to leave it to my brethren in arms to start the autopsy on this one, but bear this in mind, all of you: since 1932-33 was the "bridge year" ceremony between the old August-to-July Oscar timetable and the new, more sensible calendar-year plan, AMPAS had 18 months of movies to choose from, and they went ... with ... this. What can we even say? Or do I speak too soon? Are there Cavalcade fans in the hizzouse? I concede that it has some great hats, and the camera never once fell off the tripod.
NATHANIEL: Didn't it? It sure as hell would have been easy to disguise a falling camera amidst Cavalcade's interminable swirling montages of TIME PASSING that start to eat up the film's running time the closer it gets to the endwhich, in a gimmicky narrative trick, is also New Year's Day 1933... the year the film came out.
Theoretically, I have nothing against "political as personal" narratives, the kind of intimate journey that's actually a historical drama, but you have to be so careful with them. If they aren't masterfully handled, they can read as so gimmicky and simplistic in their self absorption... Cavalcade was basically Forrest Gump for people who prefer Noel Coward and tea time to Tom Hanks and chocolate boxes.
GOATDOG, né MIKE: Well, it's clear that the reason why the camera never fell off the tripod is that Diana Wynyard was keeping such a close eye on it. Why did she keep looking at the camera, guys?
NICK: I assumed she had spotted a shiny quarter on the ground, somewhere to the right of the camera crew, and she was nervous someone would scoop it before Frank Lloyd yelled 'Cut.' (Ed.: More thoughts about the 1933 Best Actress race here.)
MIKE: It creeped me out, especially when combined with that "Norma Shearer's not sure how to deliver this line" combination: chin tucked, eyes elevated, looking just a hair past the camera and intoning in a voice that's both breathy and congested. God, that's got to be serious stuff she's saying, because she looks like she might fall over with the weight of all that seriousness (not to mention the seriousity). I swear, this is the worst nominated performance I've ever seen, or at least that I've seen in a few weeks.
(Norma Shearer and Diana Wynyard engage in a brutal Far-Off Look-Off)
NATHANIEL: The First Lady of MGM and I are laughing off that lowball insult with our eyes crossed and heads thrown back. And besides: there's nevermore to be any question about which is the worst nominated performance of all time. That "honor" goes out to Richard Dix of Cimarron. How soon we forget, Goatdog. How soon we forget.
MIKE: Ouch! Why'dya have to bring up Cimarron again, Nathaniel? I was obviously doing such a good job of forgetting it even exists.
But back to Cavalcade. I'm totally with both of you that this botches the "let's look at exactly 33 years of history through this one family" thing in every possible way. What events do we get? The Boer War, the Titanic (surely the worst scene in the filmall that unintentionally silly foreboding dialogue), and World War I, with a handful of throwaway scenes inserted where someone walks on camera, mentions some historical personage, and walks off, leaving one of the film's increasingly shitty montages in his or her wake. So here's my challenge: say something nice about Cavalcade that doesn't involve hats or tripods. I dare ya. I'll start: I liked the old biddy who hangs around in the kitchen, who's always telling dire tales of woe.
NICK: Is this the "Little Bit of Good in Everyone" game? I guess I didn't hate what Herbert Mundin and reliable scarecrow Una O'Connor were doing with their roles as the loyal housekeepersthat is, early in the film, when their emotions had some layering and their relations with the Marryots seemed interestingly ambiguous. But then, the director and the script conspire to push both actors to garish extremity after the first forty minutes or so. Does that still count? Nathaniel, got a better one?
NATHANIEL: There's a moment late in the picture that I do like. It's not giving us the old razzle dazzleit's just a simple quiet touch. The news has arrived that there's a new war in town, World War I. The youngest son shares his patriotic enthusiasm but his mother, who's already lost one child, can't. She's silent and looks devastated yet what you hear is the cheering from the crowds outside her window. It's an effective juxtaposition, and for a moment the movie had me. But then Wynyard spoils it by going into a bad speech that essentially explains the dichomoty we've just felt in beautiful miniature.
Otherwise, hmmm. I love the posh accents? The way everyone keeps saying "marvelous." In truth, though, I found Cavalcade much easier to sit through than Cimarron because when it's bad, it's bad in an entertaining way. I love the unintentionally subversive, nearly incestuous sexuality. There's far too few characters for a film meant to represent every part of English history, so all the adult lovers began their relationships as childhood playmates. Sick! And I actually loved the Titanic scene for its demented determinist chutzpah. I saw it coming but I just couldn't believe they were going to go there... And they did!
The movie is awful but it's awful in that egomaniacal, forceful way that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the talentless ambitions of Roxie Hart. Cavalcade isn't going to quit until its final curtain call. It wants to tell you everything about British history as badly as Roxie wants to be a celebrity / that means somebody everyone knows...
NICK: Indeed, Nathaniel. As Roxie and Velma sing in this version, "We move on..."
MIKE: Is this where I say Renée Zellweger is by far the best thing in Chicago, aside from the editing? And the fact that she can't really dance all that well, and has a passable singing voice, is just marvelous, since she's playing "a two-bit talent with skinny legs"? Because this is where I'm saying it. She nails that character, the way she slips between wide-eyed naïveté and street-smart sass, and as long as she avoids doing that squinting thing (maybe her eyes are crossed like Norma's, but she's smart enough to hide it), she's a joy to watch. Certainly light years ahead of a certain Oscar-winning costar who can dance and sing but forgets to make her character interesting. Renée wasn't the best Best Actress nominee in 2002 (have to go with Julianne Moore), but she's higher on my list than Nicole Kidman's nose.
NICK: The contrast in my first two viewings of Chicago still summarizes what I admire about it and what I don't. On opening day, in the huge and gaudy/splendid Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City, with a sold-out crowd squeezed in among all the red velvet walls and sitting before the huge screen, Chicago was spectacular entertainment. Energetic, sleek-looking, designed for 100% entertainment in the moment. And I agree that Renée aced the daydreaminess but also the brittleness and smallness of Roxie. A great audience surrogate, selling the conceit of Roxie's "mind's eye" with no problempartially through her own newness to the genre but also through some really smart acting, especially in her book scenes.
Two months later, in a smaller, gummier theater, with my partner, who totally cares about musical execution and coherent physical performance in a way that I don't, Chicago looked slipshod and a little desperate. It had a bag of old Fosse tricks and hand-me-down lighting designs that were just enough to get bybut, anachronistically, one could imagine Michael Kors spotting all of its last-minute hems and crooked seams, and Nina Garcia admitting that she was bored. And the major performers seemed either in over their heads (Zellweger, Gere, Reilly) or capably but joylessly hitting her marks, and only intermittently connecting with her colleagues (I'm with you, 'Dog).
I still see both Chicagos: the zesty and formidable good-time machine and the patchy first-timer production that's still looking for an overall shape and a richer, more integrated troupe. Although, either way, I always hate "Razzle Dazzle," and I always love that guns-blazing finale.
NATHANIEL: Preferring Roxie to Velma, boys? 'Whatever Happened to Class?' Oh, sorry. That's a deleted number there, lost from stage to screen. I get that Renée understands Roxie as a character, and I still admire that she snagged her first two nominations for comedic work (not easy to do), but I just... can't agree.
See, I fall into Nick's partner's school of feeling when it comes to this genre. I need the proper skills exhibited. I care not a whit about verisimilitude of character in these cases. I want the full razzle dazzle of skilled performers when it comes to musicals... even if the characters aren't supposed to have great skill. You can hear the opposite complaint about Renée in Chicago in various critiques of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. The reasoning goes that Liza is way too skilled to be playing Sally Bowles, who is a minor league performer. But I say, ALWAYS err on the side of too good when it comes to musicals. Musicals live or die by their numbers, so they need to be great even if the characters aren't. Cabaret is one of the greatest musicals of all time, but if they had cast for a performer representing Sally's supposed skill level, it couldn't have been.
I agree that "Razzle Dazzle" is a disaster of direction (and everything else), but that final number, for all its energyI love the lights and gunfireactually hurts me more in a "what could have been" way. Catherine Zeta-Jones moves like a real musical theater performer, and I love her every twist, hair toss, and gesture. But Renée just keeps spoiling the lines and frame. It makes me crazy... her characterization be damned.
NICK: What about "We Both Reached for the Gun," Nathaniel? I find that to be the most complete and charmingly mounted number in the movie, and Renée really sells the dummy act (helpful practice for her Cold Mountain perf, where she moved her mouth perfectly to Elly May Clampett's voice.) Anyway, if you're going to spring for Zellweger anywhere in the film, might it be here?
I totally take your points, and remember hearing them from D many times in my kitchen, in my living room, while taking out the trash, et al. But for me, what a musical performer most needs to do is serve the film and the ensemble. Zellweger's uncertain, occasionally storky dancing totally works for Roxie, and she's giving her all, whatever that might be, to THIS movie. CZJ barely looks at Roxie, ever, and seems all the while like she's claiming a fiefdom over all starring roles in all future musicals, and assuaging her boredom in book scenes by imagining where she'll store her fan letters and her inevitable Oscar. Of course I admit that she's not bad, just chilly. I am surprised she has gotten no musical work since this (and not much work, period).
NATHANIEL: In an opposing way we're both coming from the same place. I see your "Renée sells it as Roxie might" and raise you a "CZJ ferociously (and yes, coldly) demands it only for herself, just as Velma would."
NICK: Point: Nathaniel.
NATHANIEL: Either way, I think they're an engaging, thorny duo, and I like the movie quite a bit for all of its half successes. But how about that Fanny Bridges in Cavalcade for a musical/comedy trio? She's a star across the pond, 'round about the same time as that killer diller double act in Chicago. Velma and Roxie would eat her alive but I love that both Velma and Fanny are hanging on desperately to old acts. Velma is coming at it practicallyhey, it used to work, viz. "My sister and I had an act that couldn't flop"but what's Fanny's excuse? She's still peddling the same exact dance moves she was rehearsing when she was an eight-year-old.
MIKE: And the clouds partedI never realized that they're basically contemporaries. What a bizarre contrast. Fanny's obviously being presented as a successful act, which is so mind-boggling, because she's so terrible, singing about the blues in her high, clear voice and ruffles, kicking her legs up. She don't know from the blues, despite the fact that she's just endured most of Cavalcade's running time. Am I a bad person for hoping that one of those zeppelin bombs would solve her career problems for her?
NICK: Let's make this act five-wide, throw in the Mahoney Sisters from The Broadway Melody, and give Velma and Roxie some more options about how to use those automatics.
MIKE: Re: Renée, though, I guess I'm expressing my admiration for this awkward performance in this particular role. There's no way I would extend any goodwill at all to Richard Gere's non-dancing and horribly affected singing; I'd like to pitch him out of the film, and I think his scenes lost a lot of energy when they depend on things he doesn't possess, like charm and ability. I'm lukewarm on Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly, too.
So we covered the RZ vs. CZJ point of contention; what do you think about the editing, which seemed to provoke a lot of arguments at the time? Even after repeat viewings, I think that's one of Oscar's smartest picks in that category in a long time. Despite the "I want to see a dancer complete a movement" complaints, and the argument that the editing was designed to disguise the fact that most of the cast couldn't dance very well, I think Martin Walsh was just going for something else entirely: he created something approaching full integration of body movements, music, and plot, to an extent that most musicals don't attemptthey tend to sit back and follow the performers. I think it's an amazing achievement, and it still carries me past some of the film's rough patches.
NICK: I generally like the editing: it's so fleet and suggestive so much of the time that you notice when the camera's just plopping back and gawking, or when a performer like Reilly isn't giving Walsh any interesting movements or angles to cut on. A few of the numbers do feel over-edited to me ("Cellblock Tango," for instance) but there are at least as many moments where that fusion you describe just pops off the screen. Renée and Dominic West's early, elated romp in the bed is one. Her projection of herself onto the stage in Velma's place is another, with those urgently interwoven push-ins. I agree that the editing, more than any other single contribution to the film, often supplies a verve and a sense of continuity to the movie that is always welcome, and often very exciting, even on a small screen.
NATHANIEL: I'm one of those grouches who likes to complain when the editing on musical films covers up for lumpy dancing... but otherwise, I basically agree with the points as stated. It's over-edited surely (the Richard Gere body-double tap-dance is a major sore point) but if editing has to work double duty as coverage, the least it could do is perform its work with verve and rhythm as Martin Walsh does here.
Speaking of editing... good cutting is all about communication and combinations. Chicago has it and the movie is compulsively watchable and compelling. Good cutting can make a picture cruise by. It may surprise you to hear how these pictures clock in. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, Cavalcade does not continue for centuries. It's curtains at 110 minutes. Curiously Chicago, fleet of foot even while dancing with clumsy ones, is actually 3 minutes longer. Cavalcade's cornucopia of contiguous catastrophes and current events needed Martin Walsh as badly as Chicago did.
And in closing... I concur: Oscar is crazy with C words. It's a conspiracy.
READERS, we love you. And you love us. And we love you for lovin' us... but we simply cannot do it alone. Don't make us feel like Mr. Cellophane. Chime in with your thoughts below, especially if you found some nugget of value in Cavalcade that we missed, or you'd like to take the stand for or against Chicago, or you can explain how Camille, Carrie, Clueless, Collateral, and Crank all inexplicably missed their dates with Best Picture.
Stats: Cavalcade was nominated for four Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Art Direction. Chicago was nominated for thirteen and won six: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
This Week: Nathaniel's tie-in entry
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK