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Monday, January 28, 2013

Before there was Downton Abbey there was Cavalcade

Cavalcade, the Academy award winner for Best Motion Picture 1933, was originally a stage play by English playwright Noel Coward.  In a little over an hour Cavalcade takes you from New Years Eve 1899 to New Years Eve 1933. The story is told from the point of view of two families.. An aristocratic family which lives upstairs and a family in service who lives downstairs.

Compared to the television mini series Downton Abbey made almost eighty years later there is no comparison. Downton Abbey at  the end of it's third season will have in 24 hours of  High Definition television viewing to describe a similar  upstairs/downstairs  English family from 1912 to the 1920's.

The Characters in Downtown Abbey after many hours of  presentation are vividly drawn in human ambitions, romance, and conflict. Each plans, plots, and believes they control their destiny.

In Cavalcade in a much shorter viewing time,  the characters are well drawn but secondary to a sense that  becomes the main character and bypasses the optic nerve going straight to the brain. That is the terrible sense of  irony that seemed to follow human endeavour and the collapse of empires in the first part of the last century.

Examples include a newly married couple on a honeymoon cruise standing on the deck of a  ship. They are planning  their whole life together. Then they walk away leaving behind  them, the railing and a life saver their presence had previously  obscured which says RMS Titanic.

At the beginning of the film, when the noise of  reverie celebrating a new century grows loud,  The Upstairs aristocratic father  remarks  "How inconsiderate of the Twentieth Century to awaken the Children,"

The ending,  presents a perhaps unintended irony of the film made in 1933. The now much older father and mother stand on their balcony watching the celebrants in the street ringing in 1933.  Their children, both boys have died in  famous events of that occurred in the first fifth of the twentieth century. Both parents have  long ago decided that life is still worth living and perhaps some day the world will be a better place..

A positive ending  but one that in the twentieth century would be  put on time delay. In January  of 1933,  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and World War Two would follow.

 Downton Abbey, with it's modern  technology  many pluses over the ancient  Cavalcade with two exceptions.The first is script. Noel Coward is considered one of the best at writing drawing room comedy or  drama. His dialogue in terms of zing and bite tops many contemporary endeavours..

The downstairs servants (also a family) speak authentic (we presume) Cockney. It's hard to follow at first but it further emphasizes the the upstairs downstairs class difference. In Downton Abbey most of the servants speak the Queen's own English except for the cook and scullery maid  who speak  a decidedly lower class form of the Queen's own, but not quite Cockney. Maybe it has something to do with Cavalcade being set in London and Downton Abbey being rural.

The s second is sound, Noel Coward also had a musical stage background, In  addition to prose and  plays he wrote songs and  musical reviews. The many songs in Cavalcade  bring the era to life and stay with you long after your one hour plus visit to  England 1899 to 1933 is over.

Is Downton Abbey a derivative work ? Yes it is. It borrows from the television mini series Upstairs Downstairs, which borrows the concept  from Cavalcade. Is Cavalcade a derivative work ? Yes it borrows from History.

Regrettably the movie Cavalcade being 80 years old is hard to find.  A VHS video was made in the last  twenty years but there are no copies available at the Baldwin Library. The library does have videos of more recent Noel Coward films like Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve. You may be able to catch  Cavalcade on Turner Classic Movies.Reportedly Cavalcade is one of two Academy award  Best Picture winners not on DVD. Clips are however available on You Tube like the trailer posted above. Be patient and perhaps before Downton Abbey concludes, Cavalcade it's grand daddy will appear somewhere..Maybe even on DVD.

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