Mostly by his own hand, Noel Coward’s carefully crafted image is that of dignified men in tuxedos, elegant women in evening dresses; martinis, drawing rooms, cigarette holders, diamonds, and people who use words like “darling!” and “wonderful!” There was much more to Coward, though. As aloof and carefree as his image was, there were many times he used his work to defend and protect things he cared deeply about — things that mattered.
Based on Coward’s stage play, “Calvacade” (1933) is about something that matters — how one English family perseveres through fruitless wars, separation, unspeakable loss, and the collapse of virtue during the Jazz Age.
The story opens on New Years Eve 1899 with two London families living under one roof celebrating the promise of a new century: the wealthy Robert and Jane Marryot (Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard) and their two young sons; and the extended Bridge family — the servants who have become part of the family.
Over the next two hours, this early sound picture (that would win the Best Picture Oscar), and its epic-scale production values, takes us through 33 years of world history straight through to New Years Eve of 1932. Nothing is the same now, except for two survivors who can take comfort in knowing they did their duty to their country, to one another, and never allowed their lives to turn sordid, no matter how bad things got.
Other than condemning the folly of war and how it grinds up young men like some terrible machine, the idea that dignity and decency are the moral cornerstones of civilization are what make up Coward’s theme. But you don’t really know that until the end, when it hits like a piano dropped from a fourth floor window, and makes you want to immediately watch the film again.
P.S. Don’t let Coward’s anti-war theme fool you. Like “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the theme comes from a sense of shared humanity, not divisive politics. An unapologetic patriot, during World War II, Coward gave his all to the cause of Britain, including the patriotic 1942 film “In Which We Serve.”