Cavalcade (1933) Review

Cavalcade (1933) Director: Frank Lloyd


Cavalcade is a curious choice for Best Picture (one of many odd decisions made by the Academy). Despite its mediocre acting and bland plot (the film is mostly a bore), its redeeming qualities lie in its powerful montage sequences toward the end in which the chaos of the British Empire, between its wars and moral ambivalence, are contrasted with the mores of a family who have lost their children in the great tragedies of the 20th century.

Cavalcade, the winner of three Academy Awards in 1933 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Direction, is a biopic that tells the story of a British family through their various trials and tribulations. The plot is epic in scale. It follows the Marryot family beginning on New Years Day in 1899-1900, through the Boer Wars, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic where two of the main characters drown on their honeymoon, and it concludes with the outbreak of World War I where their last remaining son dies. The film is, at root, a tragic exploration into the decline of the British Empire. The youthful idealism behind the Boer Wars quickly turns to jaded pessimism as World War I kills all of the young men and leads to the moral relativism of the 1920s and a second ‘great’ war.

The regulatory Hay’s Office, the American censorship bureau at the time, was concerned that the use of “damn” and “hell” would set a precedent in films that would grow increasingly more profane, but the film was ultimately not edited. It was released as a Fox Movietone film.

Click here to return to my survey of the Best Picture Winners.

King Kong (1933) Review

King Kong (1933) Director: Merian C Cooper and Enrest B. Shoedsack

“Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the beast…”


Starring Fay Wray, King Kong is perhaps the most famous adventure/horror flick of all time. Initially, the actress Wray believed that the RKO film would feature the ‘tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood’, such as Cary Grant, rather than a 50 foot ape. She was unpleasantly surprised with the outcome and wrote about it later in her autobiography entitled “On the Other Hand”, referring to the giant Kong hand she was grabbed by in the film. The directors reused the forest sets from their earlier film entitled The Most Dangerous Game, released in 1932. Once the censorship laws took effect in 1934, the film was re-released four times with four violent scenes edited out of its release. It was later remade in 2005 by Peter Jackson, who included a new rendition of the lost spider sequences that were edited out and lost to history, and there were at least eight other follow-up Kong movies along with video games remade after the film. Remarkably, King Kong was nominated for no Academy Awards, however speculations abound as to whether it would have won if the “special effects” category was in existence at the time for its  innovative stop-motion techniques. In addition, for the first time in history, RKO’s sound department thematically matched the score with the action sequences of the film in order to intensify the experience. King Kong launched the entire ‘giant beast’ sub-genre for future generations, especially in Japan.

The film begins with an old Arabic proverb: “And the Prophet said: ‘And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.'” Its opening setting is in a New Jersey dock where an excessively large ship is prepping to leave. A young filmmaker goes out to find a young girl, an aspiring film actress, and persuades her to star in his big film: “It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” Ann, the young girl, finally agrees in pursuit of fame and fortune as an actress. When she boards the ship she befriends the monkey on board, foreshadowing of what is to come as one of the sailors says, “Beauty and the Beast, eh?”

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As they approach the fog-shrouded “skull island” they notice the giant wall constructed -the wall was originally used in the 1927 epic entitled King of Kings and it was burned down in the evacuation of Atlanta scenes of Gone with the Wind. The crew approaches the island and finds a ritual sacrifice in process by the natives, meanwhile Driscoll, one of the sailors, has been falling in love with Ann. The natives notice the crew standing in the trees and they confront one another, the natives want Ann to sacrifice but the crew denies and returns to the ship. However, while alone on the deck of the ship, the natives row out in the moonlight and steal Ann for the sacrifice.

Kong, the fifty foot ape, appears out of the forest and discovers Ann tied up for the sacrifice. He tenderly unties her and takes her deep into the jungle, closely followed by Driscoll. He catches up to them and together Driscoll and Ann escape down a hanging vine and return to the native tribal village closely followed by Kong who is then gassed and brought back to New York on the S.S. Venture for display.

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“He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

He is announced to an upper class audience as the “eighth wonder of the world!” With the constant flash photography, Kong becomes enraged and breaks free of his chains killing people as he breaks out of the auditorium and climbs the empire state building. He sees a woman screaming and drops her to the ground but he grabs Ann and carries her to the top of the building as planes begin to encircle and shoot at him. He grabs and destroys one, but is eventually shot in the throat and chest. Realizing he is dying, he tenderly looks at Ann one last time and gently strokes her hair with his massive hand before being shot again and falling to the ground below where his lifeless body creates a massive crater.

The famous closing lines of the film:
Police Officer – “Well Denham (the director), the airplanes got him.”
Denham – “Oh, no. It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

Duck Soup (1933) Review

Duck Soup (1933) Director: Leo McCarey

“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”


The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup is a film of enduring delights. Whereas Horse Feathers is a parody of the elite nepotism in higher education, Duck Soup is a parody of the fascistic dictatorships of the 1930s. Lamentably, the film was considered a commercial and critical failure in its day, effectively ending the Marx Brothers five film contract with Paramount and fueling a new partnership with MGM, however Duck Soup is simply brilliant. Publicly, in the 1930s the film was considered offensive for its cavalier treatment of war and fascism. In fact, Mussolini was so distraught upon viewing the film that he banned it across Italy. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the film gained favorable opinion, especially among college students.

Duck Soup was originally slated to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch -imagine that! The title was taken from Leo McCarey’s earlier Laurel and Hardy film of the same name. There has been much speculation about the origins of the title of the film, but Groucho once said: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup the rest of your life.” The film is the last to feature all four Marx Brothers together on screen.

Summarizing the plot of Duck Soup is impossible, as each Marx Brothers film is a series of chaotic vignettes and absurdist scenes. However, I will try to give a brief synopsis. It tells the story of “Freedonia,” a struggling, mismanaged country (Balkan state) on the verge of revolution. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) offers $20 million to finance the government under the condition of new leadership: Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), but he offends everyone, establishes a series of ridiculous ordinances, and leads the country into war against Sylvania, led by Ambassador Trentino (Luis Calhern). Firefly and his fellow Marx Brothers who play spies for Sylvania encounter many scenes of hilarious hijinks, including the famous mirror scene with Firefly and Chicolini miming each other. The film ends when Trentino tries to storm Firefly’s military base but he gets stuck in the door and surrenders as Firefly throws old fruit at him and Teasdale shouts: “Victory is ours!”

Some memorable lines from Groucho Marx include:

  • “I danced before Napoleon. No Napoleon danced before me. In fact, he danced 200 years before me.”
  • “…could you lend me $12 until payday? Don’t be scared. You’ll get it back. I’ll give you my personal note for 90 days. If it isn’t paid by then you can keep the note.”
  • “Clear? Huh! Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. [aside] Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail out of it.”
  • “General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.”
    Rufus T. Firefly: “Tell him to take a teaspoonful of bicarbonate baking soda and a half a glass of water.”
  • “The eyes of the world are upon you. Notables from every country are gathered here in your honor. This is a gala day for you.”
    Rufus T. Firefly: “A gal a day is enough for me.”
  • “I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”
  • “You do suggest something. To me you suggest a baboon. I’m sorry I said that. It isn’t fair to the rest of the baboons.”
  • “Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”
  • “You’re fighting for this woman’s honor – which is probably more than she ever did.”
  • “I was with him to the very end.”
    Rufus T. Firefly: “No wonder he passed away.”
  • “Message from the front, sir.”
    Rufus T. Firefly: “Oh, I’m sick of messages from the front. Don’t we ever get a message from the side?”
  • “I’ll see my lawyer about this as soon as he graduates from law school!”
  • “We’re in a mess. Rush to Freedonia! Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can’t send help, send two more women!”
  • “You ask me to forget? A Firefly never forgets.”
  • “All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head” – in a proposal for marriage to Teasdale.

In his autobiography Harpo Speaks, Harpo tells of traveling to the USSR to perform several days after the release of the film. He was stopped and questioned by the police and ordered to play his harp to prove it was not a weapon.