Worse films have won the Best Picture Oscar than 1933's Cavalcade, though not many. I think there is a real argument to be made, though, that it is the most defective movie to win that award. Sure, 1929's The Broadway Melody and 1931's Cimarron are both weaker technically, with their janky early sound hiccups, and there's simply no explaining how the screenplay for 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth could have convinced an entire production team that it was ready to go before cameras, and 1937's The Life of Emile Zola is one of the most soul-breakingly boring things I have ever watched. But not a one of them has the number of misguided creative choices as director Frank Lloyd perpetrate across this film's 112 minutes - a thankfully concise running time for material that one can easily imagine crossing well over the two-hour mark, though perhaps not in 1933. For this, he became only the second winner of Best Director for a Best Picture-winning film, as well as the least-deserving winner of the category in its history.

I try not to start out reviewing movies by talking about them as though there's nothing interesting about them besides the fact they won Oscars, but here's the thing: there is nothing interesting about Cavalcade besides the fact that it won three Oscars (the third went to William S. Darling for Best Art Direction, and since the sets are almost beyond question the best thing about the movie, I can't complain about that). It is the quintessential movie that people only watch because they're trying to watch every Best Picture winner, and not early on in that process, either (it's telling that this was the last Best Picture to be made readily available on DVD). I suppose I can imagine another possible point of entry, for someone who was interested in stage-to-screen adaptations, and wanted to see how the folks at Fox Film Corporation tackled the challenge of turning NoΓ«l Coward's technically elaborate hit spectacle from 1931 into a movie.

What I cannot imagine is somebody watching this because they thought it would be enjoyable to do so. Presumably, someone must have, back in 1933; it won those Oscars, after all, and it made an enormous amount of money. Heck, it was so well-regarded at the time that the Hays Office gave it a special dispensation to use the word "hell" on the grounds that extremely good and artful movies deserved it. And I suppose the reasons for this make sense. Coward was a major name, and Cavalcade was so elaborate and expensive that it couldn't be staged in the United States or revived in its native England, so a movie was just about the only way to see it; it provides a comforting message of "we can get through this" during a time of abnormal social crisis (the Conservative Party in the UK even credited the play for helping it at election time, with its backwards-looking sentiment); it taps into the widespread pacifist rage against the Great War that was sharpest in the anglosphere in the early '30s, as the spectre of a Greater War Still was starting to make itself known; it is wall-to-wall with nostalgic song selections. Still, you can line all of those things up on the one hand, and then on the other hand actually look at the goddamn thing, with its crude editing and punishingly clunky blocking and camera positions, and its mortifying acting, and the grinding mechanics of its tedious and unfocused storytelling, and I just don't see it at all. It's practically my literal job to think about the historical context of movies and how viewers at the time would have engaged with them, and I still don't understand how somebody could sit through all 33 years of Cavalcade and feel edified for having done so.

The story, marketing itself with all due humility, as "the picture of the generation", starts shortly before midnight on 31 December, 1899, and ends shortly after midnight on 1 January, 1933 - ooooooohhhhh, the same year that the movie opened, isn't that neat. In the intervening years, we watch the oscillating fortunes of the Marryot family, largely as experienced by matriarch Jane (Diana Wynyard, a rising theater star making only her second movie of a relatively small film career), who nobly embodies all of the indefatigable strength of English womanhood faced with trials and changes, but strong enough to live through it all with sorrowful grace. She is also, at some considerable distance in second place, a human being with thoughts and feelings. But this is something that neither Wynyard, nor Lloyd, nor Coward, nor screenwriter Reginald Berkeley, in adapting the play for the screen (while changing very little, as I understand it), care about nearly as much as they care about making Jane a vessel and a concept.

The film's narrative takes place in little chunks, the longest and best of which moves us through 1900, as Jane's husband Robert (Clive Brook) ships off to fight in the Second Boer War, as does the family's butler, Alfred Bridges (Herbert Mundin). This leaves Jane and pregnant housekeeper Ellen (Una O'Connor, reprising the role she played onstage), Alfred's wife, to mournfully keep up the homefront, while the Marryot's young sons, Edward (Dickie Henderson) and Joey (Douglas Scott), daydream of military adventure. I say this is the best for largely one reason alone: it has the smallest quantity of bad acting of the whole film. O'Connor, playing Ellen as a bit slyer and more self-aware than the script would seem to indicate, is even actually good. Certainly, all of the problems that will plague the rest of the film are in evidence: foremost among them, Lloyd's enervating habit of staging scenes as groups of people standing in a cluster and then having editor Margaret Clancey carve them up into preposterously dull medium close-up singles, cut so lifelessly with the dialogue that at one point, when we see camera pan over to the family cook (Beryl Mercer) as she listens to someone talking, I thought I was hallucinating.

But I would not want to overlook Wynyard, whose performance isn't even the worst in the movie (Frank Lawton, playing the young adult version of Joey, is appalling), though it is the most damaging. By all accounts, she was a great stage actress, and I've seen very little of her screen work, but from the evidence here, she hadn't at all figured out the ways that movies are different from the theater. And it would have been dated, broad theater acting, if this is what she was up to. She has a grand total of three tactics: first, she is almost entirely working with expressive poses, a trick that had gone out of the movies by the end of the 1910s. Second, she delivers all of the dialogue (and I don't want to just bag on Wynyard, she has been given an awful part, all big declamatory gestures and no human intimacy) in lines that tend to quaver upwards, like she's literally always trying to avoid crying. Third - the stare. My God, the stare. When she doesn't know what to do, and sometimes when she does, Wynyard drops her eyelids slightly, turns her body most of the way to the camera, and then turns her head further in the same direction, looking at an indistinct point slight to one side or the other of the camera. This becomes a legitimately hilarious tic, the longer the movie goes on, and the more it becomes that this is an all-purpose attempt to signify Jane's inner turmoil in the absence of the writing or acting have the least idea what specific form that turmoil is taking. It is, and I say this with all due gravity, one of the very worst performances ever nominated for an acting Oscar, and maybe the surest indication of how undernourished and thoughtless Cavalcade is as a nominal family drama.

That drama spills out at some length, as the film covers some big personal events and bigger social moments over the decades. Alfred dies, leaving Ellen in charge of the pub she's purchased, where instead of becoming an interesting counterpoint to Jane - the rise of the new middle class crossing with the decline of old money - she is thrown aside as an afterthought. Which is just as well, given the precipitous drop in O'Connor's performance the minute she's asked to play anything remotely in the neighborhood of melodrama. The grown-up Edward (John Warburton) and his childhood playmate-turned-wife Edith (Margaret Lindsay) have their honeymoon on a big boat, and they think it's very nifty, and it's April 1912, and they're on a big boat, oh my, where do you think this is going, and the only thing worse than the industrial-weight foreshadowing is that Lloyd seems so extremely goddamn proud of himself when they walk off-camera, revealing that they were in front of a life preserver that says Titanic the whole time. And a bit later, the War comes, and Jane is angry at the sacrifice and butchery, and I'll admit that the one time a historical progression montage actually works, anywhere in the film - it has several, and they are mostly embarrassing - is when cross-dissolved close-ups and B-roll of battleground play against a cluttered audio montage of soldier songs. It does actually make the hell of war feel tangible and aggressive, making one of the only moments where the film feels artful rather than stiff and overly-literal. And thus it is worth pointing out that these scenes, and only these scenes, were conceived and executed by William Cameron Menzies, the great art director.

Cavalcade wants so badly to be a story of how global history is experienced by one family; it doesn't even work as a story of how family history is experienced by that family (Coward would return to the topic with much more success in his screenplay for the 1944 This Happy Breed, which has the benefit of direction by David Lean). Jane has no interiority and no continuity of her personality, while Robert barely registers as a character at all. The sons are dull as it gets; Warburton is okay as Edward, but he drowns, and Lawton just gets to hamming things up to such a degree that he can't spark any kind of chemistry at all with Ursula Jeans, playing his childhood playmate-turned-lover. The idea that this might actually have such a thing as historical context, given its failure as a simple human drama, is of course laughable, and it just into a game of "remember when?", goosed along by it soundtrack of nostalgic hits; only Jane's wrath at the war does much of anything to trace out connections between 1900, 1914, and 1933, and even the latter, pinioned by Coward's play (a movie script written early in 1933 could have consciously been about gathering clouds of war; a play written early in 1931 could not), can't actually grapple with the ongoing ramifications of Jane's moral outrage. Instead, the movie spends its last few minutes on a hysterical "ugh, the flappers" coda that doesn't even have the winking leer of, "oh my, aren't these scandalous ladies so dangerously sexy, don't you hate how sexy they are?" that you find in Hollywood's typical moral panic films about the fall of the Roaring '20s. It's just, like, actually offended by flappers, and their jazz, and their petting, and whathaveyou. It's a perfectly banal capstone to a film that has been dismal at every turn, and can only end with a sullen "harrumph". Still and all, it's the closest to a real emotion on display anywhere in the entire film, so it's got that going for it.