The story presents a view of English life from New Year's Eve 1899 through New Year's Day 1933, from the point of view of well-to-do London residents Jane and Robert Marryot, their children, their close friends, and their servants. Several historical events affect the lives of the characters or serve as background for the film, including the Second Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and World War I.
The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
On the last day of 1899, Jane and Robert Marryot, an upper-class couple, return to their townhouse in a fashionable area of London before midnight, so they can keep their tradition of celebrating the new year with a midnight toast. Although Jane and Robert have been married for some years and have two young sons, Edward and Joey, they are still very much in love. Jane worries because Robert has joined the City of London Imperial Volunteers (CIV) as an officer, and will soon be leaving to serve in the Second Boer War, where Jane's brother is already fighting in the Siege of Mafeking. Downstairs, the Marryots' butler Alfred Bridges mixes punch for their toast, while Cook dons her finest outfit to attend the public outdoor celebrations. Alfred has joined the CIV as a private and is also leaving soon. His wife Ellen, the Marryots' maid, worries about what will become of her and their new baby Fanny if Alfred is killed or seriously injured, but he is confident despite the pessimistic predictions of Ellen's elderly mother, Mrs. Snapper. At midnight, the Marryot and Bridges families ring in the new century while Cook dances with other revelers in the street.
Shortly thereafter, Jane bids an emotional farewell to Robert at the dock when he boards the troop ship bound for Africa, while Ellen tearfully sees off Alfred, who is leaving on the same ship. While Robert is away, Jane's friend Margaret Harris keeps her company and gives her emotional support. Margaret's young daughter Edith plays Boer War games with Edward and Joey Marryot using toy soldiers and cannons. While Jane and Margaret are attending a comic operetta at the theatre to take Jane's mind off the war, the relief of Mafeking is announced from the stage, and the audience cheers. Robert and Alfred soon return home unharmed, to the delight of their families, and Robert is knighted for his service.
Upon his arrival, Alfred announces to his wife and mother-in-law that he has bought his own pub with money partly provided by Robert, and he and Ellen will be leaving service and moving to a flat, along with Fanny and Mrs. Snapper. As the downstairs staff have a cup of tea to celebrate Alfred's return, they receive news of the death of Queen Victoria. Robert rides in the beginning part of her funeral procession and the family and staff watch it from their upstairs windows.
A few years later, in 1908, Alfred has developed a drinking problem and is managing the pub poorly and getting behind on the family's rent due to spending the rent money on drink. Ellen and Fanny, now a schoolgirl, are embarrassed and put off by Alfred's drinking and slovenly appearance. Ellen carefully plans a genteel social evening when Jane Marryot and her son Edward, who is now in college at Oxford, pay a visit to the Bridges' flat. Ellen does not tell Alfred about the visit and lies to the Marryots that he can't attend due to a leg injury, but just as the Marryots are leaving, Alfred shows up drunk, acts rudely and destroys a doll that Jane had given Fanny, causing Fanny to run away into the street, where she distracts herself by dancing with some Pearlies. An angry Alfred chases Fanny, attacks the Pearlies, and then stumbles into the street where he is fatally run over by a horse-drawn fire engine.
The following year, on July 25th, 1909, Ellen and Fanny Bridges encounter the Marryot family again at the seaside, where Ellen explains that she and Fanny are living off the proceeds from the pub, now owned by Ellen. Fanny has become a talented dancer and singer. Edward Marryot has fallen in love with his childhood playmate Edith Harris. The family witnesses the historic flight by Louis Blériot over the English Channel.
Three years later, by April 1912, Edward and Edith have married and are spending their honeymoon on an ocean liner, which is dramatically revealed by a camera shot on a life preserver on board to be the ill-fated RMS Titanic. Later scenes make it clear that Edward and Edith both perished in the sinking, although their deaths and their families' initial reaction to it are not shown, it is only mentioned in some dialogue later.
Two years later, in 1914, World War I breaks out. Robert and Joe Marryot both serve as officers, thinking the war will be over within a few months. While on leave, Joe happens upon Fanny Bridges, whom he remembers from their childhood, performing as a featured singer and dancer in a nightclub. She later becomes the star of a theatrical production. Fanny and Joe fall in love and Joe, who miraculously manages to survive the next four years of the war despite all his fellow officers being killed in action, spends most of his leave time with her, unbeknownst to his parents. He finally proposes, but she hesitates to say yes due to the difference in their social classes, although she does love him. Just after armistice is announced in 1918, Ellen, who has found out about Fanny and Joe's love affair, goes to see Jane, reveals the affair to her, and demands that Joe marry Fanny when he returns. While a surprised and upset Jane is arguing with Ellen, Jane receives a telegram informing her that Joe has been killed in battle. Later, a grief-stricken Jane walks sadly through armistice celebrations in Trafalgar Square.
Following the war, a montage shows daily life becoming even more chaotic and the social order being further disrupted, while some advocate that mankind work towards peace. The film ends on New Year's Day 1933, with Jane and Robert, now elderly, carrying on their tradition of celebrating the new year with a midnight toast to their past memories, as well as to the future.
Fox Movietone newsreel cameramen were sent to London to record the original stage production as a guide for the film adaptation.
Frank Borzage was originally going to direct, but he departed in June 1932 to work on another project. Fox production head Winfield Sheehan decided to use a British director due to the film's setting, and Frank Lloyd was brought onboard. Production took place from early October to November 29, 1932.
The film was one of the first to use the words "damn" and "hell", as in "Hell of a lot". These had been used in the play. There was concern at the Hays Office that this could set a precedent. Fox president Sidney Kent was quoted saying the mild profanity "could not offend any person; and, after all, that was the real purpose of the Code. And as far as the use creating a precedent which might be followed by other producers is concerned, the best answer would be that anyone who could make a picture as good as Cavalcade might be justified in following the precedent."
The film premiered in New York City on January 5, 1933 but did not go into general theatrical release until April 15.
The film was the second most popular movie in the US in 1933. It made over US $1 million in the UK.
It ended up making an estimated profit of £2,500,000 during its initial theatrical release.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called the film "most affecting and impressive" and added, "In all its scenes there is a meticulous attention to detail, not only in the settings ... but also in the selection of players ... It is unfurled with such marked good taste and restraint that many an eye will be misty after witnessing this production."
The film currently holds a rating of 57% on the film review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes with the site stating the critics' consensus as "Though solidly acted and pleasant to look at, Cavalcade lacks cohesion, and sacrifices true emotion for mawkishness."
Cavalcade won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Frank Lloyd won the Academy Award for Best Director, and the Academy Award for Best Art Direction went to William S. Darling. Diana Wynyard was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress but lost to Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory.
Cavalcade was the first film produced by Fox Film Corporation to win the Best Picture Oscar, and the only one before it merged with 20th Century Pictures in 1935 to form 20th Century Fox.
The Academy Film Archive preserved Cavalcade in 2002.
In addition to several original compositions by Coward, more than fifty popular songs, national anthems, hymns, ballads, and topical tunes relevant to the years portrayed were used in the film. Songs appearing in the film include:"Girls of the C.I.V.," "Mirabelle," "Lover of My Dreams," and "Twentieth Century Blues", all by Noël Coward
"Goodbye, Dolly Gray" by Will D. Cobb and Paul Barnes
"Soldiers of the Queen" by Leslie Stuart
"Land of Hope and Glory" by Edward Elgar
"A Bird in a Gilded Cage" by Arthur J. Lamb and Harry von Tilzer
"I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside" by John A. Glover-Kind
"Take Me Back to Yorkshire" by Harry Castling and Fred Godfrey
"Nearer, My God, to Thee" by Lowell Mason
"I'll Make a Man of You" by Arthur Wimperis and Herman Finck
"Your King and Country Want You" by Paul Rubens
"It's a Long Way to Tipperary" by Jack Judge and Harry Williams
"Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile" by Felix Powell and George Asaf
"Keep The Home Fires Burning" by Ivor Novello and Lena Guilbert Ford
"Oh, You Beautiful Doll" by Nat Ayer and Seymour Brown
"Mademoiselle from Armentières (Hinky Dinky Parley Voo)" by Irwin Dash, Al Dubin, and Joe Mittenthal
"When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Louis Lambert
"Over There" by George M. Cohan
With the DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases of Wings on January 24, 2012, Cavalcade became the only Best Picture Oscar winner not available on a stand-alone DVD in Region 1. Cavalcade was initially released on DVD December 7, 2010, as part of the three-volume "Twentieth Century Fox 75th Anniversary Collection", a collection with a list price of nearly $500 (though commonly sold for less).
Though 20th Century Fox had no plans to release Cavalcade separately in 2010, it was released separately on Blu-ray Disc in Region A on August 6, 2013 after it received the most write-in votes in a Fox-sponsored online poll. The Blu-ray edition is a combo pack also containing a DVD of the film. As of August 2013, the only official DVDs of the film sold in Region 1 are those found in the 80th Anniversary edition Blu-ray combo pack and the 75th Anniversary Collection.