Fifty years before Woody Allen's Zelig (1983), which preceded Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump (1994) by more than a decade itself, this sprawling spectacle of a drama features its characters in (or during) various real life, historical events (the Boer War, the Titanic, World War I, etc.) to help tell its 33 year story. It earned director Frank Lloyd his second and last Best Director Academy Award (on his second to last nomination). The film also won the Best Picture & Art Direction Oscars, and lead actress Diana Wynyard earned her only recognition from the Academy with a Best Actress nomination.
If you haven't heard of Wynyard before, don't be surprised - primarily known as a London stage actress, she appeared in only half a dozen films in the 1930's (her debut in Rasputin and the Empress (1932), the only film featuring all three Barrymore siblings, directly preceded this one) and only twice that number in her career (most notably, in the British version of Gaslight (1940) opposite Anton Walbrook). In this film, she reminded me of Norma Shearer, whom she resembles, except for the fact that Wynyard under plays her character (at least, relatively).
Many film fans won't recognize all of the other names in the cast either, which includes: Clive Brook, Una O'Connor, Herbert Mundin, Beryl Mercer, Irene Browne, Frank Lawton, Ursula Jeans, Margaret Lindsay (her sixth film), John Warburton and Bonita Granville (their third films), among others. It's a British story with an "upstairs downstairs" subplot, from Noel Coward's play, which was produced by a Hollywood company (20th Century Fox). Reginald Berkeley wrote the screenplay, and Sonya Levien provided continuity.
It's New Year's Eve, 1899! Upstairs, Jane (Wynyard) & Robert (Brook) Marryot are toasting the coming century before he must go and serve as an officer in the Boer War (Africa). Downstairs, their servants Ellen (O'Connor) & Alfred (Mundin) Bridges can appreciate their bittersweet celebration because he too must soon leave, as an infantryman. Mercer plays the cook; Tempe Pigott plays Alfred's disagreeable mother-in- law.
The Marryots have preteen two sons, Masters Edward (Dickie Henderson) and Joey (Douglas Scott), who play with Edith (Sheila MacGill), the daughter of Jane's lifelong (and film-long) best friend, Margaret Harris (Browne). The Bridges have a new baby named Fanny. After both soldiers return uninjured from the war, Robert helps Alfred go into business for himself, lending him the money he needs to buy a pub. Merle Tottenham plays the Marryot's newest servant (later, she marries, Billy Bevan).
Ten years later, Fanny (now played by Granville) is a dancing prodigy. Alfred, who has been drinking away his bar's profits, is killed when he struggles away from some friends and staggers into the street in front of a speeding fire engine. Five years later, newlyweds Edward (now Warburton) and Edith (now Lindsay) wonder about what their future holds on the decks of their honeymoon cruise ... on the Titanic! When (WW I) war breaks out, Joe (now Lawton) is as excited to be joining the conflict as he was for his father 15 years earlier. Near the end of the conflict some four years later, he's predictably weary. But his spirits rise when, by chance, he sees dancer Fanny's (now Jeans) name in lights, and the two of them begin an affair unknown to their parents of differing classes. On armistice day, working class success Ellen Bridges, gaudily dressed and looking uncomfortable in high heels, visits Jane to tell her about their "children's" affair. But they're interrupted by a telegram that tells Mrs. Marryot about Joe's death. Fanny sings the "Twentieth Century Blues" about it in her nightclub.
After a series of montages (like those included which signified the length of the so-called Great War) including newspaper headlines spanning more than a decade, the film ends as it began with an elderly Robert and Jane, after Margaret has left, toasting the coming of 1933 on New Year's Eve.