Cradle Will Rock

Dir: Tim Robbins, 1999. Starring: Hank Azaria, Bill Murray, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, Susan Sarandon. Drama.
Cradle Will Rock

Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.

The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)

A composer named Marc Blitzstein, played by Hank Azaria, has written a leftist musical that champions labor unions and attacks the exploitive forces of capitalism. A young Orson Welles and his producing partner, John Houseman, decide to stage it as their next theatrical production which is being funded by the Federal Theater Project, a part of the Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Soon, though, right wing ideologues start getting suspicious and manage to stop the play, and any other funded by the FTP, from going forward. This was a time when Socialism and Communism constituted an actual threat to the people in power and the House Committee on Un-American Activities stamped down to repress strident critiques of the forces of Capitalism. Though their union forbids Welles and his cast and crew from going forward with their production, they manage to stage the show anyway at a different theater with Blitzstein providing piano accompaniment from the stage and the cast singing their parts from their seats.

Those are the actual facts of what happened and Robbins, who wrote and directed the film, dramatizes the action with a flair for rousing populist excitement. But he also creates a manic screwball world around these events to give us a sense of a precarious time in American history when the worlds of politics, business, and art collided in ways both comic and tragic.

The cast, who all seem to be having a swell time, includes Bill Murray as an aging ventriloquist and closet Communist forced to train two bumbling idiots (played by a pre-mega stardom Jack Black and his Tenacious D. partner Kyle Gass)  as part of the FTP’s project to continue the theatrical life of vaudeville. John Cusack is Nelson Rockefeller who commissions Diego Rivera (played by Ruben Blades) to paint a mural in the lobby of Rockefeller Center. Rivera paints cells of syphilis to symbolize the ruinous effects of Capitalism, to Rockefeller’s horror. Susan Sarandon plays Magherita Sarfatti, a Jewish Italian operative for Mussolini who does black market business with the head of General Motors. Vanessa Redgrave plays a dippy socialite and arts patron who helps Welles and his group find a new theater. The list of superb actors in memorable roles goes on and on.

Tim Robbins is thought of as a humorless, liberal grandstander by his detractors, but Cradle Will Rock is far from some sort of sobering reverential treatise on the power of the “theatah.” It’s a smartly crafted comedy that nods to such screwball classics as My Man Godfrey and manages to poke fun at such figures as Welles and Houseman even as they stumble towards a remarkable achievement in the history of American theater. Some Welles fans were offended by the almost slapstick treatment of his relationship with Houseman and his directorial style, but I think they are taking the whole thing a little too seriously. Cradle Will Rock is a comedy about a group of people unknowingly making history. The players in the story take a backseat to the crucial event, which is the performance. If it isn’t exactly true to history it’s true to Robbins’s populist politics. And the final scene, which features a funeral march for a fallen ventriloquist dummy through Times Square juxtaposed with a final image of today's Times Square with its sea of corporate neon taking up every inch of space, is a brilliant statement about what has been lost to history since the days of a federally funded theater for the people.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jan 21, 2010 6:43pm
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