Cradle Will Rock is a 1999 drama film which chronicles the process and events that surrounded the production of the original 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein. Tim Robbins, in his third film as director, adapts history to create this fictionalized account of the original production, bringing in other stories of the time to produce this commentary on the role of art and power in the 1930s, particularly amidst the struggles of the 1930s labor movement and the corresponding appeal of socialism and communism among many intellectuals and working class people of that time. In telling the story of The Cradle Will Rock—a leftist labor musical that was sponsored by the Federal Theater Project (FTP) only to be banned after the WPA cut the project and diverted its funds elsewhere–Robbins is able to tie in issues such as labor unrest, repression by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the role and value of art in such a tumultuous time. The film was released in conjunction with a book that Robbins put together to provide a deeper look into the film's time period.
Arguably, one of the best directors of the motion picture industry, Orson Welles was once quoted as saying, ‘When I die, they’ll be picking over my creative bones. The films will suddenly get financing; the films will get restored. Old scripts that we couldn’t get financed, they’ll find the financing for some kid to direct.’
Strangely enough, Welles couldn’t have been more prophetic.
Actor Tim Robbins has donned the writer/director hat for his mostly-true depiction of the wild chain of events surrounding one of Welles’ more notable career setbacks.
In 1937, Welles, along with his co-producer John Houseman directed a musical catering to the mass of unemployed people designed to help them cope with living though the depression era. The musical, entitled The Cradle Will Rock was a strong pro-union, stab at big business, encouraging the common man to stand up for what he believed in. Unfortunately for Welles, 1937 was not just the tail end of the depression, it was also an era rich with the paranoia of communist sympathizers and a growing tension between socialism and fascism. The musical was quickly accused of being communist propaganda and was closed by the military on the night it was to open.
Not missing a beat and standing true to the adage that ‘the show must go on’ the cast of the musical marched to a smaller theater some 20 blocks away and performed the musical in front of a packed audience without the use of sets, props or even costumes. Union rules at the time prevented them from even performing on a stage.
Robbins’ film makes it clear early on that this film is less of a portrayal of the actual events surrounding the fateful musical and more of a satirical look at the sum of its parts. The characters are more like caricature and it seems clear that Robbins had a bit of an ax to grind towards Welles. Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart, The Rat Pack) portrays Welles as a money-grubbing, pretentious, drunkard, (alright, so maybe that wasn’t so far from the truth). In one scene at a night club, the playwright (played by Hank Azaria) goes so far as to question Welles’ loyalty to the art by asking, ‘How soon before you are doing soap commercials?’ — an obvious stab at his Ernest and Julio Gallo commercials from the 80′s.
This film seems slow and confusing at the start but warms up nicely as it goes along, thanks to the talents of a surprisingly large and impressive cast. There are several really blatant pieces of symbolism throughout the film, and there are a few odd moments that leave you thinking that you just missed something. However, Tim Robbins does a great job of tying all of this neurotic, erratic hypertension together in the end so that it inevitably tells a story of hope and survival for such an often taken-for-granted ideal as freedom of speech.
The film is witty, entertaining and different. Unfortunately, due to an acute case of cinematic intelligence, infected with meager support from Buena Vista Pictures, this movie will most-likely be overlooked by the majority of moviegoing audiences while they opt for the bigger, flashier, and easier-to-understand blockbuster flicks being released for the Christmas season.
But if you happen to find yourself in front of one of those old, small, artsy theaters, I would recommend stopping in and checking this film out.