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Cradle Will Rock

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 10 December 1999

Written and Directed by Tim Robbins

Starring Hank Azaria, 
Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, 
John Cusack, Cary Elwes, 
Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, 
Angus Macfayden, Bill Murray,
 Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, 
Jamey Sheridan, John Turturro, 
Emily Watson, Bob Balaban, 
Jack Black, Kyle Glass, Paul Giamatti, 
Stephen Spinella, John Carpenter, 
and Gretchen Mol

Tim Robbins is determined to hang on to his reputation as Hollywood’s most dedicated liberal. There’s nothing wrong with that; despite the bad rap “liberal cinema” gets from critics (often worse than that given to its reactionary counterpart, much of which goes by without any sort of comment), there’s a place for heartfelt political statement in the movies, even those so blatant they tend to overwhelm the movie. That doesn’t by virtue of its message make the film good, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t necessarily make it bad either. And The Cradle Will Rock, Robbins’ dazzling, delirious portrait of the WPA’s controversial worker’s opera staged by Orson Welles and the political and social maelstrom around it, is at times brilliant. For long scenes, Robbins captures the magic of creating art, of communal triumph, of group camaraderie, and of marrying your soul and your art with your ideals. And then he feels the need to remind of what he’s doing again, and again, and again. In a movie swimming with robber barons plotting their power plays and homeless actors struggling to stay alive through the depression without sacrificing their respect or their ideals, Robbins has no need to remind which ones are the bad guys.

Even that’s up for grabs. All we know for sure are who the good guys are, and primary among them are Mark Blitzstein (a warm, modest performance of understated passion by Hank Azaria), the socialist playwright and composer sweating out his latest socialist opera, and Hallie Flanagan (Broadway star Cherry Jones and a bright, brilliant light in the film), the cheery, chipper head of the WPA Theater under fire from the conservative wing of congress. Arguing over the political content of a piece of children’s theater, Flanagan rises to the occasion with a mixture of incredulity, anger, and humor. “The bad beaver is the Bad Capitalist,” argues one conservative voice. She answers back “The bad beaver is bad beaver. He’s just a big, bad beaver! He’s a bad beaver!,” her frown and furrowed brow turning to a barely concealed smile as she realizes the argument has fallen into a playground shouting contest.

If Flanagan is the cheerleader for the arts, Blitzstein is the creative soul and passionate heart. Trying to force his latest work, a musical about a down-and-out prostitute, he takes a walk through the social unrest outside his window. Seated at a park bench near a rabble rousing political speaker, a rally forms and the police converge and Blitzstein, oblivious to the immediate danger, reimagines it all as a new opera. His conversations with ghosts (his dead wife and Bertoldt Brecht keep appearing to critique his latest ideas) drift away and  piano materializes under his floating fingers as he plays the new melodies and songs pour forth from the mouths of bystanders. Thrown in jail with the rest of the crowd, the vision coalesces into a fully formed piece of musical theater: “The Cradle Will Rock,” the story of a population enslaved by the power and money of the industrialist Mr. Mister. The prostitute of his original piece becomes a symbol:  the least of the true whores of Steeltown, who are all supposedly upstanding citizens who have traded their souls for cold hard cash. The hero is the union organizer, defying the all-powerful industrialist to stand up for his rights, his values, and his dignity -- the dignity of all his fellow workers. It’s a passionate work of firebrand issues, ripped from the headlines and played out everyday in strikes and rallies across the country. It’s a touchy hot potato of theater for the Federal Government to fund, and that’s just what attracts Orson Welles (Angus Macfayden) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes), the director/producer team taking Broadway by storm-und-drang with their vivid, visually exciting WPA projects.

Meanwhile, a world of events is woven through this central narrative line. The film opens on Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), a homeless street singer awakened from her flop in the back of a movie theater by a newsreel. As a stagehand chases her out, an elegant long take follows her into the street and she sweeps us to Blitzstein’s open window. Orson Welles rants over missed cues during a rehearsal of “Faustus” while John Houseman woos society matron Countess La Grange (Vanessa Redgrave), a flighty, young-at-heart but old-in-years socialite in love with the arts. Her husband Grey Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), an Andrew Carnegie-like iron magnate, pays the arts lip service while he thinks of more important things: commerce, business deals, labor problems. “Anything we can do to stop the spread of communism in Europe…” he explains to Italian propagandist Margherita Sarfati (Susan Sarandon) at an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art while guaranteeing steel shipments to Fascist Italy. Olive, after hours of standing in line at the WPA, lands a job as a stagehand on the Houseman/Welles unit. Defiant WPA clerk Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) rails against “communist infiltration” driving and defining the organization. Her campaign attracts a frustrated ventriloquist, Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), who has been saddled with two no talent students when all he wants to do is perform his creaky vaudeville act. “Reds aren’t funny,” is his philosophy.

Also in orbit are Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), the conservative arts patron who hires radical artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural in his building; William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter -- not the director), who joins Rockefeller and Mathers as an anti-union big business front and hauls his mistress Marion Davies (Gretchen Mol in a completely silent decorative role) around like a pet; John Adair (Jamey Sheridan) as a union die-hard who clocks the breaks like a track coach; and Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), the father of two, husband of German immigrant Sophie (Barbara Sukowa), and our entry into the Italian community of his family, many of them still Fascist sympathizers.

Robbins paints a rich canvas, as busy and vivid and politically outspoken as the defiant mural Rivera paints in the lobby of Rockefeller Plaza. The film is alive with a whirligig camera that swooshes along with actors in motion, tight intercutting that interweaves the mosaic of stories, manic energy exploding from the crowds onstage and in the streets, and an invigorating community and camaraderie among the theater people and the WPA office, all driven by the crazy vitality of a screwball comedy. (Robbins even quotes the magnificent screwball classic My Man Godfrey in the form of Carlo [Paul Giamatti in a handlebar mustache], the Countess’ “protégé,” a freeloading composer of indiscriminate origin and dubious talent.)

All the spiraling storylines converge, either narratively or thematically, in the amazing story of the opening night. The Federal Government forbade all impending WPA shows delay opening due to budget cuts and a platoon of National Guardsman appear outside the locked theater, preventing anyone to go in and any costumes or scenery to go out. But the show will go on and a mad scramble lands them in a new theater at the last minute, and a parade-like, twenty-block march up the street only intensifies the excitement.

The play, The Cradle Will Rock, was guided and shaped by Welles, and for all intents and purposes the play opened due to  Welles’ energy as a General marshaling his forces to make it happen (according to Blitzstein himself, as well as others). But the magic that happens that night, as circumstances (bare theater), union rules (forbidding the actors to appear onstage and musicians to perform), and fear of reprisals create an atmosphere of danger, erupts in a theatrical magic as much invigorated by protest and collective defiance as the work itself. The impromptu staging has nothing to do with Welles and everything to do with the moment, and Robbins quite rightly centers the play on an empowering convergence of individuals into a collective art happening (while rather unfairly dismissing the work of Welles and Houseman). It’s an electric jolt of drama and the most immediate and charged presentation of live theater I’ve ever seen in a movie.

But Robbins is a bit disingenuous with the entire drama. The theme of the film, which he takes great pains to verbalize throughout, is at its core art versus commerce: does art emanate from within the artist to flow uncompromised to the masses, or does the artist sacrifice integrity for the sake of financial gain or to serve another man’s ideology? Who is the real “whore”? But Robbins tries to have it both ways: Blitzstein’s play is a blatant call for collective defiance against big business, a pro-union play during a time of civil unrest. It’s a heartfelt work of drama driven by a boldly stated political message from a sincere, lifelong Socialist, but Robbins soft-pedals the political intent of the artist to favor the aesthetic, and conversely foregrounds the political message of the art over the aesthetic and the collective creation of theater over the guiding creative influence of a single director. The hard working actors and working class musicians and stagehands are the honest, salt of the earth characters in it for the art, and Orson Welles and John Houseman are simply preening poseurs.

After Blitzstein auditions his opera in a one man recital, Welles and Houseman invite Blitzstein and Flanagan to a high society lunch at “21.” While Welles goes to indulge his love of food and conversation, and Houseman tries to discuss the production, Blitzstein tries to get across his idea of art: who is driven by the art and who is willing to compromise for the money. Orson Welles and John Houseman are played as bickering would-be lovers, Orson flirting with a smitten Houseman, Houseman putting up with Orson like an old flame turned just friends. The director is a tantrum-throwing tyro more interested in publicity than art and the producer a prissy, impeccably dressed society dandy in love with the idea of theater. But isn’t Welles interested in the piece as a work of theater, isn’t that his drive to create a magnificent set of steel and glass and a cue sheet of shifting changes so complicated it creates a veritable train wreck of smashed sets? Robbins rather hypocritically suggests that since Welles values the theater over the politics, then he is one of the bad guys, and the sour caricatures perpetrated by Macfayden (too old by a decade to play the twenty-two-year-old Welles) and Elwes are the type usually sloughed off on villains and comic relief, which speaks volumes of Robbins’ attitude toward them. Only in the climax do they relinquish their egos and modestly join the group in the spirit of communal art, finally becoming one of the gang. Until then, they seem no better than the evil industrialists.

To be fair, none of the characterizations have much meat to them. Most are simply saints or sinners, honest artists or phonies, there to prove a point. The captains of industry speak of art like they speak of food, in grand terms with no heart, and Mathers even uses an art exhibit to clinch a political deal. To them, art is a commodity, and at one point they plot to manipulate public taste by celebrating abstract, non-political art, gauging their power by their control over every facet of American life: “Artists are whores, just like the rest of us,” they joke. It’s not enough that the themes of Blitzstein’s play is echoed in the everyday occurrences around them, Robbins has to draw literal parallels and intercut them through the climactic scene.

Those earthy theater folk, by contrast, just want to work in their trade and do good work. Invigorated by theater worthy of their effort, they’re prepared to risk all for the glory of art. (The one exception is the union reactionary Adair, who values the letter of union regulations over art, friendship, or collective experience. It’s such a token, as if to “prove” Robbins is really about the art, and not the politics, that it galls me.) There simply isn’t much complexity in any character, merely ironic conflicts struggled over in a “choose one or the other” fashion (Are you one of us or one of them?). The most manipulative of these is played out in conservative WPA clerk Hazel Huffman, who follows her own, deeply held convictions to take the WPA to task for perceived leftist propaganda and faces the result of her actions in a teary climax, as if the horrible truth of her misguided efforts has dawned on her.

Rockefeller, the one man seemingly genuinely in love with the arts, collides with radical Rivera over his mural, which depicts Lenin in a favorable light and champions collectivism, to adorn the wall of Rockefeller Plaza, the iconic capitalist center of New York big business. Rivera thinks the irony is delicious, and we’re supposed to react in horror as Rockefeller demands a change, and then threatens to desecrate the painting with his own “corrections.” As if it could have been any other way, with the first wave of the Red Scare running through American politics. This is 1936, for Christ’s sake! Think back to his Tim Robbins’ directoral debut, the mock documentary about conservative folk singer Bob Roberts, and the satire he ladles into his right wing lyrics. If art is truly not about politics, then why does Robbins only champion progress art that promotes liberal ideas?

Robbins drives his film with such passion and energy that much of this gets lost in the color and excitement. He’s become a stunningly proficient and inventive director, creating a whole that is so much greater than the parts. It’s a shame that he builds it all on a foundation so obvious, so simplistic, and all too often hypocritical. Take out the political leanings, and these all feel like characters from a 1930s backstage musical:   the “hey kids, lets put on a show” troopers, a sincere young author/songwriter with a fresh idea, and the manipulative high society hypocrites who see everything in dollar signs. Oddly enough, that’s partly what makes it so much fun, but what works as cinematic energy doesn’t quite translate to a convincing philosophy of art, politics, and simple human dignity.

One final note: while many of the characters are real life historical figures, many are made up for the film. That’s no real problem for the picture, and historical inaccuracies abound but hardly affect the film. But one change particularly upsets me. Olive Stanton, the homeless singer who opens the film, really did play the prostitute in The Cradle Will Rock, but it’s near unforgivable that Robbins created the fictional Aldo Silvano to play Larry Foreman on stage, when in real life it was Howard de Silva, an actively leftist performer who paid for his convictions by being blacklisted in the 1950s on the verge of a brilliant film career. Bernard Hughes is nice (if inconsequential) as the aging Frank Marvel, who portrays the enigmatic industrial robber baron Mr. Mister, but that part was really performed by Will Geer, who was also later blacklisted. These men deserve their place in history -- it was work like this that blacklisted them, and a slap to their memory to write them out of it.

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