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Cradle Will Rock (1999)

Reviewed 2002-12-16
: Where is class warfare now that we need it? In the 1930s, when most decent people feared a Communist in every closet, no one thought twice about the fascists and their capitalist allies despoiling the commons. Into this time stepped the 2nd LookFederal Theater Project (an offshoot of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration), which provided outlet and employment for Depression-era artists. Too bad they were Socialists, too. If you don't know the history of the period, you'll miss a lot of this fascinating story. Cradle Will Rock reflects the title of an FTP production, a real musical written by the real-life playwright Marc Blitzstein (played by Hank Azaria).The anti-communist Dies Commission tried to close down the FTP because it criticized capitalism and harbored Communists. But Cradle Will Rock opens defiantly in another venue, on June 16, 1937, when the original theatre is padlocked.

Getting to opening night is a fascinating, serpentine historical journey. Imagine this mix of personalities: Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) crossing creative swords with John Houseman (Cary Elwes), Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) trying to temper the revolutionist artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) — a confrontation played somewhat better in Frida. And then there were other, lesser-known and fictional, characters, such as real-life actress Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), pining for a role; real-life Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), passing the hat among capitalists like fictional steel magnate Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) to support the fascist Mussolini; fictional actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), balancing his socialist theatre aspirations against his pro-fascist family; and the FTP director and advocate, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), who fights the good fight for survival against the Dies Committee and do-gooder Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack). (Huffman is lusted after by jaded ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw, played by Bill Murray).

Cradle Will Rock is a piece of history. It is gratifying to know we can still get a pro-union film produced in this country, even though a lot of films escape to Canada to avoid union rules and negotiated pay rates. Just to give you an example of why rights for workers are necessary, here is an excerpt from a 23 December 2002 news story:
Last week a jury confirmed what labor activists have argued for years — Wal-Mart is a corporate criminal making its profits by illegally breaking wage and labor laws: "In the lawsuit, 400 current and former employees from 18 stores in Oregon accused the company of violating federal and state wage laws by systematically pressuring them to work unpaid overtime." And this case is just one example, as Wal-Mart has been quietly settling other lawsuits by employees across the country. Globally, Wal-Mart's drive for low wages extends to contracting with sweatshops in developing nations that systematically violate human rights and workers rights.
Writer-director Tim Robbins has venerable liberal credentials, dating to the wicked liberal satire Bob Roberts (1992), and he juggles all of these storylines with consummate skill. He and his excellent cast capture the excitement of putting on a show that might actually change minds, rather than just bring in spare change. There was a time in American history when some people were paying attention to what's good for American people rather than just American corporations. Cradle Will Rock is meant to rock you, not to sleep, as most entertainment does, but wide awake.

Cradle Will Rock (1999) 132 mins. Directed by Tim Robbins. Written by Tim Robbins. Cast: Hank Azaria as Marc Blitzstein, Rubén Blades as Diego Rivera, Joan Cusack as Hazel Huffman, John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller, Cary Elwes as John Houseman, Philip Baker Hall as Gray Mathers, Cherry Jones as Hallie Flanagan, Angus MacFadyen as Orson Welles, Bill Murray as Tommy Crickshaw, Vanessa Redgrave as Countess LaGrange, Susan Sarandon as Margherita Sarfatti, Jamey Sheridan as John Adair, John Turturro as Aldo Silvano, Emily Watson as Olive Stanton, Bob Balaban as Harry Hopkins.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me!


Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.