[Picture of projector]

Laramie Movie Scope:
The Cradle Will Rock

The Depression, McCarthyism and madcap comedy

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

Feb 6, 2000 -- Compared to the 1930's the 1960's were a walk in the park, we had Vietnam, they had World War II. We had the most affluent, spoiled generation in history, they had the grinding poverty of the Great Depression. We had the March on Washington and the Civil Rights movement, they had gun battles and riots in streets and factories for union representation. They had hard times. Sounds like great material for a comedy.

"The Cradle Will Rock," based on a true story, takes place during the Great Depression and the Spanish Civil War and Italy's attacks against Ethiopia, led by the "Lion of Judah." In the U.S., the Pinkertons and police and even U.S. Army troops are waging bloody battles to break strikes against the steel industry. Some of that steel is going to Italy to help Mussolini's oppression, we find out in the film.

In those days, socialism was the political belief of choice for artists and intellectuals of the day and the Soviet Union was the shining example of Communism. Union leaders and socialists were lumped together and equally hated by the capitalists of the day. To them Roosevelt's New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) seemed a lot like socialism.

One of those WPA projects was a national theater program to make work for professional actors and others in the theater business. The program brought theater to millions in the U.S. The problem was, there were people who became convinced the program was being used to spread socialist propaganda to millions supported by taxpayer dollars.

"Cradle Will Rock," a play inspired by a union strike, becomes the touchstone for this political dissension when the WPA takes on the production, directed by the mercurial Orson Welles (played by Angus MacFadyen of "Lake Placid"). Another, related, event has artist Diego Rivera (played by Rubén Blades) being commissioned to paint a mural at the Rockefeller Center by Nelson Rockefeller (played by John Cusack).

Yet another subplot has a vaudeville ventriloquist, Tommy Crickshaw (played by Bill Murray), and a WPA clerk, Hazel Huffman (played by Joan Cusack), upset about the Communists in the WPA. Another subplot has Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon) raising money for the Italian war effort by selling works of art to wealthy U.S. industrialists who have no real appreciation for the art they buy.

John Turturro plays a poor actor, Aldo Silvano, who lands a part in the play. He also has violent disagreements with his family over Italian politics. Emily Watson plays Olive Stanton, a woman who wants to be an actress. Cary Elwes plays the play's director John Houseman (the real Houseman would star, many years later, in "The Paper Chase.") Vanessa Redgrave plays the flighty and rebellious Countess LaGrange.

Unfortunately, all these subplots don't really mesh. Instead, they fly off in their various directions. Each one is thought-provoking in its own way. We see Diego Rivera fight to keep the face of Josef Stalin on his mural. At the time, Stalin was a hero, and he would remain so for some years, until he murdered millions of his countrymen and became one of the greatest butchers of the modern era.

We see America's great industrialists secretly helping Hitler and Mussolini. At the time they were Europe's leading anti-communist leaders. Soon, they would become America's greatest enemies (with the temporary aid of a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union), along with Japanese leaders. We also see these same industrial leaders making a secret pact to try to keep politics out of art.

The funny thing is the artists see themselves as representing the common people. But obviously, their ideas of morality (such as nudity and sex in the aisles of the theater) and politics are not common at all. So why should people who don't agree with these ideas be forced to pay, through their tax dollars, these artists to represent these ideas? This issue remains unresolved to the current day, even in New York. Recently, some artists there got into trouble for a display deemed offensive to the Catholic Church.

We also see that unions, at their worst, can be just as tyrannical as the capitalist bosses they are trying to tame. Time and again, the movie hammers home its point, that people are selling themselves. "What is your price?" the film keeps asking. Rivera has his price, the industrialists have theirs. The actors have their price too. At one point, they have to decide keep their union membership or do the play. Even Orson Welles has his price. He can afford to do the theatrical productions he loves because of his job on the popular radio show "The Shadow."

Most tragic of all is Margherita Sarfatti, a Jew heading back to Italy with her bags full of ill-gotten money for Mussolini, who will soon begin to enact anti-Jewish laws. The final, heated exchange between her and Rivera highlights the tragic choices each of them made. She put her faith in Mussolini and Rivera backed the biggest loser of all time, socialism, whose leaders turned out to be just as bad as the fascists, especially in their rigorous control of art. The real stars of this show are Turturro, who turns in a stirring performance of an actor true to his craft, and Murray, who is brilliant as a broken down man at the end of his career with one last chance for love.

Although this film is very thought provoking, the message is way to heavy-handed and the subplots have run amok, each wildly out of control. Each could have been a movie by themselves. If Director Tim Robbins ("Bob Roberts") had been able to reign those subplots in, or just drop them and get on with the main story, it would not have been such a frustrating film to watch. It is almost worth watching just for the rousing musical climax, especially Turturro's show-stopping musical numbers. This film rates a C.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)