Hollywood Pictures // 1999 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // July 6th, 2000
Suppression of theater in the land of the free.
Cradle Will Rock is a particularly interesting film for me. It seems to represent many of the contradictions that I recognize within myself. It is based on the true story of the Federal Theater Program of the 1930s, which was one of many Depression era programs to get Americans back to work. Though it is not discussed much these days that was a time in which the US seemed on the brink of a communist revolution. So many people were out of work, felt that capitalism had failed them, and felt that rampant corporate wealth and power controlled their lives, that strikes and violence were breaking out all over, and the American unions were being born.
It was a time of wild contradictions. The Roosevelt administration was moving the country closer to socialism than it had ever been, and creating the welfare state that we know today. At the same time, rampant right-wing paranoia and anti-communism was setting the stage for the fascism and McCarthyism that was to come. This film follows one particular thread of that patchwork story, but manages to reflect all of the weirdness of the times.
As that right-wing paranoia spiraled upwards, the Federal Theater Program was seen by many in industry and government to be a mouthpiece of the US communist element. I'm sure that many people in that program were sympathetic, given the circumstances of the time. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway. The program was directly in the gun sights of congressional fanatics, and it was doomed.
At about this time, a writer named Mark Blitzen, played by Hank Azaria (Mystery Men, Godzilla, Heat), wrote a powerful musical firmly set in the view point of the unions and the oppressed common man. He took this musical to the Federal Theater Program and it was accepted, to be produced by the even then very famous Orson Welles, played by Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart, Rat Pack, Titus). The main storyline of the film follows the production of this musical, and the people in it. But it branches out to encompass much of the socio-political milieu that was floating within.
But the axe finally falls a day before the musical, named Cradle Will Rock, is scheduled to open. Federal troops close down the theater, and the actors union forbids its members to continue work on the project. But, an alternate theater is found and Blitzen plans to perform the work solo at the piano, more as a gesture of defiance than anything else. In the end, the performers pick up the torch and do the play anyway. But, in the end, the film makes it clear that they lost the war. The last image of the film, which takes place in the present at the same place that the end of the original story was occurring, says better than any thousand words how badly they lost.
This film has a powerhouse cast of great actors, some of which I found to be particularly interesting. Ruben Blades (The Chinese Box, Mo' Better Blues, Color of Night) plays the revolutionary artist Diego Rivera, who ends up painting the lobby of Rockefeller Plaza for big bucks. He brings his usual passion to the piece, which works particularly well for this character. Bill Murray (Rushmore, Ed Wood, Groundhog Day) plays Tommy Crickshaw, a washed up and slightly flaky Vaudeville ventriloquist approaching the end of his rope, and provides a wonderfully sympathetic yet funny performance. Susan Sarandon (Thelma and Louise, Bull Durham, The Player) plays Margherita Sarfatti, a Jew who becomes the cultural ambassador for Il Doofus, the buffoonish Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Others include John and Joan Cusack, Cary Elwes, Vanessa Redgrave, John Turturro, Emily Watson, and Dominic Chianese.
And I should also give credit here to Tim Robbins (Short Cuts, The Player, High Fidelity), who both wrote and directed this film. This guy has turned out to be one of our great assets these days. He obviously is more interested in exploring and growing than in making mega-bucks. I have the greatest respect for his work, and hope he continues to bring us great alternatives to the seven (or is it six?) standard plot lines.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic video, though not reference quality by current standards, is quite good. In some places, it looks gorgeous. In particular, towards the end there is a costume ball where many of the upper crust characters come together. The surroundings and the costumes are full of rich colors and textures and the images are sumptuous, and to my eyes better than the rest of the transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track is quite good. Though this is not an action film, there is plenty of stage work, crowd scenes, and score music, so it was well worth giving it a full 5.1 treatment.
I'm struggling to find something bad to say, and not finding much. The video transfer could have been slightly improved certainly, but it hardly sucked as is. It would have been nice to have a commentary track or other extras, but the featurette was good.
If you absolutely cannot handle musicals, to the point that even a film about making a musical would make you ill, then maybe it won't be your bag of tea.
As I said in the beginning, this film speaks to me because I'm a bleeding heart liberal at the core, but I get a paid a relatively obscene amount of bucks by very large companies in the heart of the "new economy" in Silicon Valley. I completely sympathize with the workers of the world, though I have little doubt that they would destroy the world as bad as the alternative if given the chance. And though I believe strongly in the right of workers to band together, I can't see much difference between the people running the unions and the people running the businesses.
This film explores the early days of many of the problems that we are dealing with today, but things weren't so different then. Nothing is really new under the sun; the markups are probably just larger. And it deals with them in a way that is extremely engaging and entertaining. Even if you don't care much for musicals, and I don't, I bet you will enjoy the musical content in Cradle Will Rock.
Acquitted, as a revolutionary gesture against the insidious and oppressive weight of multi-national corporate control of our lives. Vive le revolution, just don't take away my sports car, new computer, home theater, or stock options!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Hollywood Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Making Of" Featurette