Film Review: ‘Cradle Will Rock’

“Cradle Will Rock,”a film directed by Tim Robbins, based on the musical play by Marc Blitzstein.

“Cradle Will Rock” has not been nominated for a prize at this year’s Academy Awards ceremonies. But if Hollywood gave Oscars for “intelligent dialogue,” for “social relevance,” and for “playful fun,” this film would be in the top running.

Tim Robbins’ film portrays the broad political and social landscape of 1930s America, as expressed within a series of interwoven stories. Themes include the rise of fascism, building the unions, the corruption of the media and the arts by big business, and the beginnings of the anti-communist witch hunt.

This is all put together in a fast-paced script modeled on the “screwball comedies” of 1930s directors like Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Tim Robbins writes, “I knew that in order to pull it off, pace was key and humor was essential. It was also necessary to portray characters who were forced to face the difficult decisions of the time, characters confronted with hunger and desperation. Through these individuals, we hoped to portray the noble humanity and courage of those who endured the Depression.”

The “ordinary” people whose lives are recounted included a fading vaudevillian and his wooden dummy (the class-conscious dummy can’t resist singing a rendition of the “Internationale”), a disillusioned and spiteful government worker, and an unemployed and homeless woman who achieves her dream of being on the stage.

Their stories intertwine with the likes of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, Nelson Rockefeller, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles-and Hallie Flanagan, the director of the Federal Theater Project. (Yes! For a period of three years or so, the U.S. government sponsored and funded an endeavor that brought socially oriented theater to some 25 million working people in cities and small towns around the country.)

The main action of the film revolves around the historic premier performance of “The Cradle Will Rock,” a musical satire about a steel strike. This play, written and composed by Marc Blitzstein, a supporter of the Communist Party, was due to open in New York under the aegis of the Federal Theater Project on June 16, 1937.

However, anti-communist federal officials, citing an alleged lack of funds, closed down the theater in which “Cradle” was scheduled to open. In addition, bureaucrats from the AFL actors’ union forbade union members to perform the play on any other stage.

Director Orson Welles and his associate, John Houseman-as well as Blitzstein himself-led the actors and a large crowd of supporters in a march uptown to an empty theater they had found. Once the audience had assembled, Blitzstein walked alone onto the bare stage and began to narrate and sing the play as he accompanied himself on a rented piano.

Suddenly, Olive Stanton, an untrained actress who had been cast in “Cradle” in the key role of a prostitute, rose from her seat in the audience and began to sing her part. Other actors soon joined in. This act of solidarity brings the film to a joyful climax.

The film has some shortcomings. At times the action becomes overly complicated and confusing, and some of the characters (such as Orson Welles and John Houseman) appear as shrill clown-images of the real people they were modeled upon. Yet the overall product has a depth that is rarely seen in Hollywood filmmaking. Socialist Action readers will find it inspiring. -MICHAEL SCHREIBER

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