Cradle Will Rock - Stanley Kauffmann

John Turturro as Aldo Silvano, Emily Watson as Olive Stanton
Bill Murray as Tommy Crickshaw

"Cradle Will Rock (Touchstone), written and directed by Tim Robbins, centers on the first production of Marc Blitzstein's "play in music," The Cradle Will Rock. (Why did Blitzstein's title lose its article en route to the screen? Maybe because those who call Moviefone will thus avoid mix-up with other "The" titles.) Blitzstein's work, which was about workers' fight for rights in Steeltown, U.S.A., was sponsored in 1937 by Hallie Flanagan, the head of the Federal Theatre Project. She put the production in the hands of her colleagues, Orson Welles and John Houseman. In his film Robbins uses the history of that enterprise to depict the hurl and burl of those hectic times--the agonies of the Depression, the constant fears about fascism's rise in Europe, and, most prominently, the struggle from 1935 to 1939 to maintain a federally financed artistic enterprise at a time when Congress was worried about Communist infiltration and many of the most fertile theater people were leftist or left-leaning.

The resultant film is a mess. Robbins has included so much about the Federal Theatre and about other contemporary currents that the film soon becomes stroboscopic. Flashes and snips--of rehearsal conferences, of the Welles-Houseman productions of Macbeth and Doctor Faustus, of Congressional investigation, of Blitzstein's conversations with Bertolt Brecht (who was in New York at the time and did indeed spur the composer), of the quarrels between Nelson Rockefeller and Diego Rivera about the latter's politicized mural for Rockefeller Center, and much more--soon have us breathing hard to keep up. We get so many hurried peeks at so much that only one of the people takes on any reasonable life: Hallie Flanagan, the dedicated woman who led the Federal Theatre Project, here reasonably played by the gifted Cherry Jones. But Hank Azaria as Blitzstein, Angus Macfadyen as Welles, Cary Elwes as Houseman, Ruben Blades as Rivera, John Cusack as Rockefeller, are all just silly, and it's not their fault. They are asked to create characters with sound bites.

I had a special difficulty with this film. I was around at the time of these events. I saw Welles's Macbeth (set in the Caribbean with an all-black cast) and Dr. Faustus. I knew some of the people represented in the film, one of them quite well. Robbins at last reconciled me to their loss: they didn't have to see his film. A few years before Houseman died, The Cradle Will Rock was revived Off Broadway, and before every performance Houseman read the passage from his autobiography about the historic evening of the piece's premiere. The government had barred the play from the federally subsidized theater where it was supposed to be performed. A supporter engaged another theater at curtain time; then the entire cast and the entire first-night audience marched twenty-one blocks up Broadway to the other theater. There, with no scenery and with Blitzstein at the piano, the work had its opening night. It's a thrilling story. The trouble with the recent revival was that Houseman's reading was followed by a performance of the work, and it's just not very good--poster politics and dry music. But at the time...." (quote from Stanley Kauffmann, "Listening Again" in the New Republic, Jan. 10, 2000, p. 27)

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History Department | Filmnotes | revised 1/22/2000 by Schoenherr