Cradle Will Rock

by Glenn Erickson Aug 04, 2018

Writer-director Tim Robbins goes all out to recreate a politically potent chapter of Broadway legend, the true story of the rebel WPA production The Cradle Will Rock — with a dynamic sidebar about Diego Rivera’s provocative mural for the Rockefeller Center. An enormous cast works up the excitement of Depression-era revolutionary theater.

Cradle Will Rock
KL Studio Classics
1999 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 134 min. / Street Date August 7, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 19.95
Starring: Hank Azaria, Rubén Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Jamey Sheridan, John Turturro, Emily Watson, Bob Balaban, Jack Black, Kyle Gass, Paul Giamatti, Barnard Hughes, Barbara Sukowa, Gretchen Mol, Harris Yulin, Daniel Jenkins, Steven Skybell, Susan Heimbeinder, Audra McDonald, Leonardo Cimino.
Cinematography: Jean-Yves Escoffier
Film Editor: Geraldine Peroni
Costumes: Ruth Myers
Original Music: David Robbins
Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, Jon Kilik, Tim Robbins
Written and Directed by
Tim Robbins


Cradle Will Rock is an elaborate, colorful and tuneful celebration of a slice of Depression-era history, namely the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project. Writer-Director Tim Robbins embellishes the facts with added ideas, but they’re all minor character additions. It’s a good idea to refer to a cast list while watching, because the show hits us with a lot of exciting characters, many of them taken from real life.

Robbins’ story dramatizes the theater scene in New York 1934-1937, cross-referencing events in much the same way E.L. Doctorow did in his multi-story novel Ragtime. Packed with historical personages, it’s also totally unabashed about the political makeup of the Roosevelt- backed WPA: among the actors, theater producers and FTP bureaucrats are leftists, communists, labor agitators, blacks, Jews, anti-Fascist Italians, homosexuals and a homeless woman who becomes the star of the show. It’s an ultimate ‘Let’s put on a show!’ movie, populated by idealists inflamed by economic and social injustice. Think of the movie as Topsy-Turvy, except that the theater is radical and most of the players destitute.


In the 1980s Orson Welles wrote a screenplay about the creation of Marc Blitzstein’s musical agit-prop theater piece The Cradle Will Rock, reportedly telling his own life story in the process. Tim Robbins makes Welles just one of twenty-odd fascinating characters, to weave a rich tale around events leading up to a legendary night in June 1937, when the ‘show went on,’ but in a totally unexpected way.

The famous people named by name in the course of the story are Orson Welles (director of the play The Cradle Will Rock), John Houseman (the producer), Marc Blitzstein (the writer-songwriter) Hallie Flanagan (the director of the Federal Theater Project), Olive Stanton (actress), Nelson Rockefeller (patron of the arts), Margherita Sarfatti (Italian arts emissary), Diego Rivera (firebrand artist), Frida Kahlo (artist), William Randolph Hearst (millionaire), Marion Davies (actress), Martin Dies (Congressman), Bertolt Brecht (playwright) and Will Geer (actor).

You’ll really want to look up some of the names above. Audiences unfamiliar with WPA history may find themselves totally lost; Robbins almost needs to use the Quentin Tarantino gimmick of stopping the movie for sidebar exposition and personal histories.


Cradle Will Rock conflates two separate landmark events of the Depression years, the Federal Theater Project’s final theatrical creation, and the story of Diego Rivera’s radical mural Man at the Crossroads commissioned for Rockefeller Center. FTP director Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes), and the barely twenty year-old radio star and theater director Orson Welles all flip over Marc Blitzstein’s musical agit-prop theater piece The Cradle Will Rock. Rehearsals begin even as events in Washington pull the rug out from under the show — the proto- un-American activities committee headed by Congressman Martin Dies is undermining President Roosevelt’s New Deal by claiming that the FTP is run by Communists. Just before the play is set to open, Federal troops padlock the theater, locking out the acting company.

Meanwhile (although it really happened earlier) Nelson Rockefeller hires dynamic Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades) to paint a giant mural, and Rivera uses the opportunity to express his political feelings and his contempt for his millionaire patron. The mural depicts the decadent rich, the oppressed poor, brutal police and an image of Lenin; Rockefeller is understandably displeased.


Both Rivera and Blitzstein subscribed to the idea that art is confrontation. The mural is a call to revolution and Blitzstein’s play sees labor unionization as a way to rise up against rampant capitalism. In today’s divided country, Tim Robbins’ movie will be considered controversial as well. The very large cast really gets behind Robbins’ ambitious screenplay, which uses a clique of rich art patrons to tie the play and mural together. Rockefeller (John Cusack) is indeed more interested in art than oil, but he hangs out with William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter) and Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), millionaires that amuse themselves by buying up priceless foreign art, as secure investments. Newly arrived from Rome is Benito Mussolini’s unofficial representative Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), who uses her ‘giveaways’ of art treasures to encourage American investment in the Fascist regime. Sarfatti also knows Diego Rivera; they have a testy conversation, from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Countess Constance La Grange (Vanessa Redgrave) is Gray Mathers’ consort, but she also keeps an artist in the house, Carlo (Paul Giamatti). A fan of theater, Constance sits in on FTP rehearsals, and steps in to help when the premiere of Cradle is threatened. The millionaires hold a decadent costume ball on the night of the Cradle premiere. At the same time, a crew hired by Rockefeller is demolishing the same Rivera mural he paid so much to have painted.

The brash and infinitely narcissistic Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) dominates the rehearsals for his play, flaunting his radio success while berating the union actors for wanting work breaks. He has an uneasy relationship with John Houseman, but unerring good judgment in his casting. For the main role of the pitiful prostitute, Welles hires Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), a stagehand who was formerly homeless, singing for nickels on the street. Italian-American actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) plays Blitzstein’s union organizer hero, a role originated by the legendary actor Howard Da Silva. Silvano’s wife Sophie (Barbara Sukowa) must deliver Aldo’s third child in a charity ward; rather than put up with his fascist brother, Aldo moves his family into a slum.


FTP directress Flanagan oversees a flourishing nationwide system of Federally funded theater; her staff takes a break to enjoy an audition by two actors that have come up with an entire ‘Revolt of the Beavers’ play to be staged for children. Down in the hiring hall, clerk Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) breaks the rules to help Olive Stanton get a job as a stagehand. But at night, Hazel also convenes a grievance committee of FTA employees. Some just don’t like the idea that blacks are being hired, but vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray) attends to complain that the Program forces him to teach his trade to untalented youngsters, ‘for the future of vaudeville.’ The talentless Sid and Larry (Jack Black & Kyle Gass) pretend to be learning while stealing Tommy’s act. Tommy is attracted to Hazel, and doesn’t mind that she turns her secret meeting into a hate group — convinced that the FTP is riddled with communists, she volunteers to testify before the Dies Committee.

Robbins embraces the style and excitement of the times, partly shaping his movie as agit-prop. The down ‘n’ outs and idealistic theater people struggle to work in Roosevelt’s work programs, while the rich use their pocketbooks to encourage ‘colorful, pretty’ art that has no political viewpoint. The flamboyant, creative and politically astute Orson Welles is also a massive pain in the neck; some of his actors also want to change the world but most are mainly concerned with avoiding starvation. The movie works because the performances put vibrancy into the put-on-a-show idealism.


The film is packed with vibrant characterizations. Emily Watson starts as somebody out of Les Miserables and ends up personifying the spirit of theater liberated from old-fashioned restraints. Hank Azaria shines as the obsessed playwright, taking key scenes for his show out of personal experience. He imagines both Bertolt Brecht and his dead wife coaching him from the sidelines, challenging his political viewpoint. Blitzstein plays an imaginary piano in the middle of a police riot, yet the scene doesn’t come off as affected. Actor Frank Marvel (Barnard Hughes) has trouble learning the lines of the play’s capitalist villain Mr. Mister — his memory is fading but he has to keep working to live.

Bill Murray’s ventriloquist plays along with Joan Cusack’s anti-Communist games because he wants romance; he doesn’t realize that she’s as frigid as her rabid politics. Nelson Rockefeller is taken in by Diego Rivera’s uninhibited art loft, where he’s invited to drink and dance with Diego’s libertine models (and a wickedly contemptuous Frida Kahlo). Diego’s commitment to political expression knows no limits; he relishes the opportunity to confront his capitalist sponsor with a communist mural.


Two more vibrant women top off Robbins cinematic ‘mural.’ Susan Sarandon’s Margherita Sarfatti hobnobs with the millionaires, trying to get them to collaborate (collude) with the interests of Fascist Italy. A former Mussolini mistress, Sarfatti sells art treasures. The irony is that she is Jewish. Just a year or so later Mussolini will throw in with Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies, and Margherita will be forced to flee to Argentina.

Much brighter is Vanessa Redgrave’s Countess, who at first seems a frivolous let-them-eat-cake type, a carefree heiress who keeps a freeloader artist on a leash. But the Countess repeatedly refuses to play along with her millionaire protector’s plans for a ritzy, decadent costume ball. The moment when she leaps from his car and bids him farewell with a smile and flurry of arm-waving, is priceless.


Robbins directs with great confidence, knowing that his story threads will converge on a can’t-lose dramatic climax, the performance of The Cradle Will Rock. With their theater locked up, Houseman finds a disused venue to do the play without costumes or scenery. Orson leads the ticket-holding audience on a twenty-block exodus to the new theater. The crowd follows because everything associated with the Boy Wonder seems to become a semi-historic event. Since the unions won’t let the actors go on stage, the plan is for Marc Blitzstein to simply play the piano and sing all the parts, so at least the audience will know what Cradle is all about (“How do I sing the duets?”).

What happened then is the stuff of theatrical legend. The audience is fully aware that they are present for an outlaw radical production. Alone on stage, Blitzstein sits at the piano, reciting the stage directions and beginning to sing the prostitute’s song. Starting with Olive Stanton, the actors stand up in the audience or in the wings, and begin singing their parts, improvising the staging without putting a foot on the stage. Aldo Silvano is attending with his family. To the delight of his children, he suddenly leaps up and takes his cue, singing at the top of his lungs. It’s unclear whether, in reality, the ‘volunteer’ performances were planned, but this was supposedly the birth of American audience participation theater. The effect is electrifying.


Orson Welles is such a distinct personality that his presence in a movie is always a hard sell; this show’s version neither looks like him nor has the commanding voice that Orson surely figured out at age seventeen. Cary Elwes affects a younger version of John Houseman’s effete, fussy voice, but if you’ve ever heard the man speak it doesn’t quite catch his character either. Houseman was so naturally articulate, listening to anything he had to say was always a pleasure. Fans of Welles and Houseman may be offended by what amounts as a clown act between them.

Welles is made to seem a lunatic director — his Faust looks identical to the overdone, disastrous ‘Jeffrey Cordova’ staging in The Band Wagon. Having proof elsewhere of real Welles’ genius for invention, it’s likely that he contributed more to the saving of Cradle than just marching his audience twenty blocks to the new venue. I’d easily believe that it was Orson who improvised the ‘impromptu’ staging plan that circumvented the Union rules, and created a new ‘theater without limits.’

Silent fans won’t be pleased by the depiction of Marion Davies, either — she comes off as a heavy-drinking simpleton. I guess we’ll never know how these famous folk really behaved in public.

The director never loses control of his visuals. When he opts for an unusual angle he isn’t pretentious, while his ‘big’ effects frequently hit the bulls-eye. Robbins’ ends his show with an ironic bang. The camera dives from on high into the enraptured face of Emily Watson — and then cuts powerfully to a single shot that pulls us back to the corporate controlled commercial reality of Broadway today.

Movies like Cradle Will Rock were always commercially risky propositions. The show did not become the big hit it deserved to be, and although it and Robbins won festival accolades oversees, it received no Oscar attention whatsoever.

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Cradle Will Rock is a sharp and colorful scan of this Touchstone feature. The color looks great and ‘all technical specs’ are high-quality. The widescreen picture has excellent sound. The subtitles help with some of the faster dialogue. Perhaps the sub-titler was expressing his or her own artistic form of confrontation, because the subs repeatedly replace the word ‘Jesus,’ with ‘news.’


Kino gives us a making-of featurette, several trailers and a relaxed commentary from writer-director Tim Robbins. The new talk explains which characters are real and which are made up or combined. As I suspected, Robbins lifted Paul Giamatti’s Carlo character from Gregory La Cava’s screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, in which the great Mischa Auer played another entertaining freeloader named Carlo. Robbins fills in more historical background — fired from the Federal Theater Project, John Houseman and Orson Welles turned right around and founded The Mercury Theater, beginning yet another chapter in performing history.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Cradle Will Rock
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Robbins, featurette, CWR trailer and other Kino trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 2, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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