Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock" has many qualities that make us want to like
it -- it's ambitious, left-wing, and rich in photography, with a great cast,
flamboyant characters, and an interesting setting. But after it's thrown
itself into its situation, and sniffed around with a lot of style, it comes
out without finding what it was looking for. Although I'm tempted to ignore
the movie's failings and recommend it for its politics alone, what would be
the point? Liberals don't need to see it to confirm their beliefs, and
conservatives are probably beyond hope.
The "(almost) true" story takes place in the 1930s. One of President
Roosevelt's schemes to rebuild America was the Federal Theatre Project,
intended to employ artists and provide free entertainment for the public.
Unfortunately it was formed in a time of heated paranoia about Communism,
when Republicans were behaving in a manner that would later be repeated more
famously by Joseph McCarthy. The climate of witch-hunting was so ridiculous
that the Theatre Project was in danger no matter how benign its productions
were. At one point we learn that a children's pantomime called "The Eager
Beaver" was accused of being an allegory about proletarian revolution.
While suspicious snitches try to get the theatres in legal trouble, Orson
Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and John Houseman (Carl Elwes) decide to provoke
them, by putting on a play called "The Cradle Will Rock", whose writer is a
gay Communist sympathiser, Marc Blitztein (Hank Azaria). The script is said
to deal with taboo themes and promote anarchistic ideas. What a stir it
And does. The film's many characters -- white and blue-collar, male and
female, poor and rich, artistic and philistine -- all find themselves somehow
arguing about it, one side of the fence or another. At the height of the
controversy, a judicial committee sends armed guards to close the playhouse
in which the performance is scheduled. FDR would no doubt disapprove, and
there is protest, and a way found around the upset, but none of that is the
point -- the mere fact that a development like that can happen in the freest
country in the world is shocking.
The movie is exuberantly performed, and although the actors' loud, jumpy
movements and self-consciously put-on accents often annoy us, they just as
frequently create delicious humour, when their characters are caught up in
the topsy-turvy atmosphere of collapsing sets, childish arguments and
ludicrous obstacles. But somehow "Cradle Will Rock" doesn't quite work. I
don't think it's that the comedy undermines the drama; the problem is that
the picture is so epic it feels like it's trying to say more than it does.
Robbins, who wrote and directed, probably intended a parable about the value
of freedom in general. All he's given us is a tale about a show causing a
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic