In 1930s New York Orson Welles tries to stage a musical on a steel strike under the Federal Theater Program despite pressure from an establishment fearful of industrial unrest and red activity. Meanwhile Nelson Rockefeller gets the foyer of his company headquarters decorated and an Italian countess sells paintings for Mussolini. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
Diego Rivera's mural in Rockefeller Center was destroyed in February of 1934. The unauthorized performance of "The Cradle Will Rock" took place on 16 June 1937. Hallie Flanagan testified before Congressman Dies' committee on 6 December 1938. For artistic effect, the film makes it seem that the three events occur simultaneously. See more »
Long on Agit Prop, But Well Captures Passionate Arts as Politics Times
While it was fun seeing "Cradle Will Rock" with my mother-in-law who had some memories of the time period, I also did a huge paper on the WPA Arts Projects in graduate school (I recommend Jerry Mangione's book on the Federal Writer's Project as a good introduction) and am quite familiar with the personalities and facts involved so was curious to see it as a docudrama.
But we plus my parents felt the film was too agit-prop and the 20% of it that's over-the-top (aw come on, Hearst -- "Citizen Kane" foreshadowing, Rockefeller and a steel magnate at a Versailles costume party at the climax?) weakens the historical telling of a confluence of happenings -- the strangulation of the Federal Theater Project as a precursor victim to McCarthyism through the Dies Committee (including actual testimony wherein Christopher Marlowe was accused of being a Commie, as were the classic Greek dramatists) and Nelson Rockefeller's benighted sponsorship and then destruction of the Diego Rivera murals at Rockefeller Center.
Effectively written and directed by Tim Robbins is how passionately political the artists were, not as "card carrying Communists" per se, but as committed anti-Fascists and unionists in every aspect of their personal lives--as equally committed as they were to the magic of the theater as a communication device.
It does go over the top (including Susan Sarandon as an elegant Jewish courier to Mussolini selling stolen Old Masters), it is effective to show how TPTB were sympathetic to and profited from alliances with the fascists and how much they hated That Cripple in the White House.
Amidst the politics, the art for art's sake oversize egos of John Houseman and Orson Welles are also well portrayed, if a shade as buffoons compared to the grimness of everyone else around them, most of whom needed these WPA jobs to keep from starving (there's a toss away line that barely explains that FDR had to throw the Theater Project to the wolves in order to save his whole alphabet soup of programs for the vast majority).
It's also a bit over the top in painting those who testified at the Committee as probably crazy, but who knows. The Vanessa Redgrave character is silly but I guess it's making a point that Radical Chic is not new.
The climax of the factual occurrence, the one and only original performance of Marc Blitzstein's "ThreePenny Opera"-inspired political musical "Cradle Will Rock" is a delightful recreation, and from what I've read, true to the real story. This is definitely a very un-1990's story.
(Additional recommended background reading: "Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century" by Michael Denning (Verso, 1998, 556 pages)
(originally written 1/2/2000)
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