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Cradle Will Rock (1999) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

theater welles rockefeller mural

Principal social themes: censorship, homelessness/poverty, homosexuality

Touchstone. R rating. Featuring: Hank Azaria, Ruben 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, Barnard Hughes, John Carpenter, Gretchen Moll, Harris Yulin, Steven Skybell, Susan Heimbeinder, Corina Katt Ayala. Written by Tim Robbins based on a story by Orson Welles. Cinematography by Jean Yves Escoffier. Edited by Geraldine Peroni. Music by Marc Blitzstein and David Robbins. Produced by Jon Kilik, Lydia Dean Pilcher, and Tim Robbins. Directed by Tim Robbins. Color. 134 minutes.


Cradle Will Rock is based on the controversial 1937 debut of the Marc Blitzstein opera, which was initially sponsored by the Federal Theater Project, but then shut down by the government. Locked out of their theater, Welles took a gamble and moved the premiere to another theater where the composer presented the work alone at the piano on an empty stage. Unexpectedly, the original cast members joined in the singing from their seats in the audience. This sensational debut became one of the most memorable events in the history of New York theater. To this main story, Tim Robbins added the 1933 episode, in which a mural painted by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera was ordered destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller, who had originally commissioned it. Other subplots, some fictional, were added, highlighting the issues of artistic freedom, competing political ideologies, and most importantly, censorship.


Cradle Will Rock opens with a lengthy scrawl, describing the atmosphere of the Great Depression during the 1930s, including the influence of events in European countries such as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Communist Russia. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one American program designed to relieve unemployment. The Federal Theater Project (FTP), a division of the WPA, intended to provide jobs for out-of-work actors and relatively inexpensive entertainment for the public at large. The Federal theater was headed by Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), who had run Vassar’s experimental theater project. She turned to the young genius Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), who operated the classical unit of the FTP out of the Maxine Elliott Theater on 39th Street in New York City. His administrative partner at the Elliott was John Houseman (Cary Elwes). The story proper opens as homeless actress Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) awakens in her makeshift bed in the backstage of a motion picture theater. She is chased out of the theater when an usher spots her. Olive tries to earn money singing for nickels on Broadway. She overhears piano music coming from an apartment where composer Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) is working on his opera The Cradle Will Rock . Olive goes to the employment line at the FTP to look for work. She does not have enough experience to qualify as an actress or singer, but she accepts work as a stagehand and is assigned to the Maxine Elliott Theater. She observes Orson Welles preparing his production of Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. Welles is upset that many of the performers are sticklers for union rules instead of the production. John Adair (Jamey Sheridan), an actor and the union representative for the FTP, befriends Olive. Another popular actor is Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), who is having considerable difficulty providing for his large family. Welles becomes interested in doing The Cradle Will Rock as his next production. Adair pushes Olive to audition in his place, and Welles hires her as the leading female character, a prostitute, for the opera. Aldo Silvano gets the male lead, a union organizer.

Other storylines intercut with the events at the Maxine Elliott Theater. One of them involves Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), who is passionately interested in modern art. He wants to hire a famous artist to paint a huge mural to be called Man at the Crossroads for Rockefeller Center. He decides to hire Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades), the fiery Mexican master. As Riviera works on the mural, Rockefeller is excited, but also concerned by the socialist tone of the work, which seems to include a May Day celebration. He asks an old friend of Rivera, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), to intercede and suggest making the mural more cheerful. Rivera, however, argues with Sarfatti, whom he now considers to be a lapdog for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Another plot follows Sarfatti’s attempts to sell art to wealthy American industrialists in exchange for steel contracts for the Italian government. The industrialists are upset by attempts to unionize the steel industry, which is rumored to be the storyline of The Cradle Will Rock . FTP clerk Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) is upset by the socialist leanings of many FTP projects. She runs a meeting to discuss the issue, where she meets ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), who is actually more interested in Hazel than in politics. They decide to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, chaired by conservative Democrat Martin Dies (Harris Yulin), to denounce the hidden leftist agenda of the FTP. The film jumps back and forth among these various plots. Things become serious when the federal government decides to pull the plug on The Cradle Will Rock . The WPA first institutes a twenty percent cutback to the project. When this does not force Welles to cancel the Blitzstein premiere, they send troops to barricade the theater. Welles is outraged by this attempt at censorship. He, Blitzstein, and Houseman confer in an attempt to save the project. Nelson Rockefeller is outraged when Rivera’s mural includes a large portrait of Lenin. Rivera offers to also include a portrait of Lincoln, but Rockefeller insists that he remove Lenin. When Rivera refuses, Rockefeller pays him off and orders work halted on the mural. He later has the work destroyed. Hallie Flanagan goes to Washington to testify before the Committee on UnAmerican Activities, where she is treated very rudely. One of the representatives asks if Christopher Marlowe is a Communist playwright, and Flanagan replies that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare. Tommy Crickshaw accuses his two FTP students studying ventriloquism, of being Communists. They deny it, saying they are homosexuals instead. Crickshaw has a change of heart, and in his next performance, he has his dummy sing the Communist anthem, The International . When Welles decides to move The Cradle Will Rock to a theater he rented himself, Actors Equity rules that none of their actors may appear on stage. On the night of the performance, Welles leads the audience who show up outside the locked Maxine Elliott theater on a thirty-block walk to their new location just rented for the evening. As Blitzstein sings the opening number, a song by the prostitute who finds a nickel under her foot, Olive Stanton starts to sing from the audience. Other cast members join in at their proper entrances, except for Jerry Adair who stomps out of the theater. The evening performance is a dramatic sensation and a legendary hit. In the last shot of the film, a present-day image of Times Square and the theater district fills the screen.


Cradle Will Rock (note the film title drops the opening “The” of the opera title) is a sensational film, but very difficult to follow unless the viewer is familiar with the background of the June 18, 1937, debut of Blitzstein’s opera. After the dramatic success of the opening, Actor’s Equity reversed their decision and agreed to allow the actors to appear on stage, but Welles, aware of the dramatic impact, continued to do the show with the cast performing from the audience. In the wake of his defiance, Welles was finished at the FTP, but he and Houseman then formed their own privately financed group, The Mercury Theater. They successfully launched their project with a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar reset in Fascist Italy. They also continued with their production of The Cradle Will Rock under the Mercury Theater. The idea for a film version about these events came from Welles himself in the early 1980s. Welles intended to play himself, but he would largely be off screen, a voice in the shadows or on the telephone, since he was so much older. Unfortunately, Welles was unable to finance the film, but the idea eventually inspired Tim Robbins to tackle the project. His film magnificently captures the kinetic energy of New York in the 1930s, as well as the various passions from that era concerning Socialism, Fascism, and Communism. The performances of Blitzstein’s songs in the picture are simply brilliant. The events of his version about the production of the opera are largely accurate, with a few exceptions. Olive Stanton, for example, was a real individual, but Aldo Silvano is fictitious. (In real life, Howard da Silva played the role of the union organizer in the opera.) The portrayals of Orson Welles and John Houseman are intriguing, but at times they seem like caricatures, too far over the top. The same could be said for the depiction of William Randolph Hearst. On the other hand, John Cusack successfully underplays Nelson Rockefeller.

The subplots Robbins added, however, are a mixed bag. The Rockefeller Center mural by Rivera is authentic, but this event actually occurred in 1933, and Rockefeller had the mural destroyed in February 1934. The mural as seen in the film, however, conforms exactly to Rivera’s original. Hallie Flanagan’s appearance before the House Committee happened a year after the debut of The Cradle Will Rock , but the Committee’s question about Christopher Marlowe was authentic. The other subplots are largely fabricated. Tommy Crickshaw, for example, is a fictional character. Robbins’ screenplay is dazzling, but somewhat confusing, as real-life figures appear and vanish without being properly introduced to the viewers. The various social issues are well integrated into the storyline. The opening sequence about Stanton’s homelessness is very poignantly depicted. The film tones down Blitzstein’s personal radicalism somewhat, but has him boast about his homosexuality. Hank Azaria plays Blitzstein with a surreal touch, having imaginary conversations with his late wife and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The best moments of the film are about censorship—by the government in the case of the opera and by private sources in the case of the mural. The film attempts to accurately portray the reasons for the censorship. There had been deaths in the riots for the unionization of the steel industry, and there was fear (totally unfounded) that the opera would foster fresh violence. Diego Rivera withheld his intention from Rockefeller about including the figure of Lenin in the mural. Since Rockefeller paid for the artwork, he was within his legal rights to destroy it. Both these cases can provide lively discussions for teachers, students, as well as the general public on the topic of censorship.

Craig, Arthur(1871–1959) - Engineer, educator, Improves Tuskegee’s Curriculum and Campus, Chronology [next] [back] Cowell, Casey G. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Casey G. Cowell

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