Cradle Will Rock, The (1999): Tim Robbins’ Tale of Art and Politics during the Depression

Art and politics interface in a dynamic and dangerous way in Tim Robbins’ The Cradle Will Rock, a semi-successful effort to evoke a collective portrait of some creative individuals during the Depression era.

The movie, which premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Fest (in competition), was seven years in the making due to all kinds of problems, including its topic and politics.

Made on a decent budget of, The Cradle Will Rock was released by Disney’s Touchstone, and bombed at the box-office, failing to attract any demographic segment of the audience.

The filmmaker’s intent was to capture a unique moment in the history of American culture and politics.  The tale is based on events surrounding an actual 1937 musical directed by Orson Welles, which was shut down by government injunction due to the cast’s alleged left-wing politics. It was then performed guerrilla-style without costumes, scenery, or props, and ultimately taken to Broadway.

Robbins should be commended for assembling together a most interesting cast, John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller, Cary Elwes as a dashing young John Houseman, Susan Sarandon as art dealer Margherita Sarfatti, Vanessa Redgrave as a rich countess, Ruben Blades as painter Diego Rivera, and Hank Azaria as Marc Blitzstein, the musical’s composer.

Rather than give in, the show’s director, Orson Welles, and producer, John Houseman, set up an improvised performance in a shuttered theater. As Blitzstein begins the first song, the other actors appear in the audience and perform the play without climbing on the stage.
A group of workers destroy the mural Man at the Crossroads, after a dispute between Nelson Rockefeller and Diego Rivera over the latter’s explicit support for communism.
As the cast and audience celebrate, a group of former FTP performers stage a mock funeral down the street outside.
The film’s last image shows the procession walks into present-day Times Square, which is lined with billboards advertising Broadway plays.
Disney’s top exec Joe Roth gave Tim Robbins, better known as an actor (but previously directed the 1995 Oscar-nominated “Dead Man Walking”) considerable freedom in making his period epic piece.
In many ways, this is Robbins’ ambitious attempt to make his own version of “Reds” (Warren Beatty’s superior 1981 film), a deeply felt homage to a time when artistic activity was driven by passionate commitment much more than by profit or celebrity–despite the financial perils of the Depression.
The movie looks and feels like an indie feature rather than a studio product, but it comes across as a not too deep chronicle of events, and some of the characters are so narrowly defined that they border caricatures.
Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria)
Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades)
Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack)
Nelson Rockerfeller (John Cusack)
John Houseman (Cary Elwes)
Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall)
Director: Tim Robbins
Producer: Jon Kilik, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Tim Robbins, (exec) Louise
Krakower, Frank Beacham, Allan Nicholls
Screenplay: Tim Robbins
Camera: Jean Yves Escoffier
Edtor: Geraldine Peroni
Production Design: Richard Hoover
Costumes: Ruth Myers
Music: David Robbins
Running time: 133 minutes