Cradle will Rock (1999)



Director:  Tim Robbins.

Starring:   Hank Azaria (Marc Blitzstein), Rubn Blades (Diego Rivera), Joan Cusack (Hazel Huffman), John Cusack (Nelson Rockefeller), Cary Elwes (John Houseman), Philip Baker Hall (Gray Mathers), Cherry Jones (Hallie Flanagan), Angus Macfadyen (Orson Welles). Bill Murray (Tommy Crickshaw), Vanessa Redgrave (Countess Constance LaGrange), Susan Sarandon (Margherita Sarfatti), Jamey Sheridan (John Adair), John Turturro (Aldo Silvano), Emily Watson (Olive Stanton), Bob Balaban (Harry Hopkins).

prequel to McCarthyism in charging Federal Theater with having communist ties;  actor Orson Wells has big trouble trying to put on a theatrical production of a musical about a steel strike



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

1930s.  The Great Depression.  Unions are still being organized.  Strikes shut down whole industries.  President Roosevelt establishes the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to help people out of work.  One of the divisions of the WPA is the Federal Theater Project (FTP), which brings low cost theater to millions of Americans. 

Fall 1936.  A newsreel explains that Mussolini and his Italian troops are set to invade Ethiopia.  A homeless waif named Olive Stanton sleeps behind the big screen in the theater.  A theater hand chases her out of the theater.  On the street she offers to sing passer-bys a song for a nickel.

Composer Marc Blitzstein works on a musical dealing with worker problems.  A steel riot results in 5 deaths.  Hallie Flanagan returns to work as the head of the FTP.  A ventriloquist named Tommy Crickshaw is suspicious of the communist influence in the Federal Theater.   Congressman Dies is running hearings on the communist influence in the Federal Theater.   WPA clerk Hazel Huffman is so afraid of the communist influence that she goes around posting "Are you disgusted with the Federal Theatre?" fliers on walls. 

Orson Wells wants to put on Blitzein's work.  Countess Constance LaGrange is a supporter of the Federal Theatre, but her husband believes that Federal Theater is full of reds.  He sells products to Mussolini.  Margherita Sarfatti is a cultural agent for Mussolini in the United States and she serves as an art agent for Italian paintings.  She works with the husband of the countess. 

The police break up a union demonstration with horses and batons.  Nelson Rockefeller meets with Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera and his artist wife Frida Kahlo on the mural Rockefeller commissioned for the Rockefeller building lobby.   Rivera is a known communist and it seems a strange pairing of Rivera and Rockefeller. 

Olive Stanton waits in line to speak to Hazel Huffman about getting a job with the Federal Theater.  There are, however, no jobs as actors.  Instead she is offered a job as a stage hand and she quickly accepts.  Hazel Huffman brings together a group of actors (including Tommy Crickshaw) who all feel there are too many communists in the theater.  A woman of German origin worries about the fraternization of the actors with "negroes". 

One of the actors takes a liking to Olive and they start a relationship.  The take of some on Blitzstein's "The Cradle will Rock" is that it may be too pro-union.  Blitzstein says that the theme of the work is the prostitution of the press, the courts and the artists.  Speaking of the mural, Rockefeller talks with Margherita to get her to tell Diego Rivera to "cheer it up". 

Crickshaw starts taking a liking to Hazel Huffman.  She tells Crickshaw that she desperately wants to be called before the committee investigating the Federal Theater.  Crickshaw and she practice giving testimony at the committee.  Some people thing that the Federal Theater is teaching poor people to kill rich kids.  Crickshaw tells Hazel that he is attracted to her.  Margherita says that she and Mussolini are "over".  Olive is given a chance to audition and Orson Wells likes her.  He wants her to play the part of the prostitute.

Four months later.   Olive rehearses her song and Orson Wells asks why they hired her;  she's terrible.  There is a 20% percent cut in positions in the Federal Theater meaning the loss of 3,000 jobs.  Hazel testifies before the committee for some three days before chairman John Dies.  Rockefeller is furious when he sees a picture of Lenin in the mural.  He tells Rivera that this is the United States, not Russia.  There will be no communist leader in the Rockefeller Lobby.  But Rivera shouts:  "Lenin stays!"

By order of the federal government, the theater presenting "The Cradle will Rock" is closed down.  Troops stands outside the theater.  The tale of the feds closing the theater down quickly spreads among the actors and their supporters.  The call for finding another theater is heard.  Hallie Flanagan testifies before the committee.  She admits that she studied in Russia for 2.5 months.  Back at her job, everyone in the office turns their backs to the rat-fink Hazel. 

Rockefeller functionaries tell Diego Rivera that he must vacate the premises; his business is complete with the Rockefeller building.  Armed guards escort Rivera out of the building.  Frida Kahlo beings protests outside the Rockefeller building. 

Hazel is shocked to see that Crickshaw has changed his act to mock the committee.  Suddenly the dummy is a communist and Crickshaw the shocked conservative.  The controversial union play is put on at another theater.  Orson Wells takes the stage and introduces the composer who is to put on a one-man show given that the union has forbidden the actors to take part in the play.  But as Marc plays the piano and sings the songs, one actor after another in the audience stands up to sing or talk their parts. 

Rockefeller, the countess's husband and the Roman Catholic cardinal meet to complain about the controversial trends in modern art and to plot out what will constitute true American art.  Workers for the Rockefeller building destroy Rivera's mural. 

Hazel shows up at Crickshaw's door.  She still wants to be with him despite his criticism of the committee.  "The Cradle will Rock" play complains about the "vigilantes" who hide up there on the Liberty committee.  At another theater there is a mock funeral for the recently deceased Federal Theater, 1934-1937. 

The audience and the actors are both thrilled at the performance of the play "The Cradle will Rock".  The audience is up on its feet and the actors dance on stage at the end of the play in celebration of the defiance against censorship by the federal government. 



Good movie.  There are a lot of famous actors in the production and it was fun seeing the different faces.  The movie is supposed to be a bit funny and at times it takes on the appearance of a farce with actors running around like chickens with their heads cut off.  The movie does do us the great favor of pointing out that "McCarthyism" was existent in the American psyche and politics long before the 1950s.  Because of its racial divisions, the United States is a very conservative country compared to other industrialized countries.  American history has constantly been plagued by reactionary movements born out of fear of various more liberal trends, McCarthyism only being one of these.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



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