Orson Welles, John Houseman, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, Bertolt Brecht and a ventriloquist's dummy who looks a lot like Bill Murray--they all saunter through Tim Robbins' enjoyable Cradle Will Rock, which takes us back to a time when art and politics eyed each other across a Depression-ravaged landscape. Purportedly offering us the story behind the opening night of Marc Blitzstein's labor opera of the same name, Cradle Will Rock is actually much more ambitious than that. It wants to remind us that art once mattered, and that it might matter again someday. Hollywood is always accused of being too liberal, but of all the Hollywood directors working today, Robbins may be the only one who puts his mouth where his money is. Like Dead Man Walking, Cradle Will Rock can get a little pushy at times. Unlike Dead Man Walking, it's both heavy-handed and light-footed. The same could be said of Blitzstein's musical play, which secured a niche in both theater and labor-union history when, having been locked out of their theater by the WPA, Welles and Blitzstein and many of the actors moved the production to another theater. (Blitzstein himself conducted the show from an upright piano on a bare stage.) You'd think that would be enough excitement for one movie, but Robbins, who also wrote the script, decided to go for the whole enchilada. He added Rockefeller's infamous dispute with Rivera over a left-leaning mural in the newly completed Rockefeller Center, and he supplemented the fact-based characters with fictional characters, à la Ragtime. When it's not pamphleteering--and even when it is--the movie captures the cultural-political ferment of the '30s: Rich mixed with poor, whites mixed with blacks, government mixed with art, and revolution was in the air.
It was a time when friendships were made or broken by one's answers to questions like "Where do you stand on Spain?" But Robbins doesn't take those questions nearly as seriously as he might have. A screwball-ish comedy, the movie comes awfully close to having history repeat itself as farce. Welles and Houseman, who still had "War of the Worlds" and Citizen Kane ahead of them, are mercilessly lampooned--Welles as a volcanic blast of hot air, Houseman as a sniveling bitch-queen. (Perhaps Robbins thinks they were slumming, which may have a grain of truth to it.) And all the Commie-hating right-wingers are given the shish-kebab treatment. Truth be told, only the left-wingers are portrayed with sympathy. Like the show it joyously celebrates, Cradle Will Rock doesn't even think about disguising its politics. It's agitprop, I suppose, but who knew agitprop could be this much fun?