Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emily Watson, John Turturro, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Hank Azaria, Angus MacFadyen, Cary Elwes, Cherry Jones, Ruben Blades, Philip Baker Hall, Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, Jamey Sheridan, Bob Balaban, Jack Black, Paul Giamatti, Gretchen Mol
Written by: Tim Robbins
Directed by: Tim Robbins
MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexuality
Running Time: 132
Date: 05/18/1999

Cradle Will Rock (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

All's Welles

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Back in 1992, Tim Robbins directed his first movie, Bob Roberts, and acted in Robert Altman's The Player. Altman saw Bob Roberts and dubbed Robbins "the next Orson Welles." Thankfully, that statement is not true or Robbins' films would be taken out of his hands and re-cut. His second film, the excellent Dead Man Walking (1995) survived with its non-happy ending intact, unlike Welles' second film The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Now Robbins is back with his third film, Cradle Will Rock, in which Orson Welles (played by Angus Macfayden) is a major character.

More than that, Cradle Will Rock was meant to have been Welles' last film as director. It went into pre-production in 1983 (with Rupert Everett on board to play Welles) before the backers pulled out and the film collapsed. It's hard to imagine how Welles would have made Cradle Will Rock, but I'm sure it would have been quite different, as Welles was not as fond as Robbins is of making political statements.

Cradle Will Rock follows a myriad of characters (played by such great actors as Susan Sarandon, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Bill Murray, Emily Watson, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Baker Hall, John Turturro, and Hank Azaria, to name just a few). They're all connected in various degrees to Welles' production of a play called The Cradle Will Rock. Just before the play opens, cutbacks in the Federal Theater Program force it to shut down. Welles and his producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) move the play to another theater, and the cast, forbidden by their union to go on stage, performs the show from the audience. It's a great story, and another example of Welles' boisterous bravery.

Almost all of the dialogue in Cradle Will Rock has to do with the politics of 1936, painting its characters as one of two things: black or white, Communists or Fascists. However, the ultimate meaning of the film may be lost on audiences today who experience politics in many more shades of gray. Another theme of the movie is Capitalism, or more specifically, artists becoming businessmen by selling their work. As a result we barely have any time for characters to talk about intangibles such as life, love, hopes, or dreams.

Cradle Will Rock is a far from perfect film, but it's never less than fascinating. The scope and message Robbins attempted to explore here may have been too much weight for one movie to handle. And yet, if a frame of it had been cut against Robbins' wishes, I would have screamed bloody murder.

In 2018, Kino Lorber released a welcome new Blu-ray edition, with a surprisingly crisp, bold picture (with evidence of grain) and clear sound. Robbins provides a brand-new commentary track for a film he says he's "very proud of." Extras include a vintage production featurette, and a few trailers. I was surprised by all the up-and-comers that were in this (Paul Giamatti, Jack Black, etc.), in addition to the already stellar cast.

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