The other day Whitworth did a post where he related comments by prairie dog’s publisher about Republicans engaging in a decades-long battle to roll-back advances made by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

The other night I happened to watch a movie called Cradle Will Rock (1999). It was directed by Tim Robbins, featured an all-star cast (Bill Murray, John & Joan Cusak, Susan Sarandon, Emily Watson and many more), and concerned an aspect of Roosevelt’s New Deal that I hadn’t heard of before.

In the ’30s, the U.S. government created the Federal Theater Project to accomplish the twin goals of providing employment for theater professionals thrown out of work by the Depression, and bring live theater to people across America. One project that the FTP, which was headed by Hallie Flanagan, green-lighted was a musical by Marc Blitzstein called Cradle Will Rock that championed the cause of unionism and worker solidarity. 

Fifteen years before the better-known investigation/persecution of Hollywood actors, writers and directors conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities under Sen Joe McCarthy, the ATP was investigated for “un-American activities” and its funding under the Works Progress Administration cut. 

I couldn’t find the film’s trailer, but here’s a link to a segment from Roger Ebert & the Movies where Ebert and guest critic Joel Siegel discuss Cradle Will Rock.

I agree with them that the film was sprawling — primarily because Robbins wove multiple narrative threads from that era together. There’s a subplot, for instance, where Mexican artist Diego Rivera is commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a famous mural called Man at the Crossroads for the lobby of Rockefeller Center. Once completed, Rockefeller had the mural destroyed because of its radical content. That occured in 1933-34, while the banning of Blitzstein’s musical didn’t happen until 1937.

Still, the film does offer a fascinating look at the political tensions of the era, when American industrialists were hell-bent on supplying fascist governments in Europe with the materials they needed to wage war and halt the spread of communism; along with the broader issue of artistic freedom.