We saw two fabulous films this weekend. And, although from two different countries and directed in two very different styles, they remarkably echoed each other in theme and era. Neither of these movies are going to go down in cinema history as masterpieces of the film canon. But, they are both definitely sly, clever, informative, and lots of fun to watch. Both films take place in 1936 - The Cradle will Rock in New York, and Paris 36 in Paris. They both have first rate art direction, and obviously had good sized budgets to recreate the clothes and homes and restaurants of both the rich and the working poor during the era. Both are just gorgeous.
This film is not only about artistic freedom, it is about freedom as a whole, about standing up for your freedom of belief and expression. It's hard to imagine that there was a time, not all that long ago, in this "free" nation of ours when armed guards actually locked the doors of a theatre, trying to prevent a show from being mounted.
Set in the turbulent 1930's, Robbins' tale focuses on the National Theatre Company, an organization set up by Roosevelt during the Depression to provide out-of-work artists a vehicle through which to ply their trade and culture-starved audiences a chance to revel in the glories of live theatrical performances.
Unfortunately, it was also a time of great civil and political upheaval, with Communism and Fascism battling for supremacy abroad and many Americans divided along similar lines in their loyalties. With passions running deep, it was only a matter of time before many in the United States Congress began suspecting the NTC of Communist sympathizing - and it was a short road from there to the eventual dismemberment of the organization. The film centers on the production of a controversial musical play called `The Cradle Will Rock' that portrays the glorious coming of unionism to a steel factory, a scenario that parallels the events in the lives of several of the characters in the film.
Given this fascinating historical background, Robbins has filled his film with a rich assortment of characters, from Orson Welles, as a fledgling young actor who sees unions as the ruination of artistic purity, to Nelson Rockefeller, as a well-meaning art patron who balks at the mural Diego Rivera has painted for him only after Rivera refuses to remove the image of Lenin from Rockefeller's monument-to-capitalism lobby. In fact, the cast of characters is so enormous, with each one taking a crucial part in the narrative proceedings, that it is quite impossible to mention them all here. Suffice it to say that Robbins covers the social spectrum from industrialists and capitalists to union workers and the unemployed, from sympathetic patrons and patronesses to the little people eager to root out the seeds of Communism even at the expense of their own ostracism. And not a one is uninteresting.
Walking through this gorgeous and informative film is a veritable sky filled with stars. The cast includes Hank Azaria (Marc Blitzstein), Rubén 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). And in smaller roles, Gretchen Moll, Bernard Hughes, Paul Giamatti, Jack Black and Audra McDonald. All are just spot on perfect.
Directed by Christophe Barratier
The film leaves a warm feeling despite presenting many dark sides of life in Fauborg (outskirt of Paris) in the 1930s, like fascism, workers' strikes, unemployment, marital betrayal, loneliness, and the rise of anti-Semitic Nazi support. The director incredibly managed to mix pathos and sentimentality with sarcasm and sardonic humor in the same scenes, which prevented the film from being corny. Includes probably the best written funeral scene ever in my opinion. The songs are not remarkable, with one exception - a song about love where the main female character is virtually declaring love to a man from the stage. Nora Arnezeder is a revelation; a talented and beautiful young actress with good singing voice.
A small music hall in Paris is forced to close down in 1936. Because this is is the year of Leon Blum's Popular Front in France, when factory occupations spread across the country, the performers decide to take over the theatre and run it themselves. They get an extraordinary stroke of luck when a young girl, Douce, turns up hoping to get a break in the theatre. Double luck, because not only is she a brilliant performer but the local boss fancies her and allows the theatre to stay open. The Popular Front didn't end happily, which was a tragedy for France, but this film does, as do all good fairy tales.
The music, most of it original, nevertheless comes very close to pastiche of popular numbers from that era. (One repeated number is very close to Messager's "Clou clou," which I think is from his Véronique.) The performances and characters also allude to stars of the past, though not necessarily in a one-on-one way.
There is the music hall singer Tony Rossignol, whose light lyric tenor recalls Tino Rossi, though his Spanish get-up and music recalls Luis Mariano. Kad Merad's character starts out doing terrible impressions, of animals and Fernandel. He finally has a hit when he starts singing like Charles Trenet. Even though the music is pastiche, it is sometimes very catchy, and very much caught me up. A completely unexpected Busby Berkeley-style production number is without doubt the most well-realised passage in the entire film. Stylish and witty and set to a lively tune, it's a showstopper.
The background is unmistakably fascist versus socialist, owners battling workers for a depression-era slim slice of the economic pie and soul. Paris 36 risks it all with formulaic intrigue and predictable denouement. Yet throughout is a good cheer, a bel canto breeziness that draws you in to song, dance, history, and politics, never too heavy, light enough to make you wish that music hall still stood on The Strand.
Well, that's it for today. Hey - I'm allowed a serious side, too - right!?
Now I have to be off to get dressed to go do a little shopping.