Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Cradle Will Rock (Orson Welles)

Genre: Period/Drama/Comedy
Premise: Orson Welles produced a musical titled “The Cradle Will Rock” back in 1937 that was shut down on opening day, forcing the production to make a last second change that some would later say inspired the best stage experience they’d ever had.
About: Cradle Will Rock was meant to be Orson 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 production collapsed. Spielberg was interested in producing it around 1985, but ended up dropping out and nobody would touch it afterwards. The same subject matter was later written into a completely different movie, which Tim Robbins directed, also titled “The Cradle Will Rock.” However Robbins’ film is said to be a more fictional account of the events, while this version, because it was written by Orson Welles himself, supposedly stays very close to the real story.
Writer: Orson Welles
Details: 109 pages – Revised November 9, 1984 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

 Orson Welles in 1937, the year he produced "Cradle."

Welles complained near the end of his life how frustrating it was trying to make movies. He said that to make just one movie you had to scrape and claw your way through ten years of torture. Now I’m no Einstein, but Welles may have been having this trouble because he was trying to get movies like “The Cradle Will Rock” made. This is just not the kind of movie you hitch your trailer to if you want to get films made. It’s a movie that may get made if you find a bunch of actors who want to play 1930s dress-up like Tim Robbins was able to do, but at a certain point you have to be honest with yourself. Why try to make movies that no one wants to see but yourself? It’s a losing proposition all around.

Anyway, on to the actual script, and I’m going to say this right off the bat. This is one of the most reader-unfriendly scripts I’ve ever read in my life. I don’t know if Welles has ever read any scripts or he just wrote them but man, this is like staring at one of those 1990s Japanese video games that gave you epilepsy for two hours. The slugs are underlined. Huge parenthetical passages are placed under every character name before they speak, the margin pushed awkwardly far to the right, forcing your eyes back and forth across the page like you’re watching a tennis match. Over-description to the tenth degree. I know Welles is writing for himself here but pointless details litter the script, making 109 pages feel like 209. Each character gets a novel-like introduction. Little asides assault your patience at every turn (like this one: “It should be noted that Moishe (like Carter) is a man of many accents. Just here, for instance, he should have said “thoid” for third. He didn’t.”). Each page was such a chore that finishing them felt like running a marathon on no sleep.

Because I needed a Da Vinci Code cryptex to translate what was on the page, it was nearly impossible to get into the story. So if the below plot summary seems confusing, it’s probably because I didn’t understand exactly what was going on.

The Cradle Will Rock introduces us to the world of The Great Depression. Everybody’s poor. Nobody has a job. It’s a bummed out country. Hey, kind of like today, right?

Anyway, Orson Welles (who refers to himself as acronym “OW” in his voice over) is putting together a stage production/musical/opera called “The Cradle Will Rock” (remember, the entertainment industry is depression proof!). The music is being written by newcomer Marc Blitzstein, who, despite garnering nearly 20 adjectives of description, I still know next to nothing about.

I don’t know if Aaron Sorkin was writing back in 1982, or if Welles did some time-travelling and watched the West Wing, but the next 60 pages are basically Welles walking around with Marc and other people, Sorkin-style, showing them the city, showing them his home, showing them his favorite restaurants, and prepping “The Cradle Will Rock.”

The Tim Robbins version.

I wish I could tell you that something interesting happened during this time but honestly, it was 60 minutes worth of set-up for the final act. I guess the one semi-interesting thread was Orson’s wife, Virginia, whom he had married at a young age, and who he had since grown apart from. Their relationship is very business-like, and when Marc meets her, there’s a little bit of flirting there that we think is going to turn into something else. But Welles (the writer – and maybe, err, the real person) never allows it to, which means the one semi-interesting thread is never explored.

Somewhere around page 75, the government comes in to close the production down. Because Welles has such a difficult time translating the story to the reader, it was never clear why this was happening. After doing some research online, however, I determined that because everyone was so poor in The Great Depression, people were starting to sympathize with socialist/communist ideologies. “The Cradle Will Rock” supported these ideologies, and therefore the government felt the need to shut it down.

The problem with this is that this was the first time we were hearing about it. The script never sets up or mentions that this is a serious problem. As a result we’re more confused than captivated by the development.

The Cradle Will Rock’s only successful sequence is its final act, because it’s clearly the only time Welles knew what he wanted to do. Alas, I was just thrilled that I was reading scenes where I could actually understand what the point was and what was going on.

What happens is that Welles has 500 people show up for opening night only to find soldiers guarding the playhouse so that none of them can get in. His team makes some last second frantic phone calls and realizes that if they can say this is a “concert” and not a “musical,” the government can’t stop them. So they rent a concert hall 20 blocks away from their current location, and ask the crowd to actually walk there with them.

 Because at a concert, only the musician can be onstage, the actors are forced to sit with the crowd and act out the musical from their spots. A famous New York critic would later write that it was the most inspiring and magical production he’d even seen.

I have to admit that, despite all the other problems here, the ending was solid. The problem is, Welles had no idea what to do before it. We are literally watching our characters walk around and do NOTHING for 80 pages. Even though our main character, Welles, has a clear story goal (to put the production together in time), it’s never a struggle. It’s never in doubt. There isn’t a single moment where we wonder if he’ll be able to do it. Which leaves us a whole lot of pages where zippo is happening.

Also, the quickest way to get a reader to tune out is to throw them into an unfamiliar setting right away (in this case the 1930s – which we understand the broad strokes of, but that’s about it) and then rapidly introduce a dozen-plus characters. Keeping track of a bunch of written names is hard enough in a familiar setting. In a period piece? It’s like being told to memorize the fifteen ingredients in an obscure Mediterranean dish that you’ll later be asked to cook. And you’ve never cooked before! So right off the bat, I had trouble keeping up with “Cradle.”

Ironically, despite their huge introductory paragraphs, very few of these characters have any actual depth. A lot of them are steeped in the characteristics reminiscent of a sitcom, plowing into rooms like Kramer from Seinfeld, but with no backstory, no context.

Overall, this was a bizarre reading experience. And I love Orson Welles. He has one of the most interesting stories in Hollywood history. But I think he believed his final act was enough. He didn’t realize that he needed a story before it. At the very least, this has me intrigued to go watch Tim Robbins' version of the story, which I never in a million years would’ve been interested in watching if I hadn’t read this.

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: If there’s ever been an argument for why concise streamlined writing is important in a screenplay, this would be it. Overindulgence, pointless asides, too much description, clumsy formatting – all of these things murdered my interest in this story before I could get into it. There may be a much better movie in this screenplay, but because I was so beat up in the process of reading it, I didn’t have the energy to find out.