Back in the early 1970s I was crazy about Depression-Era Warner Bros. movies, that weren’t being shown on TV or anywhere else. In that climate of deprivation, a documentary that used movie film clips from the period felt extremely fresh and new. Philippe Mora’s picture sees 1930s America through the movies, through music, and the evasions of official newsreels. Franklin Delano Roosevelt preaches prosperity while James Cagney slugs his way through the decade as a smart-tongued everyman — in a dozen different roles. This was a new kind of documentary info-tainment formula: applying old film footage to new purposes.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime
The Sprocket Vault / VCI
1975 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 106 min.
Street Date October 1, 2019 / 24.95
Film Editor: Jeremy Thomas
Research by Michael Barlow, Jennifer E. Ryan, Susan Winslow
Produced by Sanford Lieberson, David Puttnam
Directed by Philippe Mora
Philippe Mora was an accomplished artist and documentary filmmaker years before he was briefly sidetracked into making sequels for The Howling. Backed by producers Sanford Lieberson and David Puttnam, his 1974 documentary Swastika pulled a controversial switch on the usual historical fare about the Third Reich — the chosen film clips illustrated not armies on the move or atrocities, but German citizens going about their normal lives, engaged in neutral, positive activities. The message was that we’re maybe not all that different than Berliners in the 1930s.
The director’s innovation was to employ ‘found’ film in a different context, to illustrate ideas not intended by the original filmmakers, in service of a new thesis. That’s become a common cinematic device today. Divorced from a filmic context of Evil, Germans work happily in agricultural collectives. Eva Braun socializes on the patio of Hitler’s mountain retreat. We’re forced to realize that everything is perception. Even Hitler’s image can be softened, with the right approach.
Mora’s next film was the even more ambitious Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Without narration and using only a few explanatory inter-titles, the feature-length show harnesses news film and clips from Hollywood features to tell the story of America’s Great Depression. The editing is everything, contrasting real events with the reactions of movie stars in old features, mostly from the Warner Bros. library. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes a speech about The Only Thing To Fear is Fear Itself, James Cagney has an ear cocked at his radio.
While other studios tended to sell a glamorous vision of American life in the ‘thirties, social consciousness was a concentration at Warners. They made enough movies about the Depression to form a backbone for the Brother documentary — the Raoul Walsh feature The Roaring Twenties has big montage scenes of citizens reacting to Prohibition, and reeling from the crash of the stock market. Remember those expressionistic montages of coins stacking, and a ticker tape machine as big as a skyscraper? They are here, along with Busby Berkeley musical numbers that smile in the face of grinding poverty, like “We’re in the Money”. A Columbia clip from Frank Capra’s American Madness depicts a run on a bank that becomes a riot.
Clips are loosely organized into a chronology that hits all the main topics — bread lines, unemployment marches, union battles. ‘Forgotten Men’ go to prison and come out as gangsters, or go to Hollywood and become rich. The plight of the homeless and destitute is addressed with frightening movie clips that all but advocate revolution, as with William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road. James Cagney seems to be everywhere. His snappy dialogue zingers express the frustration of the times, but also the cocky determination that Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. For patriotic fervor, the show falls back on surefire footage of James Stewart at the Lincoln Memorial in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. ‘Sentimental idealism’ was a big part of the optimistic diet back then as well.
Where did Mora get the idea to enlist film clips in this manner? Other shows had picked up on the idea of repurposing old movies, like MGM’s That’s Entertainment! I at first thought that Mora’s film may have been inspired by the scene in Bonnie and Clyde, when the bank robbers hide in a movie theater and see Ginger Rogers perform in a costume made of big silver dollars. In 1968, the Depression seemed very, very far in the past. By comparison, an historical event equally distant from us today, is the trial of O.J. Simpson.
The montage-narrative relies heavily on music, with tunes that form a hit parade of the decade, at least in terms of songs that relate to the national situation. The title song “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” is covered by Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, while Ruth Etting’s “Ten Cents a Dance” depicts the crisis of a young woman forced to become a taxi dancer to earn a living. And what better tune to illustrate the plight of the nation’s thousands of new hobos than Harry McClintock’s hilarious “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”, or Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”? Positive jingles can almost seem sinister in this realistic, historical context. Cheerleading for dreams of something better, or happiness for its own sake are “Hooray for Hollywood” and a Roosevelt campaign jingle.
Perhaps the show was conceived as ‘info-tainment’: it comes off as a real hybrid, a cultural history lesson that’s a musical hop, skip and jump through hard times. For us Baby Boomers of the 1950s, the older generation couldn’t seem to get us to appreciate the Great Depression, at least not in the ways they wanted us to. My parents didn’t realize that the old movies I loved were making me more comfortable with the ’30s and ’40s than with my own era. Hippies what? Disco what?
Many of the clips seen in Brother Can You Spare a Dime were fresh content in ’75. The general public today will find most of the material fairly unfamiliar, while film buffs might find some of it too familiar. The show could serve as a terrific party game, with prizes for the viewer who can identify the most clips shown. It’s also a good quiz for actors of the decade, although the selection is heavily skewed toward faces seen in Warners pix.
What came next? The cannibalizing of odd film sources to float a political thesis reached a new height six years later with The Atomic Cafe, an insightful look at Cold War insanity shot through with an acid streak of morbid irony. It would be great if Cafe and Dime could be reconstructed from improved visual materials. In the last forty years, most of the contents of both shows have been restored in better condition.
Editor Jeremy Thomas produced Philippe Mora’s Australian film Mad Dog Morgan and continued as one of the more interesting producers of the next twenty years: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hit, Insignificance, Sexy Beast. Today Mora’s film seems a little lengthy, but it never drops the ball. As an info-tainment documentary it’s great.
The Sprocket Vault / VCI’s Blu-ray of Brother Can You Spare A Dime? is a satisfactory encoding of a show made almost entirely from stock shots and licensed film clips. The clips were accessed and duplicated in the old days of photochemical duplication, before digital video. That’s way before any of these films were restored, so not all of them are in prime shape. But the image here is stable and bright; it looks like some enhancement may have been applied. Just don’t expect clips from King Kong to look as good as a glorious new Blu-ray restoration.
The Blu-ray appears to be a reissue from 2017. It has good English subtitles, in bright yellow. One extra makes the show an even more useful teaching tool: an hour’s worth of Pathé newsreels from the period.
Things have certainly changed since 1975 when it comes to stock shots. The producers probably had to pay only a flat per-footage fee to get access to whatever they wanted, from Warners and from the big newsreel libraries. Celebrity clearances were easier to obtain as well back then.
When old film clips came in demand, stock footage suddenly became a gold mine. Today there is no such thing as an inexpensive film clip, excepting some public domain resources on the web. A producers would now need deep pockets to make a show like this one, and rights holders would make them pay dearly for anything special. When one sees a video documentary about the movies, it’s either made from Public Domain trailers, or the studio itself is one of the main producers. And that gives corporate attorneys and committees editorial power — in general, a studio won’t license film clips to producers that intend to be critical about them.
It’s the same when trying to make a war movie — if one expects cooperation from the armed services, the project better be pro-military. Warners or MGM can’t stop you from making a show about studio scandals, crime or labor troubles, but they can withhold access to archival materials. The entertainment world is privately owned. If the powers-that-be ever decide to privatize the Smithsonian (which isn’t at all unthinkable), access to our own history could be controlled by profit interests.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Brother Can You Spare a Dime?
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: 60 minutes of ’30s newsreels from the Pathé library.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 9, 2019
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson