Back in the early 1970s I was crazy about Depression-Era Warner Bros. movies, but they weren't shown on TV and only a few circulated in repertory theaters. I bought record albums commemorating a studio anniversary, that had music and dialogue clips. In that climate of deprivation, a documentary that used substantial film clips from the period would have been very welcome. And Philippe Mora made one.
The film sees 1930s America through the movies, through music, and the evasions of newsreels. Franklin Delano Roosevelt preaches prosperity while James Cagney slugs out the decade as a smart-tongued everyman -- in a dozen different roles. Director Philippe Mora investigates what was then a new kind of revisionist info-tainment formula: applying old film footage to new purposes.
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 atrocities or armies on the move, but German citizens going about their normal lives, engaged in neutral, positive activities. Mora was making a point about historical perceptions, with the added message that we're maybe not all that different.
Mora uses 'found' film in a different context, to illustrate ideas not intended by the original filmmakers, in service of a new thesis. That's a common cinematic device today, but quite an innovation in 1975. 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 an even more ambitious project, Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Without narration and using only a few explanatory inter-titles, the feature-length show uses both 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 Fear Itself, James Cagney listens to his radio.
While other studios tended to sell a glamorous vision of American life, social consciousness was a concentration at Warners. They made enough movies about the Depression to form a backbone for the show -- 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? Those are here too, along with Busby Berkeley musical numbers that smile in the face of grinding poverty, like "We're in the Money". A Columbia clip of 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 almost seem to be advocating revolution, like 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 re-purpose film clips this way? 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 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 on music from the period, and the tunes we hear are 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 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"? 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. The older generation couldn't seem to get us Baby Boomers 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. 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 -- 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 the glorious new Blu-ray restorations.
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 hours' 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. Producers now must have deep pockets to make a show like this one, and rights holders will hold them for ransom for anything special. When one sees a video documentary about the movies, it's either very selective with clips, or the studio itself is the producer or one of the main producers. And that gives big corporations 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.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime?
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson