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American Experience: The 1930s

PBS // Unrated // January 5, 2010
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted January 14, 2010 | E-mail the Author

PBS has packaged five different American Experience documentaries together as The 1930s. It's a great concept that gathers thematically-linked entries in this exemplary ongoing documentary series for the home market. Each episode, produced individually, exhibits a high standard of journalistic chops in conveying its particular story, always incorporating multiple viewpoints. Archival footage is carefully selected and deeply relevant; narration is informative but not overwhelmingly wordy; and interviewees are consistently incisive and knowledgeable. Each hour-long show rewards repeated viewing, as it can be viewed with equal weight as a well-crafted film, an edifying historical document, and an entertainment piece. I do hope additional decades receive the same treatment as the '30s have here.

The Crash of 1929

Strictly speaking, the subject of the first documentary did not happen in the decade assigned to it by the box. However, the Great Crash decisively ended the 1920s and was the gateway to the Great Depression, which defined the 1930s. After tracing the development of the modern stock market and the role of speculation in the crash, this film takes pains to present impressions from all segments of society who were witness to the crash itself. These include the children of banker and master speculator Charles Mitchell; economist and historian John Kenneth Galbraith; traders who were working the floor of the New York Stock Exchange the day of the crash; contemporary stock brokers; and more.

Despite its complexity, the many moving parts of the crash are illustrated here with admirable clarity for such a brief program. Speculation, practiced in variations that are now illegal, is identified as the primary culprit, with good old fashioned American greed backing it all up. The crash has been studied with increasing interest of late, due to the ongoing recession; it's interesting that greed, for all the lip service we give to our comprehension of it, isn't the subject of deeper discussion in the public discourse. But this documentary's job isn't to address ingrained cultural values; as a short but substantial overview of a pivotal moment, it acquits itself extremely well.

The Civilian Conservation Corps

One part of the multifaceted New Deal, FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps was innovative, effective, and intelligently munificent - in other words, the type of government program we won't likely ever see again.

In the early '30s, the Dust Bowl was causing terrifying disruptions across the country, deepening the Depression. Farms grew barren. Farmers fled large sections of the Midwest. Dust storms plowed through the heartland. Wasteful farming practices had developed into extensive soil erosion, and the Civilian Conservation Corps would help reclaim the nation's farmland while putting hundreds of thousands of men to work. Supervised by the Army and with training provided by soil scientists and engineers, the CCC established camps for projects in all 48 states, plus Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The CCC men planted trees, built bridges and fences, fertilized soil, and blazed trails through the National Park system.

Each man (there were no women in the CCC) earned a dollar a day, which even in those depressed times wasn't much. But in the CCC, room and board was covered; so $25.00 was sent home at the end of each month with $5.00 left over for R&R. The most valuable part of the experience for these men, however, were the trade skills they learned in doing their work. Many of these men came from poor and/or rural backgrounds. They entered the CCC fairly young, too. So when their service had ended, they had learned a lifetime's worth of marketable skills. Many of their interviewees owed their careers to what they learned while serving with the CCC.

Of the documentaries on this set, this is probably the most moving. Hearing stories told by very old men of receiving their first real chance to make something of themselves - and of the things they gained from the CCC - is an emotional experience. Government work doesn't often entail the kind of deep personal changes that occurred within many CCC workers. Again, as with the previous documentary, we have a subject whose relevance could not be more pertinent in our own time; although its economic effects were also important, the CCC was a nationwide morale-booster that also planted the seeds of what we now know as "environmentalism."

The Hoover Dam

Last summer on a drive from Providence, Rhode Island, to San Jose, California, I stumbled across the Hoover Dam. Exhausted after days of travel, I wasn't paying much attention to maps. A couple of miles out from the dam, I noticed a couple of signs - and then, there it was. Totally unprepared for the sight, I was struck speechless. There, in the middle of a deep canyon, was an immense slab on concrete topped with surprisingly lovely Deco design work. This third documentary in the set details the rationale, design, and construction of one of the most impressive works of civil engineering in the world.

With the western states developing full-blown metropolises like Los Angeles in the middle of desert wastes, water and electric power were at a premium. To dam the mighty Colorado River would provide enough of both resources to a vast territory, including Phoenix, L.A., and eventually Las Vegas, which at the time of the dam's construction was just a watering hole. After much exploration and location scouting, construction began in earnest in 1931.

The first major feat of the construction process was digging and blasting gigantic bypass tunnels to divert the river below the dam site. This alone entailed enormous effort and the construction of an almost laughable-looking contraption called a "drilling jumbo." This was a gigantic truck with large scaffolds built on top of and around it, so that workers could stand at its extremities with powerful drills. They'd drill large holes inside the canyon walls, plant dynamite there, blow out a section of rock, clear it out, and repeat the process. The dam itself was "poured" from huge barrels of concrete that were slung over the site using an incredibly complex - and fast-moving - system of cables.

Lots of choice contemporaneous footage of the dam's construction is contextualized by interviews with former crew members, historians, and officials from Nevada's state government. In all, it's a wholly engaging look at the dam's history, construction, and function.

Surviving the Dust Bowl

The experience of the Dust Bowlers in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico defines much of the '30s and the Great Depression. Generations of farming for profit had resulted in fallow soil that had never been properly tilled or otherwise cared for. Great winds from the north plains came down into the region and carried off that dry topsoil in huge storms. A farmer's livelihood was literally swept away before his eyes. Add to this a bona fide drought that lasted the better part of a decade, and it was a true disaster.

Told mostly in the words people who grew up during that awful time, Surviving the Dust Bowl paints a vivid picture of people at their wits' end. Life in the Dust Bowl involved fighting tooth and nail against the encroaching dust, stuffing window casings with fabric, hoping to prevent the windblown silt from taking over kitchens and living rooms - all to no avail. You had to get used to seeing brown when you spit, and feeling grit in your teeth. There was a feeling of doom across the region.

Government programs alleviated some of the suffering. The Works Progress Administration put a lot of farmers to work reclaiming the land, and food was made available to the destitute. Although many residents clung to their land, about a quarter of the regional population emigrated, as described in the songs of Woody Guthrie and the work of John Steinbeck. Eventually the rain returned, and by that time, the grateful farmers knew much more about the land they worked than ever before.


The Great Depression gave rise to a number of unlikely cultural figures whose rough backgrounds provided the basis for their adulation by a public going through incredible straitened times. Seabiscuit was a misfit horse who outperformed all expectations, winning several important races, and wound up a national hero.

Although he was the "grandson" of the famed Man o'War, Seabiscuit was awkwardly built and as a colt held no real promise in the eyes of horsemen. Seabiscuit's early failures at a racehorse were evaporated when his owner, trainer, and jockey refocused their determination and made him into a champion.

The documentary does a good job of illustrating how the era gave rise to this odd cultural icon. The circumstances of the horse, his handlers, and the public all converged around an era marked by struggle and turmoil - the underdog was king, or in this case, the underhorse. The story of Seabiscuit remains inspiring - as evidenced by the recent bestselling book and Oscar-nominated feature based on his life. This program corrals typically excellent footage and interviews with interesting experts, including Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the blockbuster book about the horse.


The Package
Each program has its own disc. The five discs are housed in two standard keepcases, inside a card slipcase.

The Video
Since the programs were produced over a twenty-year period, the video presentation is not uniform. Four out of the five transfers are full-screen, while The Civilian Conservation Corps (produced in 2009) is presented in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer. All programs look good; The Crash of 1929 and Surviving the Dust Bowl show some signs of video noise, but nothing too distracting. In all, it's about what you would expect, with the more recent programs (Seabiscuit and The Civilian Conservation Corps) looking excellent.

The Audio
The 2.0 stereo tracks are all fine. Sound effects are used to enliven silent footage, but are appropriate and not glaringly artificial. The narration and interview audio are presented clearly.

The Extras
The only program with any extra features is Seabiscuit, and even that comprises only a brief interview featurette with the program's director, Stephen Ives. There are some printable educational supplements for teachers, too.

Final Thoughts

PBS has collected five exemplary programs from American Experience, all well worth viewing and owning. I only hope that we will see additional sets covering other decades. Highly recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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