Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
Depression follies of 1976

by Judith Taylor and Frank Stricker

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 52-53
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

“Hollywood would help the nation’s fundamental institutions escape unscathed by attempting to keep alive the myth and wonderful fantasy of a mobile and classless society, by focusing on the endless possibilities for individual success, by turning social evil into personal evil and making the New Deal into a veritable leading man.” —Andrew Bergman, We're in the Money: Depression America and Its Films

“The one thing this movie does is entertain.”
—James Bacon, L.A. Herald Examiner, used in ad for BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?

In the 1930’s U.S. capitalism experienced the most severe and protracted economic crisis in its history. In 1934, five years after the stock market crash, 25% of the work force was unemployed. Six years later, on the eve of WWII, the figure still stood at 15%. Yet throughout the depression decade, 60 to 70 million movie tickets were sold every week. Life’s daily struggles were forgotten for a few moments in a movie theater. There on the Silver Screen, fans watched. LITTLE CAESAR, CAMILLE, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, SCARFACE, BRINGING UP BABY, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, KING KONG, COCOANUTS, RED DUST, and BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938.

Movies in the thirties reacted to social and economic problems in an ideological way. Depression films are very topical. Even “escapist” musicals have depression motifs. Musical numbers like “We're in the Money,” and “The Forgotten Man” (GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933—Mervyn Leroy) have specific references to the country’s economic situation. There is even a rousing production number boosting the New Deal’s Recovery Program (FOOTLIGHT PARADE, 1933—Lloyd Bacon). But even though they use topical issues, most depression movies either smooth over class conflict by asserting that all people, rich and poor alike, are really the same “under the skin” (Frank Capra’s IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, 1934; Gregory LaCava’s MY MAN GODFREY, 1936), or reproduce the Great American Success Story, even if the thirties’ hero is a gangster. (1) Films that are uncompromisingly pessimistic like Mervyn Leroy’s I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) or that offer alternatives to individualism and capitalism like Vidor’s OUR DAILY BREAD (1934) are the exception. (2)

When people in the United States went to the movies it was usually to see screwball comedies, gangster/G-Men morality dramas, horror films, and lavish musicals. Along with F.D.R.’s New Deal programs, these films functioned to maintain a suffering people’s loyalty to U.S. capitalism. Movies did not simply “mirror” the facts of the crisis; they distorted them and their causes, and thereby helped to shape people’s attitudes and activities.

A penetrating and enlightening film could have been made about the ideological function of depression movies. Philippe Mora’s “documentary,” BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME, is not that film. In fact, BROTHER serves to mystify and confuse present-day filmgoers—not only about the depression and the relation of that period to its films, but about the U.S. system today.

Mora’s approach becomes apparent in the film’s first moments, which function as an introductory frame to the thirties. A strange little boy, hugging and puffing, reels off the names of the forty-eight states in the same breath. With this, Mora is announcing that the film is going to treat the thirties as some sort of lark, an absurdity trip. The cinematic remains of the thirties are like this weird little boy. They are a curiosity, valued because old now, rare and odd, even camp, like an antique Coca-Cola sign.

The next series of film clips continues the tone of absurdity: Indians, bison, a farmer, a tap-dancing Black convict flash by in rapid succession. What does this mean? Is it another testament to the irrationality of things? Is it a rebus? Could some incredibly devoted film buff identify these clips and put them together to signify something? Whatever (we don't know), by the time the film really, starts dealing with the thirties, the audience senses that the mood and tone is one of nostalgia and absurdity.

If this is all that absurd and camp, why do we take BROTHER seriously? BROTHER is an example of the view people in capitalist society get of their past through media. BROTHER is not merely “entertainment”; underneath its seemingly carefree and arbitrary surface lie assumptions and ideas about the nature of reality, political and historical reality. BROTHER deals with a serious economic and social crisis in U.S. capitalism in a superficial and almost lighthearted way. Through its technique and choice of images, it makes the statement that the thirties, a period in which the majority of people in the United States suffered tremendously, is seen mainly as an amusing media trip. Already confused by decades of mystification around the Depression, the audience of BROTHER walks out of the theater totally befuddled.

The film runs in roughly chronological fashion from the crash to WWII. It opens its survey of the depression decade with a truly wondrous Hollywood image of a giant ticker tape machine exploding and showering worthless paper upon a terrified and helpless crowd. Next we see Jimmy Cagney trying to cover his debts. What follows then are newsreel clips of real police shoving real people and shots of the unemployed. The film then cuts back to the Hollywood version of reality—dejected, middle-class Pop comes home with “a job and Frankie Darro will soon be one of the WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (William Wellman, 1933).

This gives you ‘a sense of the technique and the meaning of BROTHER. Mora jumbles many different levels of film reality: newsreels, photographs, Hollywood films reflecting historical events, Hollywood films about making movies, outtakes, promos, and home movies. These clips are crosscut continuously, often so subtly and smoothly that the audience can hardly tell where one stops and another begins. We see real shots of New York streets, then a scene of passengers in an el train; all of a sudden King Kong looms up to smash it. Reality turns into fantasy so quickly that we can hardly keep up. In another sequence, an FDR speech is treated in three quick cuts: FDR speaking melts into a real family gathered around the radio listening to his speech, which in turn shifts to Jimmy Cagney going over to the radio to hear that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. All this occurs without a break in the soundtrack.

The editing is quite clever and professional, but what does Mora mean by it? Is Mora pointing out how movies reflect reality, or how media comments on its culture? We think not. Juxtaposition in BROTHER is not primarily used as a tool of analysis which enlightens audiences about causes and effects or relations between two things. Rather, Mora uses this technique to fuse reality and Hollywood fiction. He deliberately makes no distinction between history and ideology, between what really happens and what Hollywood makes of reality. In Mora’s view of the world, everything is mere media: images, roles, surfaces. Whatever the camera catches is real.

Moreover, there is no narration at all in this film. Except for section titles (“Mr. Churchill Visits New York,” “G-Men Get Guns,” “Hard Times Hit Parade”), audiences are on their own with the screen images and dialogues. Unless they are real film buffs, they may not realize when BROTHER is presenting a newsreel clip or a Hollywood film. To Mora, it hardly matters: all media are the message.

And dammit, in spite of ourselves, we enjoyed parts of the film. Mora has assembled some wonderful rare footage—historical clips as well as Hollywood movies. The charismatic presences of Gable, Cagney, FOR, and Huey Long flash electrically across the screen. Now old or dead, then they were flowing, successful, alive. And as riveting as some of the historical film footage is, it is the glamorous media presences Mora makes us remember when we walk out of the theater, not the hungry, homeless, sometimes angry people of the thirties. The Hollywood films and stars overshadow real people and historical events in the film. Anyone who. doesn't know much about the depression must leave the theater thinking Jimmy Cagney, who makes at least fourteen appearances, was, next to FDR, the most important figure of that period. To Mora, it matters not whether one was a political figure of great power and the other an actor; they were both media stars.

To his credit, Mora’ has put together some effective footage of the Depression’s victims. There are newsreel clips of the Bonus Army (for which the song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was written in 1932), which marched to Washington to demand a soldier’s bonus and was routed by the army. There are very moving scenes of the poor, urban and rural, Black and white. One of the most touching sequences is a series of shots of dejected Black people, with Billie Holiday on the soundtrack, singing “Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out” (one of the few times when juxtaposition is used clearly). These shots of the human toll of the depression along with the songs of Holiday and the Dust Bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie are the most authentic moments in the film.

But what about the people not down and out but up and at ‘em? Unionization, especially the rise of the C.I.O. in response to workers’ demands for organization, is barely treated. There is an exciting newsclip of police and vigilantes battling and pickets fighting strikebreakers, but it must be confusing to people who don't know the history of the thirties. They might merely wonder what all the violence was about. And the film ignores the important role of Communists in the C.I.O. Instead, there is some very unpleasant footage of a Communist speaker on a soap box, mechanically haranguing a bored crowd. This clip is dragged on interminably. Everyone in the audience laughed at it and we suspect that Mora selected the most damaging and ludicrous piece he could find.

Closer to the home of the dream machine, the film devotes a segment to the film industry, entitled “Hurray for Hollywood.” This is treated in a lighthearted manner, mixing a rousing rendition of the song, “Hollywood,” with home movies of the stars at play. But in fact, while the stars were playing and singing, movie industry capitalists were engaged in vicious attacks on popular movements. In 1934, almost a million Californians voted for Upton Sinclair and his EPIC program for cooperative production. Sinclair lost his try for the governorship, but he might have won were it not for the hate campaign organized against him. Movie moguls, led by Louis B. Mayer, offered anti-EPIC “newsreels” free to movie houses. This was the reality be hind the Hollywood dream factory—a particularly overt form of film as propaganda in defense of capitalism. Although clips of the campaign are available, there is not a word of it in BROTHER.

The film’s biggest “star,” of course, is the most charismatic figure of the thirties, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We see FOR with his family in a homey campaign promo; FDR as a witty, combative commencement speaker; FDR, paralyzed from the waist down, swimming; FDR explaining why he must run for an unprecedented third term. Mora is clearly fascinated with Roosevelt’s charming public persona. Indeed, he is taken in by it, for images are reality to Mora. It is as though the carefully presented public FDR were the whole truth about the real person and his historical role.

But behind the public FDR, there was in fact another person. Behind the “friend of the worker” was the president who did not, till the very end, support the Wagner Act for collective bargaining. And he was the first president to manipulate sound and sight media to win popular loyalty. And it was FOR whose solution to the depression was the N.R.A.—the Blue Eagle—which handed control of prices and production over to big business.

We do not find out from this film how the NRA worked, or whether it ended the depression (it didn't). Indeed, we do not learn that it was not eight years of the New Deal but World War II that finally brought prosperity to the United States. Instead of facts like these, we are given the Hollywood version of things. Hot long after FDR’s inauguration, we see a stirring Hollywood production number: “We're Out of the Red—Depression’s Over.” In a film like BROTHER which has no commentary, this is extremely misleading. It is as though the media were reality: FDR’s public image is FOR and if Hollywood says it is so, the depression is over.

BROTHER does not close with the end of the depression decade and the beginning of World War II, but rather with disconnected. clips of more recent history: JFK’s assassination, the astronauts preparing for launch, Nixon’s resignation, Ford’s inauguration. (The Vietnamese War is not included. Apparently there is a limit to what can be reduced to absurdity.) One by one, these familiar and well-understood images flash by, It is impossible to say for sure what this ending means, but we can hazard a guess: our recent history, which we, the present audience, still understand, will someday be the raw material for another nostalgia trip. Forty years from now Watergate and the Recession of the 70’s will be a fun trip just as BROTHER is today.

What is dangerous about a film like BROTHER is that it insists that we see the world as absurd and therefore meaningless. Rather than arousing our anger and concern or teaching us to have some understanding, or at least a reasonable point of view about the thirties, BROTHER leaves us detached: possibly amused, but cynical. If our present concerns will eventually turn into a jumble of senseless, quaint old film clips, why worry, why try to understand? Why worry about the current economic crisis? About higher prices and unemployment? Years from now, when it’s all in the past, its meaning will dissolve into mere style, camp, like the Depression as presented by Mora.