Release Date(s)1975 (October 1, 2019)
Studio(s)Goodtimes Enterprises/Dimension Pictures (VCI Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? combines newsreel footage and movie clips from the Great Depression through World War II. Written and directed by Philippe Mora, the documentary is an intriguing collection of vintage material. Some of the clips are fun, others interesting, still others downright dull, all tacked into a jumble of cultural, political, and historical images with no narration whatsoever to tie them together and nothing but chronology to help us make sense of them.
The film opens with a montage of period views of New York City, a cattle drive, dancing showgirls, incarcerated prisoners, subways, King Kong scenes, and numerous clips of James Cagney from assorted Warner Brothers movies, as Rudy Vallee sings the title song. A sort of anthem of Depression-era America, the song is repeated later in versions by Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. Winston Churchill, on a visit to New York, comments stoically that “we’re all under the pressure of events.” The Busby Berkeley production number Remember My Forgotten Man is interspersed with footage of breadlines, dance marathons, Gen. Douglas McArthur, and troops confronting striking workers in Washington, D.C., and regular folks awkwardly offering their opinions about the country’s hard times.
The documentary is also rich in Hollywood celebrity appearances. Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Temple, James Stewart, Orson Welles, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Cab Calloway, W.C. Fields, Billie Holiday, Gary Cooper, and Joan Crawford are featured in private-life moments.
The soundtrack contains characteristic period tunes and folk songs, including Big Rock Candy Mountain, Every Man a King, We’re Out of the Red, Bei Mir Bistu Shein, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out, When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day, and We’re In the Money.
Franklin D. Roosevelt gets considerable screen time. We see him in excerpts from his first two Inaugurations, Fireside Chats, and his “Day of Infamy” declaration after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Some of his campaign speeches are also shown.
Vintage footage of Hollywood includes Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, the famous Paramount Studios gate, and the Brown Derby Restaurant are contrasted with grim images of the dust bowl, J. Edgar Hoover, an account of John Dillinger’s death, and a speech by Huey Long in which he brags about his scandalous political career.
A few of the images seem to be odd choices. Cecil B. DeMille is shown chastising a female extra at length from atop a camera crane because her hair style doesn’t match the time period of the film he’s directing. Both of Joe Louis’ fights with Max Schmeling are included, although only the second match, in which he knocks Schmeling out in the first round, should have been enough.
Other sequences go on too long, such as Al Jolson’s speech supporting the National Recovery Administration, Orson Welles talking to the press about the public reaction to his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and a Hollywood version of a Ku Klux Klan induction juxtaposed with an actual Klan rally.
As a time capsule, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? is a valuable compilation of the sights, sounds, and events that shaped the nation from 1929 through World War II. Events post-World War II through the 1974, including the swearing in of Gerald Ford as 38th President of the United States, are included in a very brief segment at the end of the film.
A documentary should have a point of view or at least a theme. The scattershot approach in Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? is lazy. It stuffs as much footage as possible into its two-hour running time without regard to significance and relies entirely on chronology. Without narration, the film is a stream-of-consciousness retrospective that raises more questions than it answers. Viewers may well wonder, “What’s the point?”
The Blu-ray Region A release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Picture quality fluctuates considerably. Clips from Hollywood films are sharp, with excellent lighting. Newsreel footage varies as the circumstances were often less than ideal for filming. The dust bowl sequences are especially potent. The constant sand storms with dunes piling up against modest Midwest houses provide a grim look at how devastated that part of the country was during the 1930s. Some of the footage contains scratches and dirt specks and is jittery, but considering the age of the archive material, the digital restoration is impressive overall.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Quality varies in both visual clips and audio sources. Sometimes, when only silent footage is available, period songs are played. In newsreel footage, because of the limitations of microphones of the time, voices sound tinny. Again, the Hollywood excerpts fare best with their professional mix of dialogue, sound effects, and music.
Bonus materials include 26 Pathé Newsreel clips from the period covered in the documentary, with a narrator announcing “On land, on sea, in the air, Pathé News cameramen have filmed the stirring drama of all mankind.”
- Will Hays Talks About the Movies – interesting facts about the history of the motion picture industry are represented.
- The Newest Barrymore – George White welcomes the daughter of Ethel Barrymore to the cast of Scandals.
- Welcome Home, Charlie! – Charlie Chaplin returns to London after a long sojourn in America.
- Screen, Radio and Stage Rally to NRA (National Recovery Administration) – Robert Montgomery and Kate Smith offer their support.
- Little Rock Honors Own Dick Powell – Arkansas Governor Futrell greets the movie star as a native son. Powell chats with kids and talks with his Mom and Dad.
- Hollywood’s Newest Star – A brand new streamliner train is christened.
- Fireside! Off the Record with Mr. Cohan – George M. Cohan performs a White House scene from the play I’d Rather Be Right. FDR speaks about having a great batting average.
- Hollyweds: Carole Lombard is Mrs. Clark Gable
- Sonovox Makes Humans Talk Like Train Whistles
- James Stewart: Screen Favorite Gains Ten Pounds and Reports for Duty
- South Pacific: Gary Cooper on Front Line Tour
- Ruth Roman Opens Marines’ Drive for “Toys For Tots”
- The Camera Reporter: Rockettes Keeping in Trim
- Radio Begins New Era in Broadcasting: NBC Dedicates World’s Biggest Studios in Rockefeller Center
- Sarnoff Welcomes Marconi: President of RCA Greets Italian Father of Wireless in New York
- Welcome Home, Rockettes!
- France: Music Hall Troupe Entertain Overseas
- Will H. Hays Ex-Film “Czar” Dies at 74
- Roxy’s Gang in Rehearsal – “Roxy” Rothafel with Weber and Fields and Frances Bowden.
- Newest NBC Star Thrills Listeners! – Young Albert Bissonette sings.
- Holy Year Opened! – Cardinal Hayes opens Holy Hour at Radio City in New York.
- Irving Berlin Jubilee – Berlin’s 25th year as song writer is celebrated.
- RKO Presents Harlem’s Roosevelt Theater – Bill Robinson leads a parade through Harlem to celebrate the opening of a brand new theater.
- Radio City of the West – New NBC Studios open in Hollywood. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Ginny Simms, and Arturo Toscanini are featured.
- Rockefeller Center Completed!
- Sonja Henie Ice Revue – Excerpts from the Madison Square Garden show are shown.
– Dennis Seuling