Breadlines and Grilled Millionaire
Brother Can You Spare a Dime? at the Exeter
IT'S THE Depression, dearie," whispers a coyly melancholy Ginger Rogers. That much director Philippe Mora makes starkly clear in his latest film, Brother Can You Spare a Dime? But the vast diversity of the Depression experience for each segment of American society obscures Mora's otherwise successful representation of America in the 1930s; the film becomes a canvas on which he depicts his personal intepretation of the national consciousness during that era.
The 1930s is not a period that lends itself easily to documentary; the portrayal of a clearly defined national mood is elusive; American tastes and attitudes fluctuated as often as the stock market. The decade was characterized by an erosion of faith in many traditional institutions, values and heroes; its political mood was a melange of extremism, tension and demagoguery.
But Mora is experienced with the complex documentary--he achieved notoriety in the creative documentary field with Swastika, and earlier film depicting life in Nazi Germany. And his recent film is a painstakingly constructed documentary in which scenes from newsreels, feature films and home movies are continuously shown in quick succession. The presentation of the clippings Mora finally chooses follows the thread of his own historical outline of the period. And while Mora's treatment of events is roughly chronological, his personal influence in his juxtaposition of images is continually present.
Mora's chronology of the 1930s is unnecessarily obscured from his viewers by the lack of any narration or subtitles identifying the scenes. Most viewers are hard pressed to identify the shock-stricken father of John Dillinger being interviewed after his son's violent death at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover's newly armed G-men. The significance of many of the scenes is reduced by their brevity and the breakneck pace at which Mora carries the viewer through the period.
The film opens with a frenetic scene from The Roaring Twenties (1939), depicting a nattily dressed James Cagney as the leader of a mob of despairing stockbrokers futilely trying to save their investments.
It then draws from newsreels to document lengthening breadlines, middlewestern duststorms and ragged transients riding freight trains through a despondent land in search of work. Mora uses his selections from Depression vintage cinema to juxtapose reality and fantasy as he pans the gloomy landscape that characterized the era. While he often contrasts the grim reality of life during the Depression with such fanciful films as Gold Diggers of 1933, starring Ginger Rogers, he uses similar clippings to demonstrate a haunting similarity between fiction and fact in the 1930s. Random scenes from King Kong (1932-33), for example, invite a comparison of the fright inspired in New York subway passengers by the ravages of an overgrrown ape to the frenzied fear of bank failures felt by investors during the Depression.
FRANKLIN Roosevelt and Cagney emerge as the two interpreters of the 1930s for the American people. Mora's attention to F.D.R. is reasonable, but his excessive treatment of Cagney is unconvincing. One of the cult heroes of the 1930s, Cagney reasserted the qualities of aggressiveness and independent thinking in Lady Killer (1934) and G-Men (1935), but this revival of ruggedly self-reliant attitudes was not as important as F.D.R.'s uniquely successful exorcism of fear and death during the New Deal.
Mora devotes equal footage to both Cagney and Roosevelt, but F.D.R. rightfully assumes a more important role in Mora's analysis of the Depression. Roosevelt is successfully depicted as the gentlemanly savior of the working classes, the voice of reason in the face of Republican conservatism and most of all, a great actor and showman, winning over huge blocks of votes by sheer charm. The film shows him at home playing with his grandchildren, and cruising in the Long Island Sound in his family yacht. But never is Roosevelt so effective as when he mimics his political antagonists. Mora records him in a 1936 speech saying, "The opposition has called me an ogre, a sympathizer with the communists...they have even said I breakfast daily on grilled millionaire. Actually I am a devotee of scrambled eggs."
If Roosevelt never breakfasted on grilled millionaire, America's class structure wasn't significantly changed during his tenure either. But Mora gives his audience a glimpse of the millions who gained employment through F.D.R.'s pet programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. We see a policeman sternly advising an itinerant freight train rider to "Return where you came from and collect relief and find a government job."
The strengths of Brother Can You Spare A Dime? lie in the director's creation of a vivid image of a decade characterized by uncertainty and despair, a decade brightened only by America trust in Roosevelt as a paternal cult figure and by the refreshingly lighthearted fantasies of Hollywood. Disorder and confusion are starkly represented in scenes depicting violent strikes at a Ford Motor Company plant, a Communist rally in New York, a Ku Klux Klan gathering and MacArthur's dispersal of the Bonus Army's Washington gathering in the waning days of the Hoover Administration.
The hopeless isolation of the period is masterfully captured in newsreel footage of a bankrupt Dust Bowl farmer surveying his parched land and saying, "I'd like to see rain, I mean, I have seen it. I'd like to have my son--he's eight years old--see it." As a counterpoint to this hopelessness a robust Joe Louis is shown lustily chopping wood in his training camp and making sanguine predictions about his upcoming bout with Max Schmelling.
Brother Can You Spare A Dime? emerges as a realistic view of American life in the 1930s. But Mora jaundices his collection of Depression-era vignettes by his exaggeration of Hollywood as the focal point of the American consciousness. The film is an expressive view of the matrix of despair, apathy and frivolity that characterized. American 1930s. But the impressionistic documentary is weakened by the obscurity of many of the scenes. Mora has created an imposing cinematic edifice, yet concealed its foundations from his audience.