Compelling Montage of Great Depression Clips

Director Philippe Mora crafts an unusual but interesting project put together from an array of unrelated newsreels and film clips, all taken from the 1930s. Brother, Can You Spare A Dime is a documentary of sorts covering major events from the decade.

First released in 1975, Mora assembles an oddly nostalgic look back at the Great Depression with a montage of contemporary archival footage and film clips depicting James Cagney as an American everyman. Other stars of the era like Will Rogers, and political figures such as FDR and Herbert Hoover, make appearances in news clips. Mora even sees fit to include footage of John Dillinger’s dead corpse, the notorious outlaw. Putting it all together in one slick narrative, the unique storytelling method works better than expected.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime attempts to capture the era’s zeitgeist examining major cultural, political and economic issues of the period. Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929, it covers seminal moments in American life through the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Borrowing its title from pop star Rudy Vallée’s hit song, the documentary explores the hopelessness felt by many across the country even as Hollywood was exploding in popularity. Crippling poverty suffered by ordinary Americans is juxtaposed with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood stars.

…Brother, Can You Spare a Dime is an interesting curio with actual historical footage and evocative storytelling

Fascinating newsreels, covering pivotal events such as speeches from J. Edgar Hoover and Churchill, play in a hodge-podge mix with movie footage. The movie clips serve as a loose narrative telling of what it meant to live in America during the Depression, covering everything from the Dust Bowl to the promise of FDR’s New Deal.

Star James Cagney serves as the nominal everyman in the narrative. A big Hollywood star of the period with such films as The Public Enemy and “G” Men, Cagney’s more realistic and gritty acting made him one of the era’s most iconic actors.

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime has interesting pacing and anticipates the coming music video revolution that occurred a decade after its release. Mora uses faster visual cuts through his creative montage of clips, often moving quickly between topics. Some of the documentary comes off as unnecessary and haphazard, but it’s an interesting experiment that tells history in unique fashion. Consider it an interesting curio with actual footage from history and evocative storytelling.

Video

VCI and MVD Visual distribute the 1975 Goodtimes Enterprises’ documentary. Cobbled together from various film clips, newsreels and other archival footage in less-than-stellar condition, Brother Can You Spare A Dime was never much of a looker and doesn’t receive any kind of picture quality boost from Blu-ray. Most footage is rough with heavy wear. Little of it comes from pristine sources.

This is a release for collectors looking to secure a copy. There’s no appreciable improvement for videophiles. Clarity and contrast waver all over the place with unimpressive definition. Black levels are muddy and detail is middling.

Almost entirely in black and white, a few cartoon clips inject a little color. The print and transfer are credited to the Sprocket Vault’s efforts in 2017. It’s a Blu-ray presentation that barely deserves to be called true 1080P resolution. Most of the clips are from presentable but inferior sources, some clearly in SD-quality material. At best, the 1.33:1 video here is more suitable for DVD than Blu-ray.

The main feature runs almost two hours at 111 minutes. The AVC encode isn’t to blame for the erratic picture quality, though it’s not particularly great itself. The Hollywood footage is often found in the best condition. Dust and grit are common features on the dilapidated film elements, if this transfer was in fact struck from an actual print. The major halos and other issues indicate some Brother, Can You Spare a Dime clips may have been sourced from DVD.

Audio

The mono 2.0 PCM soundtrack actually holds up better than the corresponding video. It’s still rough in spots with limited fidelity and obvious signs of wear, but generally does a serviceable job when tested by the occasional vintage song. Dialogue is mostly fine and intelligible. Limited dynamic range, but that is almost always the case with vintage audio recordings this old. The line-up of musical acts featured include legendary singer Billie Holiday and others.

Optional English subtitles play in a yellow font.

Extras

Only one special feature but it’s possibly of more interest than the main feature.

Pathé Newsreels (51:32 in HD; 2.0 PCM) –

Pathé News was a producer of newsreels and documentaries from 1910 until 1970 in the United Kingdom. This collection of 24 vintage newsreels, mostly from the 1930s, is endlessly fascinating for history buffs and anyone nostalgic for the golden age of Hollywood.

Often covering contemporary Hollywood celebrities of the period, everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Carole Lombard are featured in pithy news reports on their exploits. You have Will Hays explaining the introduction of the production code, Clark Gable’s marriage to Carole Lombard, Hollywood stars shilling for the NRA, and other interesting tidbits.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
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  • Extras
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An oddball documentary from the 1970s using vintage clips to tell the story of America in the 1930s, it’s an interesting but flawed curio as a movie experience.

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