Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 9, 2009)
Given the current miserable state of the US economy, it might be instructive to revisit an even darker period in recent history. (Or at least darker based on the situation when I write this; by the time you read the review, we could be in an even deeper bind.) The folks at the History Channel deemed this to be an appropriate time to release The Great Depression, an extended examination of the dire economic straits of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Created in 1998 and narrated by former New York governor Mario Cuomo, Depression breaks into four parts. Here’s how the DVD’s case describes the different segments:
The Great Shake-Up: “Examine the changes that swept the shaken nation during the first year of the Great Depression, from the landslide victory of FDR in 1932 to the California migrations of Dust Bowl farmers.” During this segment we find interview remarks from Herbert Hoover’s granddaughter Margaret Hoover Brigham, White House correspondent (1934-1948) Walter Trohan, actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, Philadelphia Record reporter (1929-1931) Robert St. John, New Deal administrator Mary Bain, State Librarian of California Kevin Starr, Franklin Roosevelt’s grandson Curtis Roosevelt, Dance Marathon author Carol Martin, jazz singer Anita O’Day, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, hobos Steam Train Maury, Liberty Justice and “Grandpa”, author James Michener, A People’s History of the United States author Howard Zinn, Upton Sinclair campaign worker Morton Newman, and civil rights activist Fay Blake.
Face the Music: “Faced with hard times, Americans sought release wherever they could find it, from marathon dancing to going to the movies. Using extensive film clips and photos, this episode shows how the media came of age to become an integral part of daily life.” We hear from Hart, Curtis Roosevelt, actress Gloria Stuart, screenwriter Paul Jarrico, radio dramatist Norman Corwin, Media Marathon author Erik Barnouw, sound effects technician Ray Erlenborn, radio writer Sterling “Red” Quinlan, Dorothea Lange biographer Elizabeth Partridge, Lange’s assistant Rondal Partridge, Lange’s son Daniel Dixon, CBS radio announcer Robert Trout, and radio performer Orson Welles (from 1978).
Striking Back: “As the Depression lingered and the New Deal failed to live up to the people’s expectations, some Americans fought back against a system they felt had betrayed them. Illuminating rare footage and revealing interviews relive the desperate acts of people who had been pushed too far by the crisis.” This episode includes notes from Zinn, Pretty Boy author Michael Wallis, Oklahoma resident Marvin Amos, Pretty Boy Floyd’s nephews Bayne and Glendon Floyd, Harlem residents Charles Matthews and Evelyn Cunningham, Essex County College historian Lenworth Gunther, textile worker Lillie Mae King, Yale University historian David Montgomery, mill owner’s son MacFarland Cates, Jr., Strike! author Jeremy Brecher, textile striker Howard Pless, retired National Guardsman Hugh Hayes, steelworker’s wife Geri Borozan, and Memorial Day Massacre witness Mollie West.
Desperate Measures: “Finally, after years of crisis, World War II approached and did what all the protests and recovery programs failed to do – end the Great Depression.” We find notes from Trohan, Jarrico, Zinn, Starr, Bonus March historian Donald Lisio, Veterans Affairs historian Michael Bennett, retired US Senator/Huey Long’s son Russell Long, Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley, Will Rogers’ son Jimmy Rogers, and former Communist Party member Tillie Olsen.
Don’t expect a concise, smooth history here. The Great Depression follows a roughly chronological approach, but it leaps about quite a bit, and that becomes a distraction.
This seems especially problematic during the first episode. “Shake-Up” suddenly flips from political issues to pop culture without warning. It feels like the program takes on too much too soon; rather than simply introduce the roots of the Depression, it wants to be many things to most people.
Matters settle for the ensuing episodes, as they tackle more unified themes. “Music” stays with the impact of pop culture on those of the Depression era, while “Striking Back” handles negative repercussions among the work force. Both work reasonably well, though they suffer from a lack of counterpoint. If placed as part of a greater view of the Depression as a whole, they’d prosper, but at it stands, they feel like detours.
If you read the episode synopsis, “Measures” promises a good wrap-up to the period, as it implies it’ll usher us from the late 1930s into America’s involvement in WWII. That doesn’t really happen. Instead, it looks at alternate political movements such as Huey Long’s rise as well as some notes about the goings-on overseas that would eventually spark WWII. Again, interesting material appears here, but the scattershot approach means that we don’t find a unified thesis.
Throughout The Great Depression, we find plenty of interesting material, but it rarely comes out in a coherent way. It feels like a long book in which some chapters are missing. Sure, we get nice details about various areas, but we leave it without a real grasp of how the Depression evolved and how it worked. We jump from year to year with abandon, a factor that can make it tough to make sense of the events.
Does a series have to follow the Depression in strict chronological order to succeed? No – I think programs that look at specific topics ala The Great Depression can educate and inform. Indeed, we find a lot of useful material throughout the series’ three hours
However, we never really feel like we understand the history of the Depression. We comprehend bits and pieces but the series’ absence of chronological and thematic coherence robs it of some value. There’s enough good material to involve history buffs, but The Great Depression often comes across more as a collection of footnotes than as a true history.