1929 and the stock market crashes, leaving the American economy in tatters and millions of citizens struggling, including the typical American man of the day (James Cagney) who sees his finances dwindle. Meanwhile, the entertainment industry does its best to lift the nation's spirits with a string of songs, but not all of them are sunny, as one, Brother Can You Spare a Dime? sums up the mood of many as they sink into poverty and have to rely on the state and charity to get by. Not only that, but there's a giant gorilla loose in New York...
This was a British take on the American Depression (hence the appearance of Winston Churchill at one point) which took a selection of archive footage and assembled it to create a fantasia of the era, something which rankled with many observers when it was released as it was seen to be trivialising a devastating period of history for all too many. Watching it now, you can acknowledge that it was not as lighthearted as it was judged to be in 1975, but it's the manner in which it mixed the highs and lows that understandably made it look as if the whole ordeal was one big party, mainly thanks to the way that Hollywood and Broadway tried to remain optimistic.
Funnily enough, when we see the interviews with the public captured for newsreels, their mood is not so much one of wallowing in misery, but more of that optimism that Hollywood was conveying, as if they were agreeing that things were bad now, but tomorrow, as a certain movie character claimed at the end of the decade, was another day. This can do attitude could have been what got America through this dark passage, as we see there are no shortage of those who think they know exactly what is to be done to alleviate the dire circumstances, the most important one, according to this, being the President for much of it, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
He is contrasted with Cagney, who represents the ordinary folks through clips from his star vehicles that more often than not portrayed him as a man of the people, even when he was playing the gangster. So while he loses his shirt, goes to prison for a spell, gets a menial job in a Hollywood studio and so on, Roosevelt is promoting his New Deal politics that he hoped would drag the country out of their despondency. It's a clever editing job, but a lot about this is, and even if you didn't like how the footage was arranged you would have to admit that it was superbly done, from the kind of novelties that filled up the newsreels to the more serious business such as the rise of the KKK or the threatening tide of fascism.
Many famous faces parade across the screen, accompanied by recognisable tunes, supplying a "We're all in this together" tone to the documentary even if the truth is allowed to show through the cracks: the farmers ruined by the Dustbowl, the desperate dragging their feet through dancing marathons, the war brewing in Europe. So this was by no means some nostalgic whitewash, although the film can bear comparison to similar works such as That's Entertaimment! which arrived at the same time, and does make the point that there will always be a serious side to life no matter how much you try to cheer up, it's just that escapism can be as important as realising there are problems in the world. This film ends with Cagney going to see Citizen Kane, and a mood that finally America had weathered the storm - just as Pearl Harbor is bombed. There is no real commentary supplied so you must draw your own conclusions, but it made for an absorbing story nonetheless.