Brother, can you spare a dime? With that and what he's saved up, Judge Victor Valdivia can buy a boat.
"Prosperity is just around the corner."—President Herbert Hoover, 1932
Can there be any doubt why History Channel chose to release this DVD now, even though the series it collects aired over a decade before? The Great Depression is clearly meant to capitalize on the current (as of this writing) economic meltdown by providing viewers with a basis for comparison. History wants you to see that no matter what happens now, you won't be stuck attempting to farm a dustbowl or selling apples in the streets. In those terms, The Great Depression does give some interesting facts about life during that era. Since it was produced back in the era when the History Channel actually cared about history, it's certainly miles beyond most of the dreck it airs now. It's not quite the slam-dunk that it could have been, particularly since the first two episodes are rather unfocused and sketchy. Still, as a portrait of a time period in history that has only grown in importance, it's a worthy endeavor.
The biggest nitpick is that though the series is called The Great Depression, it would more accurately be titled Life in the 1930s. The first episode, "The Great Shake-Up," begins after the stock market crash of 1929. The actual reasons for the crash and why it led to such an economic catastrophe are not examined at all. If you're looking for an in-depth economic examination of the depression, this program isn't it. Instead, it gives a simple thumbnail sketch of the basics: the Dust Bowl, the 1932 election of FDR, the rise of boxcar hobos, and so on. It's all presented well enough, but there's no real depth. The second program, "Face the Music," is even less insightful. It discusses the pop culture of the '30s, from songs to movies to radio shows. Because so much of this pop culture has only a tenuous link to the Depression itself, the episode feels rather superfluous. It's decent enough as a pop culture study, but anyone who's actually interested in the Depression itself should skip it without regrets.
The series recovers nicely, however, with the third episode, "Striking Back." This episode, about the tumultuous rise of labor unions during the Depression, represents how good the History Channel could be (and used to be, frequently). Rare footage and photographs (some of which were buried and even suppressed) are unearthed and paint a horrifying picture of labor abuses of the era, particularly the 1937 "Memorial Day Massacre," in which ten striking steelworkers were slain by policemen sent to break their strike. Similarly, the last episode, "Desperate Measures," is an excellent look at how the Depression affected politics. In addition to an examination of some of FDR's New Deal policies and what effect they actually had on the Depression, the show also explores the emergence of the Communist Party in American politics and how Louisiana governor Huey Long used the Depression to turn himself into the state's dictator. The show ends with World War II just underway, the point at which all historians agree the Depression actually ended. Throughout all the episodes, there are fascinating interviews with journalists, eyewitnesses, farmers, workers, and even hobos, all of whom are able to share their memories. Given that History these days has increasingly chosen to build shows around pointless celebrity interviews, the fact this show offers insights from people who actually have something to say is refreshing.
Because this series is over ten years old, it doesn't quite look as sharp and pristine as more recent History offerings. The full-screen transfer is adequate, but looks a bit soft and hazy. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is fine. There are no extras, unfortunately. Even a simple timeline would have filled in many of the gaps left in the storytelling. Nonetheless, even though the first two episodes are only average, the second two are of such a high quality that The Great Depression is at least worth a look for history buffs who remember how good this channel used to be.
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