A maddening mixture, with fascinating material put to often questionable uses, this compilation film tries to chronicle the history of America from the Wall Street Crash to Pearl Harbor, using only contemporary newsreels and Hollywood features (without commentary) to tell the story. Extracts from movies are strung together to make James Cagney an all-purpose hero (setting jauntily out in life with his sweetheart, surviving the train crash wrought by King Kong, joining the queue of hungry unemployed, getting rich quick as a mobster, etc); meanwhile, newsreels offer starker visions of the Depression and the political manoeuvrings behind the scenes (including the insidious, fascistic appeal of 'a strong man to put things right'). Beautifully put together to the ironic accompaniment of songs from Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and others, the film is highly entertaining but also highly specious. Not only because it misrepresents the material (dubbing new sound, deliberately blurring the distinction between fiction and newsreel), but because it imposes a frivolous, one-dimensional interpretation that often obscures the real implications of the period.
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