Directed by Maurice Bailen with cinematography by J. Frietag, and produced for the Chicago chapter of the Workers Film and Photo League, The Great Depression
is a dramatic representation of the depression era in Chicago. According to the Center Cinema Co-op's 1969 Filmmakers Distribution Catalog, The Great Depression
is "the earliest surviving underground film from the midwest."
The Chicago chapter of the Workers Film and Photo League produced a number of short films and newsreels throughout the 1930s capturing the slums and poor working conditions prevalent during that time. The Great Depression
is one of the very few works to have survived. The version featured here is longer than other surviving prints
of the film; it is a slightly different edit, and several shots repeat.
The narrative arc largely focuses on the journey of one man in search of work; the film is an impassioned depiction of the ravages of the Great Depression on the general population. The Great Depression
is set largely in and around Grant Park, Michigan Avenue and the Loop. Notable landmarks depicted are: the University Club, the Cultural Center, the Marshall Field building, Rookery, and the Fourth Presbyterian Church. Chicago Mayor Edward J. Kelly is featured, at one point shaking hands with Italo Balbo. The film also includes footage of united protest actions involving Heywood Broun, Norman Thomas, Lucy Parsons, Mother Ella Bloor, and John L. Spivak.
Film begins with a medium close-up of a man (Jacques Jacobsen) looking out into the distance, then a procession of men treading the sidewalk as a title card reads: The Great Depression. The subsequent montage sequence reveals working conditions at the docks with numerous signs on construction sites and stores throughout Chicago's downtown area reading "No help wanted," in order to deter those looking for a job. Several hotels for men advertise their going rates, with meals included - the harsh conditions are juxtaposed with lavish billboard advertisements for Camel cigarettes, amongst other products.
Jacobsen's unnamed character is shown sitting on the sidewalk, deep in thought over what his next steps should be as he continues the hunt for work. He observes a discarded newspaper headline about Mussolini and the attack on Ethiopia. A military procession is shown - some shots are negative composition, revealing an interesting stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers - followed by a brief glimpse of a gravesite.
More imagery depicting high-end vehicles and major advertisements for Johnny Walker is followed by a scene of protest marches at the University of Chicago. The protester's signs indicate that they are against war and are advocating for peace. The footage is intercut with the well-to-do walking in downtown Chicago, followed by more footage of protests demanding a youth strike.
The film then returns to its central protagonist, shown sleeping in the park with other men who also seem to be homeless. He then goes to the John Crerar Library at the University of Chicago (located at 5730 S. Ellis Ave.), looking through newspapers in a futile attempt to find work. Stark imagery of another military march is shown, followed by signs advertising free soup, and churches with signs “Jesus Saves.” There is a montage sequence revealing men sleeping on the streets juxtaposed with images of the churches’ depiction of Christ on the cross.
The final sequence shows the main character walking aimlessly along the Chicago River, stopping at some point at W. Randolph and North Ogden Ave., where he views a massive protest against income inequality, with signs demanding “Adequate Relief for All Unemployed.”