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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Crash Of 1929

Airs Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: A desperate man sells his car with a sign that reads "$100 will buy this car. Must have cash. Lost all in stock market." In 1929, the stock market epitomized a booming economy, promising a future of permanent prosperity — but the giddy optimism was shattered on the fateful 29th of October, when the market crashed.

By 1929, Charles Mitchell, President of the National City Bank (now Citibank), had popularized the idea of selling stock and high-yield bonds directly to the smaller investor. Mitchell and a very small group of bankers, brokers, and speculators manipulated the stock market, grew wealthy, and helped create the economic boom of the Twenties.

Photo Gallery: The Roaring 20s

Many Americans spent the 1920s in a great mood. Investors flocked to a rising stock market. Companies launched brand-new, cutting-edge products, like radios and washing machines. Exuberant Americans kicked up their heels to jazz music, tried crazy stunts, and supported a black market in liquor after Prohibition. A popular expression of the time asked, “What will they think of next?” Browse some photographs from “the age of permanent prosperity.”

A Selected Wall Street Chronology

Explore a timeline of events beginning with early history in 1653 up through January 7, 1931.

This film chronicles the year the boom went bust through the words and experiences of the descendants of these titans of finance. While the market was rising, presidents and economists confidently predicted America would soon enter a time when there would be no more poverty, no more depressions-a "New Era" when everyone could be rich.

Instead it was the rich who became richer. Jesse Livermore, a Wall Street insider, drove around town in one of six yellow Rolls Royces. His daughter-in-law describes his two yachts, private railway car and five homes, including an apartment on Fifth Avenue he bought to have a place where he could change clothes for the theater.

Michael Meehan was the stock specialist who manipulated the glamour stock of the day, RCA, from $2.50 a share up to a peak of over $500 a share, making millions for the few who were in on the deal. William Durant, founder of General Motors, was called “King of the Bulls.” In October of 1929, he would lose millions in a desperate, single-handed effort to stop the stock market crash.

Before the crash, the success of these men convinced small investors that the stock market was a sure thing, that Wall Street was the smart place to put one’s money. The film features the recollections of people whose families experienced the crash. Groucho Marx’s son, Arthur, remembers how his famous father detested gambling, yet put his entire life savings in stocks.

"The Crash of 1929" captures the unbounded optimism of an age, at a time when the stock market promised permanent prosperity.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is on Facebook, and you can follow @AmExperiencePBS on Twitter.

Video

Preview: American Experience: The Crash Of 1929

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Watch The Crash of 1929 Preview on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Above: This program examines the economic boom before the crash, whether the crash was predictable and if it precipitated the Great Depression of the 1930s.