Revisiting King Vidor's Our Daily Bread: 1934 Great Depression film idealised community, self-sufficiency
In the first scene of Our Daily Bread, Mary (Karen Morley) wards off debtors as John (Tom Keene) returns after a fruitless day looking for jobs, his days of dreaming big far behind him. So begins King Vidor's 1934 classic on the Great Depression.
In 1928, King Vidor made the silent masterpiece The Crowd for MGM.
The film was about an ordinary couple, John and Mary Sims, trying to make ends meet in New York.
Vidor reprised these characters in Our Daily Bread (1934), transplanting them to the West Coast.
But a lot had happened in the six intervening years.
'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
In 1928, King Vidor made the silent masterpiece The Crowd for MGM. The film was about an ordinary couple, John and Mary Sims, trying to make ends meet in New York. John’s big dreams are crushed by the city and, at the end of the film, the couple reconciles itself to social insignificance and dissolves in the anonymity of mass entertainment.
Vidor reprised these characters in Our Daily Bread (1934), transplanting them to the West Coast, but a lot had happened in the six intervening years.
For one, America had plunged into the Great Depression, and men like John found themselves without jobs. In the first scene of Our Daily Bread, Mary (Karen Morley) wards off debtors as John (Tom Keene) returns after a fruitless day looking for jobs, his days of dreaming big far behind him. Mary’s uncle is coming home for dinner, so John trades their ukulele at the meat shop for a bony chicken. Uncle tells John that he has a vast piece of devalued land far from the city and that he’ll let John have it if he could make good use of it. A reaction shot of grateful, enthusiastic Mary and John relays to us that this is welcome news.
John and Mary move to the deserted ranch. The house there is rundown, but they make do with what they have. John has no idea about farming, so he opens up the ranch to other depression-stricken, migrant workers passing along the way. A community soon forms at the site, with a host of skilled workers bartering their trade while working on the corn fields. Many of the trades are urban skills with little use on the ranch — trouser-presser, undertaker, music teacher, salesman — but the group manages to integrate everyone according to his capability. They pool in their resources, divide responsibilities and forge a veritable settlement. The settlers include Jews, immigrants and persons with criminal records, poverty being their only commonality.
Vidor is evidently attracted by the notion of starting anew, of leaving the past behind, at a time when people have little left to lose. He dedicates several shots to characters sitting around a fire, signalling ideas of community and domesticity in the wilderness. He treats the moment when first corn bud sprouts with a violin-accompanied preciousness. In his first speech to these modern-day homesteaders, John invokes the early pioneers who didn’t need “jobs”, but found a way to work the land and live off it.
There’s a tepid romantic triangle woven over this narrative of communal triumph, with John getting involved with a moll called Sally (Barbara Peppers). But the affair is resolved just before the film’s climactic set-piece, in which the community has to dig a canal two miles long to irrigate the crops. It’s an exhilarating passage that’s a masterwork of rhythm, composition and choreography. We see men standing in rows, hunched over, digging the ditch and moving sideways in unison like clockwork (Vidor had timed their movement with a metronome). We hear their voices mixed with the sound of their footsteps and their implements. They work day and night, building canals with wood and tin sheets. Shots are composed in deep space with obstacles in the foreground making way for the advancing ditch. As the canal approaches the fields, women cheer in the background and the camera moves along with the workers. The editing quickens and framing become tighter. A violin surges on the soundtrack as the water is released, its crescendo imitating fluid movement. Men follow the flowing water, and use their bodies to stem the holes in the ditch. The violin gives way to a lofty choral passage just as the water enters the parched fields.
Vidor was a filmmaker with a strong visual sensibility (he was also a painter), and it shows even in this modest production.
The film opens with a markedly diagonal shot of a staircase in an apartment complex — a diagonality that will reappear in the wipe transitions linking different scenes. This vertical urban space is contrasted later with the horizontal sprawl of the open fields, and the upward movement of the characters in the first scene with the downward movement of the water towards the viewer in the final shot. A champion of camera movement, Vidor constructs his scenes with gentle pans and tracking shots, as when the camera follows the couple into the house after they have expressed surprise at its condition. He often composes outdoor shots with the horizon near the top of the frame, and his low angles produce a sense of wonderment at nature’s bounty. A Christian Scientist, he binds men and nature in a religious aesthetic, with the farmers in the foreground facing the vast fields in the background, whose fruits they have to earn through the sweat of their brow.
Vidor was also a filmmaker with social-realist aspirations that didn’t go down well with the established studios. The Crowd dealt with the struggles of the average Joe and Jane within the alienating machinery of the city during a time of general economic prosperity. Hallelujah (1929) was a production with a mostly African-American cast intending to show Black life in the South. In an introduction to Our Daily Bread, filmed years later, Vidor explains that he proposed the idea for the film to MGM, who were encouraging but didn’t want take the risk. As a result, Vidor had to secure funding independently, mortgaging his house in the process. Produced by Vidor himself under the banner “Viking Productions” and distributed by United Artists with the help of Charlie Chaplin, Our Daily Bread was also one of the earliest films to comply to the production code of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the effect of which shows in the film’s coy dialogue and sexual dynamics.
Our Daily Bread was inspired by an article in the Reader’s Digest about people returning to the land following the financial crisis.
It’s also a work that resonates with the political climate of the time. President Roosevelt had initiated the economic relief measures of the New Deal the year before. In California, where Our Daily Bread was made, hundreds of cooperative communes just like in the film had formed to tackle the crisis. The story’s theme of collectivisation, its distrust of cigar-chewing banker types and, especially, its assertion of a working-class identity over racial and national identities lends it an obviously communist flavour. And Vidor reportedly modelled the ditch-digging scene on a similar sequence in Yuli Raizman’s Soviet production The Earth is Thirsty (1930). But Vidor was not a communist; he was a conservative who later joined the anti-communist group called Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. It may simply be that Vidor found the idea of a self-sufficient people building a community to be a very American notion.
Conservative studio heads such as MGM’s Louis B Mayer and United Artists’ Joseph Schenck, however, feared that the film could provide a fillip to the campaign of Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in November. Sinclair was a socialist proposing a programme to End Poverty in California (EPIC) — a radical set of collectivist measures that alarmed the studio elites. Schenck stalled the release of Our Daily Bread in California by several months. Mayer deducted a day’s pay from his employees to fund the Republican candidate. In order to denigrate Sinclair’s campaign, Mayer’s second-in-command, Irving Thalberg, commissioned fake newsreels about bums pouring into California to sponge off the state. Sinclair lost the elections.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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