Our Daily Bread (1934) King Vidor

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   To say “Our Daily Bread” is an uneven flawed work is not giving the film its due. At this point in his career Vidor was an innovative forward thinking filmmaker willing to stretch himself and the medium. If he did not succeed one hundred percent here, and he did not, at least he attempted to extend the art of film as a tool of importance.  “Our Daily Bread is extension of   King Vidor’s masterful classic silent film “The Crowd.” The same lead characters, John and Mary Sims, who came to realize they were just faces in an endless whirlpool of humanity destined to live lives as anonymous nonentities return. It is now the depression years and Tom has lost his everyman job. The couple are about to be dispossessed from their apartment for lack of rent money. With no job opportunities on the horizon Mary’s Uncle offers the couple a farm that he no longer wants and  the government is about to foreclose.  Though John is a city boy with no farming experience, they accept the uncle’s offer and move out of the concrete jungle to the country.   

    John does not lack ambition, he sets out to work on the farm but it is not easy, especially since he lacks the skills and knowledge needed. While working the land one day, a truck traveling along the road just outside the farm breaks down. It belongs to an immigrant family of Swede’s headed by Chris (John Qualen). As John helps him repair the truck, he learns that Chris and his family have no home but he has plenty of farming experience. John gets an idea. There’s plenty of room on the farm, why not offer Chris and his family a place to stay on the farm in exchange for helping him work the land. Chris accepts. John decides that if one man can help what can ten men do. He soon takes in other out of work homeless families each man with a different set of skills to contribute. They create a commune where food, money and land are shared by all.

 Our Daily Bread-poster   John is voted in to be the boss and he hires a burly quiet secretive man named Louie, who unknown to anyone at the time is on the run from the law, as his strong arm. When one of the testier members of the group tries to push a smaller man off some of the land, Louie intercedes. When foreclosure threatens the commune, Louie shows what he’s made of, saving the day when he turns himself into the law, making sure the commune gets the reward money to help make payments on mounting bills. The commune’s next challenge is Mother Nature in the form of a drought that threatens the corn crops. In the face of this new disaster, John’s enthusiasm and leadership abilities fail him. He has also become distracted by the arrival of Sally (Barbara Pepper), a peroxide blonde floozy who Mary invited to stay though she refuses to do much work, spending most of her day listening to jazz and, it is implied, fooling around with John. He and the low budget Harlow actually run off together however, John, realizing this is a mistake, returns dumping the third rate bimbo. Inspired by Mary, John arouses the cooperative to discover a way to fight the drought and bring back the dying crops.

     The ending is one of the most vividly exciting scenes in the film as we watch the farmers digging a two-mile long irrigation ditch from the river to the farm in time to save the crop. Variety called the ending “a glorification of human will power driving man beyond ordinary feats of endurance.” As a “sequel” to one of Vidor’s master works, “Our Daily Bread” is an uneven mix of brilliance and corn bread, good old American know how and socialism mixed and stirred.

Our Daily Bread 2-BB     Tom Keene is an actor of modest talent; his bouts of enthusiasm and despair range from unconvincing to embarrassing. Best known for low budget westerns, Keene, unfortunately followed in the path of James Murray, who played John in “The Crowd”, and was a hard act to follow; Vidor apparently offered the role to James Murray however, by this time Murray was alcoholic and broke. He refused the role viewing it as a sympathetic handout by Vidor. Murray would soon drown after falling into the Hudson River. The medical examiner would never conclude on the cause of death whether it was an accident, suicide or murder. Karen Morley faired better in her role as Mary. Morley is probably best remembered for her role as “Poppy” the sexy negligee wearing gun moll in Howard Hawks “Scarface.”  Then there is the role of Sally, the floozy, who seems to have wondered in from another movie. Saying her character is unsuitable to the mood of the film is being kind. Vidor, in the Charles Higham/Joel Greenberg interview book, The Celluloid Muse admits, “There just wasn’t the audience for too much down to earth stuff – we brought in the extraneous character of the blonde floozy.”   He admits it was purely for box office and the Jean Harlow/Mae West platinum blonde look that was then in vogue. Set aside these negative features the film remains a powerful look at the great depression and men finding alternative lifestyles to survive a beaten down economy and the sometimes over powering forces of nature.

 Our daily bread -digging   Vidor discovered the story when he read a magazine article in Reader’s Digest on co-operative living. He viewed this as a vehicle for his two protagonists from “The Crowd”, who realizing they were just nobodies in a sea of nobodies opted out for the open vastness of life on a farm.  He presented the idea to Irving Thalberg who refused to finance it, as did other major studios. Vidor decided to make the film himself, but it was not until Charles Chaplin pledged support, and a guarantee of a release via United Artists, did Vidor managed to get the money he needed from the banks. Vidor is credited with the story, while the scenario is credited to Elizabeth Hill (Mrs. King Vidor) and the dialogue to Joseph L. Mankiewicz.        

    When the film opened, it received rave reviews from some critics like The New York Times who called it “a brilliant declaration of faith in the importance of the cinema as a social instrument.” However, there were the Hearst newspapers that labeled the film “pinko” Communist propaganda and cited as proof when the film was given an award at the Moscow Lenin Film Festival. Critics seemed to be drawing a line in the political sand. Was “Our Daily Bread” a look at American ingenuity; how folks rolled up their sleeves working together during hard times to survive, or was it socialist propaganda about people, working together without thought of personal profit, stifling American individuality and the dream of personal success? The films political message is as mixed as the rest of the film, for example, the commune seems similar to communal living seen in Russian movies of the period, yet unlike those films, the individual’s needs are respected and attended to. Vidor was not a political animal, subsequently, the mixed political message. Later in life, Vidor was known to be politically conservative. If anyone in the cast, had a left wing political bent it was Karen Morley, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts after refusing to answer questions before the HUAC. Morley was active in liberal politics in the San Francisco area and later on ran unsuccessfully for Lt. Governor of New York State as a candidate for the American Labor Party.

What we are left with is an essential film of the great depression years, with an inconsistent message along with some tolerable acting and a visually stunning and brilliant ending. 

Sources: Senses of Cinema – Dan Callahan

              We’re in the Money – Andrew Bergman

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11 comments on “Our Daily Bread (1934) King Vidor

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    I’ve always found this film to be a mixed bag, John, as its melodramatic cliches and simplistic political context mitigate against the obvious sincerity and stylistic devices (which includes the sequence you justly heap praise on, the impressionistic ditch-digging sequence. Vidoe made two masterpieces, the one you love yourself, THE CROWD, and his war film, THE BIG PARADE. I agree with you that the former is a silent masterpiece, (in fact one of the three or four greatest American silents) and it opening crane sequence is one of the most justly celebrated of all set pieces in cinema. But John I was surprised and saddened to read what you said here about the fate of Murray, although I guess his replacement here was his equal, even if Eleanor Boadboard was irreplaceable. The use of montage in the film, which harkens back to the Russian masters is impressive, and it overshadows for the most part the hokey story here.

    You have again done a magnificent job of bringing this controversial classic to life with your customary erudition, historical perspective and attention to pertinent details surrounding the production. It’s this kind of love for the cinema that motivates us to re-viewings.

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  2. John Greco says:

    Sam, the film is certainly a mixed bag. I was actually expecting a classic along the lines of “The Crowd”, so from that perspective it was disappointing. With our current economic conditions I have been interested in seeing how the film industry portrayed the depression of the 1930’s since, so far, today’s film industry has ignored our current situation. What is amazing is how many films faced the depression head on back then or at least included it a part of the story, such as “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “Wild Boys of the Road”, both of which I have written about. Karen Morley, who I felt faired better in her role as Mary than Tom Keene did, as John still will make no one forget Eleanor Boadboard in “The Crowd.”
    As usual thanks for your eloquent, knowledgeable and kind remarks.

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  3. Vincent says:

    One wonders whether “Our Daily Bread” might have been a more effective film had it been made at a major studio, with all its resources and oversight. If Thalberg had given this the green light, Vidor might not have had to compromise nearly so much.

    You can also make a solid argument that “Show People,” though nowhere as profound as “The Crowd” or “The Big Parade,” is nearly as good a film. It’s certainly Marion Davies’ best vehicle…and she made her share of good films (although it took a few generations for the fictional cloud of Susan Alexander Kane to stop storming upon her legacy).

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  4. Dave says:

    John – Excellent review… and how timely for someone like me, who has acquired a copy of The Crowd and is planning on watching it for the first time in the next few days! I haven’t seen this one but you’re post here is outstanding and gives a lot of background to the film.

    I’m a completely neophyte in regards to Vidor, so I’m very interesting in beginning things properly with The Crowd.

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  5. John Greco says:

    Vincent – Good question on how effective the film would have been if a major studio had been involved. Possibly, a better actor could have been lured into doing the role of John. I read where some people think Henry Fonda would have been a good choice, and he would, only he did not make his first film until one year after “Our Daily Bread” was made. I am sure people think of Fonda because of “The Grapes of Wrath” connection.

    I am not familiar with “Show People” but it is a film I should check out. I just looked at IMDB and it does seem well liked.

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  6. John Greco says:

    Dave – Please let me know what you think of “The Crowd.” I have not seen it a while and another viewing is needed, but I agree with Sam’s statement earlier that it is one of the geatest American silent films.

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  7. Judy says:

    I found this a fascinating review and would love to see this film. Great work as ever, John. I also agree it is true that so far film-makers haven’t really dealt with our current economic woes.

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  8. John Greco says:

    Thanks Judy – there have been very few, if any, new films that have addressed our economic times, at least that I am aware of. What is amazing about the 1930’s depression films, to me, is that they dealt with it in so many different ways, some serious like, “Our Daily Bread” or “Wild Boys of the Road”, others in a more light hearted fashion such as “Gold Diggers of 1933.” They recognize the problem, make their statement but do it in an entertaining fashion. Still for other films, the depression is there even if it is not dealt with directly. Just part of the story. I’m thinking here of some of the early 30’s gangster films where part of the reason say, the young Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” becomes a gangster is because of economic conditions. The depression is not directly responsible but it is there in the background contributing. We don’t see this today.

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  9. L. Manning says:

    I just watched “The Crowd” and was disappointed. It’s not merely that it is depressing, I think the message is muddled. The movie opens on the 4th of July so I thought I was being prepared for a tale about how the American Dream is a hollow sham. We learn that John the protagonist got a tough break as a kid — his father dies — is that why he doesn’t reach his potential? Are we supposed to blame cruel fate? Or is John being ground beneath the soulless wheels of the big corporation where he works, as the camera swooping over the rows of desks seems to be telling us? But John is complacent, disdainful of others and watches the clock, ready to bolt out the door at five. Promotion is denied him but his friend Bert climbs the ladder, so the American Dream came true for Bert. Yet this isn’t a Horatio Alger morality play either. It’s a chronicle of a depressing tedious life — policemen are brusque, people are ambulance-chasing ghouls, mothers-in-law are harpies, the little boy kicks sand on the cake, nothing ever goes right for this couple. John is frankly a mediocrity, who can’t make enough to support himself and his family. Is the message of the movie that America is too cruel to its mediocrities but a socialist utopia would be kinder? I don’t get it.

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  10. John Greco says:

    I believe the message is that not everyone’s dreams, expectations come true. Some folks are lost in a humdrum existence, going nowhere. They have no special talent and as you say they are mediocre, just one of the crowd. I don’t believe the message is that America is too cruel to it mediocrities, I think it is more like some people are just faceless entities going nowhere. It is a depressing film and was not a success at the box office and it is easy to understand why.

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