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.
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.
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.
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