Film Appreciation: Our Daily Bread

Film Appreciation: Our Daily Bread

Some films, like King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread from 1934, seem to be hard-luck cases from the onset. The film’s subject, communal living, was considered so controversial that major studios refused to touch it. After Charlie Chaplin promised support and a release from United Artists, Vidor managed to obtain the funds he needed to produce the film independently.

Although Our Daily Bread received good reviews from publications like The New York Times, its troubles were not over. The Hearst newspapers called it Communist propaganda, an opinion validated when Our Daily Bread won an award at the Moscow Lenin Film Festival. Never mind that the film delivered a mixed message, politically speaking, and that Vidor himself is typically described as uncommitted or conservative.

For whatever reason, the copyright holders did not renew in a timely fashion. This sent Our Daily Bread into public domain. Practically anyone could create and sell a copy of the film, which meant many bad versions of it showed up. If you watch it today, chances are the film you see is fuzzy and badly edited.

There are reasons to seek Our Daily Bread, even so. The ending sequence of this film (more on this later) is simply remarkable. Albert Newman’s score is also a standout. Finally, this is an example of an established director choosing to work outside the Hollywood system in 1934. Vidor could very easily have played it safe and only directed films approved by the management at M.G.M. He opted for a riskier project that had the potential to broaden him as an artist. I do not consider his effort fully successful, but I applaud him for undertaking it.

Our Daily Bread actually derives from Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd. Vidor wrote in his autobiography, “I wanted to take my two protagonists out of The Crowd and follow them through the struggles of a typical young American couple in this most difficult period (the Great Depression).”

Vidor began reading articles on this subject in the newspapers. What really caught his attention, though, was an article by a college professor in Reader’s Digest. Called “The Agricultural Army”, this article suggested co-ops as the solution to wide-ranging unemployment. Vidor had his premise for Our Daily Bread.

The film opens when a bill collector tries to collect past due rent from John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene, Karen Morley). Mary assures him they will have the money in a few days and, amazingly, he leaves.

A rich uncle is due for a visit, and the Sims plan to ask for a loan. Towards that end, John trades their ukulele for a scrawny chicken (the better to bribe Uncle over a home-cooked dinner).

It turns out that Uncle is 1) kind of nasty and 2) not as well off as they had thought. The best he can offer them is a worthless piece of farmland that he cannot unload. John and Mary gratefully accept.

They quickly discover John has no gifts for farming. Luckily, Chris (John Qualen) shows up with his family. Chris, as it turns out, is a farmer from Minnesota. Before long, he and John have worked out an arrangement. Chris will teach John how to run the farm; in return, Chris and his family can stay there.

John begins to think: if one man can do this, what could ten men do? He and Chris set out signs inviting men to stop. Next thing you know, they have a community.

The really unusual part of Our Daily Bread is the form said government takes. No one seems to care for the idea of democracy. They prefer socialism, but they also pick John as Boss of the group. John then picks a burly guy named Louie (Addison Richards) to be his enforcer.

Complications occur in the form of Sally (Barbara Pepper), a sleazy blonde, but the real problem is unending drought. The ending sequence I mentioned occurs when everyone pitches in to save the crops by creating a two-mile irrigation ditch. Vidor shut off recording equipment while shooting this and used a metronome and bass drum to keep the actors in rhythm. The results give an uncommonly powerful ending to the film.

Unfortunately, Vidor was not able to bring back his two lead actors from The Crowd. The male lead, James Murray, had developed a serious alcohol problem by that time. He interpreted Vidor’s offer as pity and refused. Not long afterward, Murray fell into the Hudson River and drowned. The medical examiner could not determine whether the fall was an accident or suicide.

Politely put, Vidor’s choice for a replacement did not measure up. Tom Keene acted in low-budget westerns prior to being cast in Our Daily Bread. Supposedly, Vidor cast him because of a physical resemblance to James Murray. He might have looked like Murray, but he sure could not act like him. Keene feels wooden, and he hurts the film.

Karen Morley has more success in the female lead. She is best when marveling at the new growth in the fields and taking gentle pride at what the group has accomplished. The scenes where she deals with the threat to her marriage from Sally are nicely underplayed. Barbara Pepper is not convincing, however. Vidor admitted later that her character was added purely for reasons of box office.

A sad note about Karen Morley-she was blacklisted in the 1950s after refusing to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

This week’s review film is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune. It bears few resemblances to Our Daily Bread beyond also featuring people in a communal living situation. The members of Vinterberg’s commune are urban and, for the most part, reasonably well off. Both films do feature an extra-marital affair; The Commune’s involves a person outside the group, while Our Daily Bread’s involves someone from the group.

Theme: Communal Living

Related Posts: Film Review: The Commune  http://www.thinkingcinema.com/film-review-the-commune/

Communal Living: List For Week Ending March 5, 2017  http://www.thinkingcinema.com/communal-living-list-for-week-ending-march-5-2017/

Sources: IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025610/

TCM: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/85923/Our-Daily-Bread/notes.html

Twenty-Four Frames: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/our-daily-bread-1934-king-vidor/

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