Monday, March 16, 2009

Our Daily Bread (1934)

Victoria Balloon provides a timely and compelling background on this controversial and rarely-seen film classic about the Great Depression.

With dialog by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls) and a score by Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights, The Seven Year Itch) director King Vidor found the inspiration for Our Daily Bread in a Reader’s Digest article. The New York Times review of 1934 called the film “a social document of amazing vitality and emotional impact,” and its tagline “Inspired by Headlines Today!” still reflects the American landscape 75 years later.

Unable to find work, John Sims laments: “Just try standing in line for three hours with a hundred other guys waiting for one measly job!” He and wife Mary jump at the chance to live on a run-down homestead even though they know nothing of farming. A Swedish man who lost the mortgage on his own farm teaches John about plowing and planting, and from this experience John gets the idea to form a “co-operative community.”

The farm quickly acquires a broad swath of unemployed America — carpenters and masons, but also a concert violinist, a cigar salesman and an escaped convict — who all pitch in to work. But when there is no food to tide the group over until the fields produce, and a platinum blonde tries to seduce John away from wife and farm, the future of the community looks grim. With the workers discouraged and the corn only a few days from ruin, is there any way to get water to the fields?

Vidor’s skilled use of what he called “silent music,” a technique learned from director D.W. Griffith, makes the last ten minutes of this film incredibly powerful. The scenes of the farmers digging a trench were recorded to the sound of a metronome and bass drum beating in 4/4 time. Picks swing down on beats 2 and 4, while shovels scoop on 1 and throw dirt on 3. By increasing the speed of the actors and decreasing the camera speed, Vidor creates visual urgency; combined with Newman’s score, flowing water becomes an emotional release.

After Vidor’s 1925 hit The Big Parade, MGM production head Irving Thalberg asked him what he wanted to do next. Interested in the lives and struggles of ordinary people, Vidor made his silent film The Crowd (1928), the story of a man reacting to modern urban life. Our Daily Bread is the sequel, only this time the young couple faces the economic difficulty of the Great Depression.

Vidor hoped to have the original actors from The Crowd play John and Mary, but alcoholism rendered James Murray unsuitable for the role of John. When Vidor directed Eleanor Boardman as Mary in The Crowd they had been married for two years, but their divorce in 1933 undoubtedly influenced his decision to seek a new actress for the part.

Vidor had worked with great stars before (John Gilbert, Lillian Gish), but for Our Daily Bread he cast relative unknowns to emphasize the “everyman” aspect of the story. Karen Morley’s previous experience included lesser parts in well-known films (Mata Hari, Dinner at Eight). Involvement in Our Daily Bread followed by Black Fury inspired her commitment to political activism; in 1951 she was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which ended her career.

Tom Keene, who also acted under the name Richard Powers and George Duryea, was primarily an actor in B-movie westerns (Scarlet River, Cross Fire); Vidor chose him for his resemblance to Murray. Both Morley and Keene appear to act with opposite extremes — she is understated, almost stiff, while he exudes “gee whiz!” boyish exuberance. Their performances may seem awkward by modern standards, but as metaphors for steadfast tradition (Mary) and the can-do spirit of Americans (John), they work. Today’s audiences may be most familiar with actor John Qualen, who played the Swedish farmer. Qualen had a similar role in Grapes of Wrath and played a Norwegian freedom fighter in Casablanca.

Despite King Vidor’s reputation and previous successes, no major studio would fund or distribute Our Daily Bread because it unabashedly addressed populist sentiments, questioning the success of American democracy and the viability of capitalism in the face of economic failure. Vidor had to put up his own money in addition to mortgaging his home and possessions to finance the picture. Eventually United Artists under Charlie Chaplin distributed the film, and Chaplin contributed ideas to the script. As Vidor recalls during seminars and interviews at the American Film Institute during the 1970s:

When we opened at the Pantages on Hollywood Boulevard, the fellows in publicity got up a full-page ad, and the day before the opening the ad was cancelled. The Hearst papers wouldn’t run the ad. We called them up and they said it was “pinko propaganda.” Then a group came from Russia, where the film had been screened, and they said to me, “We would have given you the first prize, except your film is capitalistic propaganda.” I don’t know which the film is, though I think it’s quite an honor to have one picture called both.

Our Daily Bread didn’t make a lot of money, but Vidor was able to pay back his debts. His career ultimately spanned 67 years (1913-1980) and included 69 films, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

As with so many early films, there are obvious (and sometimes vulgar) ethnic caricatures. Vidor uses these stereotypes to demonstrate the cross-section of America affected by the Depression and how, despite their differences, they are united by their desire to find honest work. Our Daily Bread can be seen in its entirety at the Internet Archive, but right now we’d like to give you a small taste of it here on the Bijou Blog Screen. In this segment John reflects on how much he’s learned from the Swedish farmer in such a short time. He wonders aloud to Mary how many others might be in similar straits, and if perhaps there might be some way to help them…

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