Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Our Daily Bread (1934)

OUR DAILY BREAD      B-              
USA  (80 mi)  1934  d:  King Vidor

“Inspired by Headlines of Today” reads the opening title screen, which gives one pause, begging the question, what headlines?  This is a Depression era film that plays to the pervading sense of hopelessness and desperation that was spreading across a panicked nation, where people’s lives were at an economic dead end, seemingly with no future.  While shown in a somewhat realistic manner, with a few exceptions, this film plays out more as social fantasy, a call to arms offering a utopian dream as a hopeful outlook for the otherwise grim prospects of the future, where the idea of pitching in and working together is reflective of the New Deal era ideal of getting people back to work, needing solutions to help recover from the economic collapse of the banks and major financial institutions, when the unemployment rate of the nation increased to 25%, where one-third of all employed persons were downgraded to working part-time on much smaller paychecks, and almost 50% of the nation's human work-power was going unused.  The plain truth of the matter is that people were desperate for jobs, any jobs, as at this point in history there was no national safety net in place, no insurance on lost savings accounts from failed banks, no unemployment insurance, no Social Security, no help for the poor, as legions of people lost their homes with conditions worsening year by year.  This film was made just after Franklin D. Roosevelt began serving his first term as U.S. President, March 4, 1933, where his first 100 days ushered in the New Deal legislation.  Influenced both by D.W. Griffith's realism and Sergei Eisenstein's montage aesthetic, King Vidor, from Galveston, Texas, shot local events for national newsreel companies before moving to Hollywood, becoming a company clerk for Universal, writing scripts under the pseudonym Charles K. Wallis, as employees weren’t allowed to submit original work to the studio, eventually founding “Vidor Village,” a small studio that imitated similar projects by Chaplin, Sennett, Griffith, Ince, and others, until he was eventually hired by Louis B. Mayer at what would eventually become MGM, where he worked for the next 20 years.  Vidor built a reputation for stylistic experimentation and uncompromising concern for social issues, where the struggle for individualism against the forces of nature or destiny became prominent themes. 

Written by the director and his wife Elizabeth Hill, Vidor had trouble getting backers for this film, as the major studios refused to finance it, making this an independent production that Vidor financed himself, eventually catching the eye and financial support of Charlie Chaplin at United Artists, a company ironically run as a cooperative by leading figures in early Hollywood seeking an outlet to distribute their own works.  Showing a certain amount of political naiveté, Vidor’s intent was to show how ordinary men alone can become extraordinary by working together in this socialist utopian agriculture melodrama that originated from a Reader’s Digest article, with added dialogue by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.  The film was made as a sequel to his earlier Silent film THE CROWD (1928), which presents the reactions of an everyman to the harsh and impersonal conditions of surviving in the city, where John and Mary Sims come to realize they are mere faces in an endless sea of humanity destined to live anonymous lives.  Following the same characters played by different actors, it is now the Great Depression, where John (Tom Keene) and Mary, Karen Morley, perhaps best remembered for her role as Poppy, the negligee wearing gun moll in Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932), are a couple out of work and about to be thrown out of their apartment for nonpayment of rent.  With no prospects on the horizon, Mary’s wealthy uncle decides to offer them an abandoned farm that is about to be foreclosed by the government before he can make any use out of it.  Though John is a city boy with no farming experience, they head for the country and move to the farm, hoping they can live off the land until the economy improves.  Finding it harder than they realized, John welcomes a traveling couple fixing a flat in front of their home who happen to be immigrant farmers from Minnesota that just lost their farm, offering Chris (John Qualen), a happy go lucky Swede, a piece of land and a place to stay for free in exchange for his farming expertise.  In no time, John realizes how much could be accomplished with the addition of just a single man, who has to chuckle at John’s inexperience throwing away weeds that turn out to be carrots, imagining how much more work could be done if he added ten men, posting roadside advertising that eventually draws a crowd.  Unable to say no to anyone, he welcomes one and all, skilled and unskilled, so long as they put in a hard day’s work, creating a socialist farm commune where food, money, land, and expertise are shared collectively by one and all.  

The initial rush of enthusiasm, where everyone voluntarily pools their resources and John is elected leader of the group, is tempered by the youthful gee whiz mentality of their leader, which works fine in times of plenty, but serves no purpose whatsoever when they run out of money and food, where people’s spirits are already deflated, made even worse at the onset of drought.  In the face of ruinous conditions, who should drop in but a platinum blonde, Jean Harlow-style gangster’s moll, Sally (Barbara Pepper), who is welcomed like all the others, but refuses to do any work, and instead lies around in her furs listening to jazz records on her phonograph while also making eyes at the boss man, a relationship that is inferred rather than shown, but takes place right under the watchful eyes of Mary who is sorry she ever invited Sally into their home.  This sexual interlude is little more than an unnecessary distraction to the overall story, but was reputedly demanded by United Artists to sell tickets.  John is such a wide-eyed idealist filled with hopes and dreams, the idea that he’d want to run away with this floozy makes little sense, though the temptation of sin and the city parallels similar themes in F.W. Murnau’s masterwork SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927), sending John running back to the farm with a brainstorm.  So long as they’ve got the pumps working in the nearby reservoir, and the collective has plenty of manpower, why don’t they dig a two-mile irrigation waterway to their dying crops?  This renewed enthusiasm is matched with Soviet montage filmmaking, showing beauty in the splendor of work, where in this stirring finale everyone digs to the rhythm of the music, becoming a poetic homage to socialist collectivism.  The film is reflective of a growing sentiment in the 30’s where people were inspired by the idea of men and women working together for the common good, an era when workers took advantage of their collective power, which is in stark contrast to today’s individualism where corporate power has isolated each worker, one from the other, which only contributes to a growing economic insecurity for those at the bottom of the wage scale.  Vidor was instrumental in founding the Directors Guild of America in 1936, becoming the initial President for two years, and alongside John Ford, Frank Capra, and Ernst Lubitsch, were central figures in 1930’s American cinema.  It should be noted that Vidor’s film won Moscow’s Lenin Film Festival prize, while Karen Morley, who played Mary, was later named by Sterling Hayden as a communist sympathizer and blacklisted, while Chaplin’s financing of the film was later used against him during the Red Scare of 1950’s McCarthyism when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but decided to leave the country permanently rather than testify.  Ironically, Vidor himself eventually became a conservative, while thirty years later peroxide blonde Barbara Pepper returned to the country way of living in the 1960’s television sitcom Green Acres (1965 – 71), playing Doris, the wife of Fred Ziffel (Hank Patterson).        

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