King Vidor’s 1934 film Our Daily Bread is aptly named, for the film is of a prayer than an actual solution to the Great Depression. Like other Socio-political films of the era, it tries to offer a solution to the problems faced by so many Americans. However, Vidor’s message gets lost somewhere between the poor production, the bad acting, and the inconsistent ideology of the film. For those reasons what comes out at the end is an almost silly climax with little realism that offers the same amount of help that an escapist vehicle of the same period would offer.
Vidor’s vision first began with his 1928 classic film of a couple being subjugated by the big city, The Crowd, which is the first part of a series of films Vidor wanted to do that depicted the lives of average American men and women (Vidor 221). The film follows the protagonist, John, as he slaves away in his office doing paperwork like so many other insignificant men. When John leaves work he is still just going through the motions, for his courtship and marriage to the heroine of the film, Mary, seems like a part of the city routine. Their marriage is enclosed by the city that their marriage suffers until Mary becomes pregnant. Here Vidor makes his point with his images of births in quantity (Bergman 76).
John’s downfall in the film begins with the death of his child. Hit in the street by a truck, the child lies dying as John tries seems to fight the sights and sounds of the city that killed his daughter. Her death continues to haunt John as he relives the scene over and over at work. Eventually he loses his job and his wife, and he wanders around with nothing to live for. He reunites with Mary in the end and they attend a show, where on the program is an advertising slogan that he is responsible for. He rejoices in this achievement, and is then able to laugh at the show, joining the rest of the people in the crowd. It is a touching and realistic ending that Vidor called “A perfectly natural finish for the story of Mr. Anyman” (Bergman 76).
In the early 1930s Vidor wanted to take the trials and unrest of the common man and put it into a film, so he read as many articles as he could on the subject (Vidor 220). He came across an article by a college professor in Reader’s Digest that proposed the implementation of agricultural co-operatives as a solution to unemployment. Vidor used this concept to formulate his story with his wife, and the two of them began work on the script. They finished the story in four months, which they titled Our Daily Bread. It followed a trend of other “back to the earth” films that came out in 1933, such as King Kong, State Fair, The Life of Jimmy Dolan, and Stranger’s Return.
With the script finished Vidor tried to sell the idea to Irving Thalberg at MGM, but although he expressed a liking for the story, he didn’t think it appropriate for MGM (Vidor 221). Vidor had no better luck with anyone else until he appealed to Charlie Chaplin, a co-owner of United Artists. UA agreed to release the picture, but Vidor still had to produce it himself. To get funding he hocked everything he could, raising about $125,000 to budget his film.
With this money Vidor was able to make his film about an ideal social system, where people work together towards a common goal with a relationship based on trust to form a utopian community, showing the romantic idealist in Vidor (Welsh 446). Vidor wanted to take the same protagonists from The Crowd, John and Mary, and place them in Our Daily Bread so that he could move them out of the city and show them in a rural environment. Vidor wanted to offer an alternative lifestyle that involved getting away from the big cities and living off of the land. His conception of the agricultural co-operatives suggested a shifting away from industrialization and instead refocusing on the countries agricultural strengths to pull us out of the Depression.
In Our Daily Bread, John and Mary begin in the city, both out of work. They get a break when a relative of Mary gives them the rights to an abandoned farm, so they back up what they can and leave the city for the country. However, their ignorance in agriculture has them turn to the help of others, an immigrant farmer and his family. They know how to farm and offer their services in exchange for being able to stay on the land with them. This starts a trend as they begin taking in out of work people that happen to pass by. The community that forms consists of people of all trades; there is even a criminal who serves as the commune’s cop. And they also take in trouble in the form of the town hussy, the platinum blonde Sally.
With the people in place the commune holds a campfire meeting to decide what direction they want their co-operative to head towards. John is willing to cede ownership of the land to the group. Much political rhetoric of a varied nature goes on, with ideas that swing from fascist to socialist to communist, but the group settles on having one strong leader in a democratic system, and that leader being John, despite his inexperience at farming.
The commune runs into trouble when a drought hits and the corn crop is in danger. The commune must scrounge for food because they have no money to buy supplies. The criminal offers to give himself up to authorities so that the commune may collect on the $500 reward being offered for him, but the commune declines. The trouble that the commune has causes John to lose interest not only in the farm but also his wife as he becomes taken with Sally. When things seem darkest, John decides to run with Sally back to the city. However, shortly after leaving John gets a vision of an irrigation ditch they can build from a nearby stream that can save the crops. He turns around an presents his idea to the commune and they buy into it and set to work on digging it. The sequences were shot by Vidor as if it were a ballet (Vidor 224). The films end with the ditch being a success, with full and health crops in a very fantasy like ending
It is this lack of realism that makes Our Daily Bread an inferior film, especially as a follow up to The Crowd. The Crowd was a heart-wrenching look at the insanity of city life that showed how contentment could only be achieved by losing one’s sense of self. Our Daily Bread is an unrealistic solution to the Depression, which is also hindered by its poor acting and characters, in particular John, played by Tom Keene. The bad acting can perhaps be excused by the fact that Vidor hadn’t much of a budget to work with, but the character he presented in John was not a good example of a working class hero. John is weak and incompetent and it does not stand to reason that the co-operative would elect him as their leader. When things get tough John makes it his opportunity to run off with Sally. And it is not guilt of leaving his wife that brings him back, but his vision of an irrigation ditch that makes him turn back.
His insight into the irrigation ditch is also a questionable plot mechanism. John is not the experienced farmer, but the immigrant who was first to arrive at the co-operative is. It is unreasonable to conceive that thousands of years of humans developing farming techniques would be lost on this poor Swede to where he would never come up with the concept of an aqueduct. This is one of several agricultural inaccuracies. The water they use in the end supposedly comes from a mountain stream. If this is true then mountain land is not fertile enough to grow corn and wheat, like what was being done in the co-operative. Also, it was suggested that the co-operative was growing their crops to sell, not just subsistence. During this time period there was a surplus of corn and wheat. There was no market for their crops.
What makes this film particularly bad is how confused is seems ideologically at times. The campfire scene has moments were the film is very much leftist, then it swings to the right (Durgnat 149). John tries to give up ownership of the land to the co-operative, a left-wing act, but they feel it would be an ungrateful act, similar to an anti-welfare attitude. They also demand a strong leader and choose John, which he proudly accepts, also a right-wing attitude. There are other instances where there is a more leftist attitude, where people sacrifice for the good of the collective, which leans almost towards communism. The best example is when the criminal/cop turns himself in for the $500 reward to feed the commune. What best illustrated this confusion is the film’s winning second prize at a Soviet film festival in Moscow, yet didn’t receive first prize because they considered it to be “capitalist propaganda.” The Hearst press machine labeled the film “pinko”, and the Los Angeles Times refused an advertising layout because the film went too far to the left in their opinion (Vidor 227).
With the country in the midst of The Great Depression it is easy to see why the film was well received. The system that was currently in place was obviously not working. People wanted a solution to their problems. Vidor offered the means to a utopian society where people could work together towards a common goal, everyone doing equal share, everyone taking equal rewards. But his vision was unachievable. People out of work in the cities didn’t have relatives that owned farms and were willing to give them away. Cash crops were not bringing enough to earn a living. Vidor’s dream for pulling America out of the Depression was nothing more than what it was: a dream.
Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money: Depression America and its Films. New York:
NYU Press, 1971.
Durgnat, Raymond & Simmon, Scott. King Vidor, American. Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1988.
Vidor, King. A Tree is a Tree. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.
Welsh, James M. “Vidor, King Wallis.” The Political Companion to American Film. Ed.
Gary Crowdus. Lakeview Press, 1994.