Dreams and disputations about “modernization” vs. “the land,” of what free labor did and could entail, were profuse in mid-1930s America. Alive in the minds and actions of the displaced worker and cloistered idealist alike. Director King Vidor had long been using moving images to think along the same lines, but in 1934 these ideas collided with real world events, and his own aspirations for independence within his trade, and produced a sui generis film.
Born as a reaction to the widespread suffering of the Great Depression, and from reading a Reader’s Digest article advocating for co-operative farming as a solution to unemployment, Our Daily Bread was developed by Vidor and his then wife and close-collaborator Florence Hill, as a semi-sequel to his 1928 film The Crowd, which followed the tribulations of an ambitious “everyman.”
Like The Crowd, Our Daily Bread features the Sims couple, John and Mary, this time played by Tom Keene and Karen Morley, down on their luck with wolves at their door. John cannot compete in the mad scramble for employment, where hundreds line up and compete for a single position. At home, Mary delays the rent-collector, and debt with their local deli has piled up so high that they make-do off such lop-sided transactions as one scrawny hen for one ukulele. A ray of hope arrives when Mary’s condescendingly charitable uncle (Lloyd Ingraham) gives them a patch of land so worthless that “the bank doesn’t want it and neither do I.”
Though life on the farm gets off to an inauspicious start, John soon lands on an epiphany. They cannot hope to make it alone, so why not find some helping hands—they could all till the soil and make a living together. This idea, to take the unemployed and create a flourishing co-operative attracts droves but begins with Chris (John Qualen), a Minnesotan farmer fleeing with his family from destitution. Played by Qualen in a varyingly broad and subtle rendition of his “Swede” typage, he’s characterized as true salt of the earth. His unabated love for farming is expressed not only in his working knowledge of the land’s needs and idiosyncrasies but in vivid metaphors like how ploughing can be as effortless and pleasurable as “slicing through chocolate” and wheat stalks are like praising hands, reaching for the sun. His know-how inspires John directly, while his rhetorical gifts, his earnestness, stylization, and sense of humor, finds analogy and expansion in Vidor’s artistic and thematic choices.
The scenes prior to the creation of the co-operative are shot and cut in a way that suits the Sims’ limited living in cramped urban conditions. Two-shots predominate and during editing, Vidor removed any and all exterior scenes from this first movement. Once the farm-work begins, the film truly opens up and finds a visual breadth to rival, if not in scope and budget than in beauty, any of the mass-mobilizations and arcadia to be found in Vidor’s reputation-making WW1 blockbuster The Big Parade (1925), which at one point is openly referenced in song. Vidor shoots the land with an eye for proto-Wyethian dramatis and splendor, but also to emphasize it as a substance that brawn, mechanized or unallowed, can churn and transform.
The scene where this new bona fide community, numbering in their dozens, begin to set up camp and put their new system of free exchange into practice is arranged in short, squib-like visual proverbs and with giddying and gently-parodical tone. The sequence is capped by a bravura interlinking of practical and transcendent symbols of growth. A baby, about to be born, is represented as a list of necessities written on a chalkboard. His birth, precipitated by a blessing of the farm by a carpenter-cum-preacher, is in turn prompted by the earthly and unearthly apparition of a cross etched into the soil.
The film’s unusual political stance, as neither fish nor fowl—dubbed “pinko” by the mainstream American press while its second-place prize from the Moscow Film Festival came with the caveat that it would have been first if it weren’t “capitalist propaganda"—works to its benefit. This ambiguity is sourced in Vidor’s own complex and elastic political beliefs, as a self-declared individualist who has made some of the most expressive films about community and cooperation, as part of a life-long mission in envisioning in the many possible worlds in which human beings could survive and thrive.
It is an explicit point of debate for the characters as well. After the initial spark of regeneration, the film seems to set itself rightward with the community’s first assembly. Calls for “an eternal democracy” or “a socialistic form of government” are dismissed as trouble or inscrutable. John instead offers up the hazy and archaic model of the Mayflower, which prompts wheat-whisperer Chris to propose, to unanimous agreement, John as the “big boss for the big job.” What follows though is an ill-fit as an individual’s march of triumph à la Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which Vidor would later, edgily, adapt.
Despite this “big boss” mantle, John is, for most of the runtime, a weak-willed individual, given to mock shows of strength and flights into self-succoring fantasy. The majority of the hitches that arise are tamped down by the collective while John either despairs, meanders or is completely oblivious. This impotence manifests in Keene’s performance through his child-like manner and speech patterns. His talk is all drawn out syllables and he’s given to vocal cord stretching yowling as he succumbs too easily to astonishment or excitement. Such behavior is heightened when in proximity with Mary’s dependability and even-temper, and John finds his perfect foil in the form of Louie (Addison Richards). A six-foot and counting bollard of a man whose overcautious delivery and manner initially marks him out as a suspicious character before becoming the diction of moral surety. For though he eventually reveals himself to be a fugitive, he’s a more natural communitarian than John, and what few biases he possesses he more easily overcomes when necessity calls.
John’s eventual positive transformation is one of macho self-actualization, manifesting in him assuming some of Louie’s mien and tempo. His self-discovery is complete with the act of subsuming himself to the community at large. By the end, he is not only his own man but positively de-individualized, or even dehumanized, becoming a literal ballast that supports and funnels the farm’s life force.
Our Daily Bread also has a prime musical force, including its folk tunes and spare but powerful swells from Alfred Newman. Its barnstorming climax, where the community must band together and dig an irrigation ditch in order to save their drought-stricken crop, is a reminder that Vidor is one of American cinema’s grand synthesists. His approach and style often drawing together Griffithian cutting and melodrama—an inheritance Vidor frequently and gladly claimed—with European experimental styles such as German expressionism in The Crowd and Hallelujah (1929), with both films also progenitors of post-war neorealism.
Soviet montage is also a certifiable influence on this film. Vidor had seen Sergei Eisenstein’s own co-operative farming movie, The General Line (1929), a few years prior and its presence is most transparent in the finale, where the graft and hard-won euphoria of the farmers’ last-ditch effort is rendered with overtly rhythmic cutting. There is a key distinction, however. While Eistenstein’s cutting uses directly contrapuntal moments hedged in a more syncopated framework, Vidor sets a steady and driving 4/4 time signature, which he worked out on-location by staging the work crew of pick and shovel wielding men to a metronome and bass drum, turning them into a kind of chorus line. An example of his “silent music” technique.
This scene then makes strange bedfellows with future uses of that exact same time signature in music, like the “motorik” beat of German bands Neu and Kraftwerk as well as the four-to-the-floor pattern of house and techno. All explicitly use this elementary structure for newly expressive and forward-thinking purposes.
The film’s veneration of independent living and working with no top-down gods or masters aligned with Vidor’s hopes and struggle for a free cinema artistry. Executives deemed the film a money-losing proposition, so Vidor ended up funding the film independently, even going so far as to mortgage his own home. Though his career has variously been marked and stung by instances where his perspective has successfully overlapped or been overturned by studio, producer and star authorships, Our Daily Bread is not an island of autonomy. Other independent productions dot his working life, as do co-operatives such as the “Vidor Village,” set-up in 1920, his co-founding of the Directors Guild of America in 1936, and other short-lived, filmmaker co-ops in the 40s and 50s.
As elaborated in his article, “Rubber Stamp Movies,” published in The New Theatre a month before the film’s release, Vidor wanted to shift the balance of his entire industry. To remake a Hollywood that, as it stood, was built by the imagination and labor of many but dictated by the greed of the few.
“Consequently, in the movie business the final decisions are made by businessmen, not artists, If a writer or director could finance himself, and if his work of art could fail completely without the artist going to the poorhouse for the rest of his life, more interesting pictures would be made more frequently. But the purse strings are held, as I said, by businessmen and not by artists; and when they weigh those hundred thousands on one side and the director’s talents on the other, the decisions are generally made in favor of the pot of gold.”
Though such a paradigm shift was never achieved, at least not as totally as Vidor desired, Our Daily Bread is a glimpse at such a world by one of the medium’s most gung-ho egalitarians and utopians.