Our Daily Bread: A Film of Social Conscience

King Vidor’s Depression-era film, “Our Daily Bread,” offered a utopian vision of social justice that championed the rights of workers. The vultures of the controlled press condemned it as anti-American. “Our Daily Bread” exposed economic injustice years before John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath put Tom Joad on the road.

by Mike Marino

King Vidor, director of the 1928 silent film classic, “The Crowd,” turned his insatiable social consciousness loose once again in 1934, with the release of his cinematic indictment of the economic degradation of the Depression era, “Our Daily Bread” (originally called “Hell’s Crossroads”).

“Our Daily Bread” was an updated, non-sedated, “go for the jugular” sequel to Vidor’s earlier film, “The Crowd,” with different actors, and this time, with sound, a musical score and dialogue. It was the dawn of Hollywood’s “talkies” and Vidor’s film had a voice that spoke loud and clear in describing the plight of Americans in the richest land on the planet.

“Our Daily Bread” exposed economic injustice years before Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (published in 1939) put Tom Joad on the road, and countless others in search of work tried to survive by hopping rides like bolsheviks in boxcars, riding the “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” Woody Guthrie rails.

Economic oppression and ruin were the devastating results of the Great Depression that put tremendous pressure on the people, while the dust storms and drought of the Dust Bowl destroyed the land and soil, dispossessing families from their generations-old heritage of farm life, property and honest labor. It was the worst of times, and, unlike Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, there were no best of times this time around.

“Our Daily Bread” utilized the same characters as “The Crowd,” but this time with a new roster of actors who would reprise the roles in a fresh and unique way. Vidor was a passionate filmmaker who was excited about exposing conditions that create the indignities suffered when human rights are trampled.

Vidor approached movie mogul Irving Thalberg, boy genius of MGM studios, in an effort to gain his interest and persuade him to hand over the gold from the MGM vault to get the film produced and marketed to the public. Thalberg, however, was not interested. He wanted to entertain the public with Marx Brothers comedies and romantic comedies, and was not about to break formula and preach from a cinematic soapbox about the misery of the miserable who were growing in number in this former land of plenty while the soupline chorus broke out into a rousing refrain of  “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.”

Across the nation, prosperity gave way to handouts at backdoors, tramps and hobos were on the move, and families and children were starving to death. It was life without a net. A dazzling, dangerous, high-wire act that defied death usually ended up in death or, at the very least, broken dreams and spirits.

Vidor, his back literally against the economic wall, decided to produce the film himself, using whatever personal funds he had to funnel into the film project, but it was not enough to reach the finish line. Vidor then looked to a curious little tramp who walked with an arrogant waddle with his trademark hat and cane, a tramp with a social conscience by the name of Charlie Chaplin, who was more than willing and able to fund “Our Daily Bread” from beginning to “The End.”

Needless to say, once it was completed and shown, the press attacked Vidor’s film with the viciousness of a rabid dog, calling it pinko propaganda that had a faint, Soviet-Red tint due in large part to its “communal” message of survival, and the involvement of Charlie Chaplin, who had also gained a “pinko” rep. The film was released through Chaplin’s United Artists Company, whose main offices were in Hollywood — not Moscow!

The storyline follows the exploits of John and Mary (sounds like check-in time at the No-Tell Motel), who are having a hard time during the hard times keeping their heads above water while swimming in the high-cost ocean of the high-rise city. They take what assets they have, cash out and hit the road, leaving New York far behind in the rearview mirror.

As luck would have it, Mary’s uncle has offered them possession of a rough piece of farmland to work and live on. They feel they are up to the challenge, roll up their proletarian sleeves and take over the abandoned farm with mucho gusto and a rush of adrenalin. Remember now, these are born and bred city folks used to concrete canyons and apartments. Farming and land stewardship are as foreign to them as a conscience was to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50s during the “red scare” hearings in America.

Gradually, as the farm takes shape and the land itself rejuvenates with new life and growth, John and Mary have an epiphany of sorts. They decide to establish a collective of others seeking shelter from the storm of the Great Depression. They had read all about the great Utopian experiments of the 19th century, and although these attempts were rarely successful, John and Mary feel they have the communal chutzpah to pull it off. So they put up signs advertising for men who need work and shelter in exchange for bartering the skills they can bring to the utopian table, such as carpenters, mechanics, or other talented workers who can help keep the collective machine well-oiled and operational.

Men on the move came across the farm, saw the signs posted there, and realized the opportunity awaiting them. As it turns out, John and Mary had made them an offer they couldn’t refuse! It was a chance to share in the food and profits generated on the farm, while at the same time sharing in the workload and helping each other out. Sustainable living through brotherhood as a reality, well before it became a born-again Facebook buzzword!

In time, the cadre of comrades grows, the utopian Garden of Eden blossoms, and it’s all for one, one for all. As the proletarian population grows, families now seek out the farm they had heard about. They are a diverse lot, including an Italian and a Jewish family who all pitch in. Later, in no-room-at-the-inn symbolism — the inn being American society and its intolerance for the poor — a Jewish child is born on the farm.

 

The movie poster for King Vidor’s cinematic indictment of the economic injustice of the Great Depression, “Our Daily Bread.”

The movie poster for King Vidor’s cinematic indictment of the economic injustice of the Great Depression, “Our Daily Bread.”

 

At one point, the cavalry arrives, in the form of a Swedish farmer who has been kicked off his own land and is now dispossessed. He joins the community and, with his vast agricultural expertise, begins to teach the enclave the secrets of farming, soil depletion, regeneration of soil, the common sense of land stewardship, and the importance of irrigation to fill in when Mother Nature cannot comply with ample water, and drought conditions retard the land and hold it hostage.

“Our Daily Bread” is not all soil, toil and trouble. Not by a long shot. You have to add a smidgeon of sex as an undertone in any socially conscious film — an affair that acts as a diversion from the mission of its protagonists, in this case, the completion of the irrigation ditch. The diversionary “she” is Sally who comes along and takes John for a short journey away from matrimonial sanctity with Mary, and also manages to divert John’s own sexual irrigation ditch of needs, thereby leading him to neglect his duties as prime motivator of the group farm. His daily dalliance is now interfering with the daily bread of the commune!

Once John has his fill of tilling Sally’s fertile soil, he gets back on track and tackles the construction of an irrigation ditch with the gusto of a kid at Christmas ripping open his presents in a frantic frenzy. Drought has hit the region like writer’s block and it is imperative that the irrigation ditch be completed to salvage the farm and all the work they have put into it.

At one point, John is fed up with the project and feels it is a disaster. Mary is as astute as they come and realizes with her fine-tuned female intuition that Sally is responsible for John’s discontent. Her instincts prove to be correct and John actually leaves the farm, briefly, with Sally in tow. Her gravitational pull is too strong for him to fight.

After a few sexual forays with Sally, John gets her out of his system, and decides that the group has to make the fields wet and productive. But a new wrinkle falls on the wizened face of circumstance when it’s learned that a few mortgage payments have been missed and things are coming to a head. The land is to be auctioned off by the sheriff for non-payment of the mortgage.

During the auction, the prospective buyers have to face an angry line of faces of the soon-to-be landless, farmless, homeless farmers. Intimidated, the buyers back off and the farm is sold to one of the collective’s members for under two bucks!

The team works diligently day and night to get the irrigation ditch dug and activated by diverting just enough water for their meager needs. Their backbreaking labor is successful and the life-giving water cascades over the soil and saves the crops, saves the day, and saves the farm.

By now, while water is filling the irrigation ditch, Sally is water under the bridge as John, once errant, now embraces Mary with all the gusto that a wandering husband can and should summon. While John and Mary make merry, in the fields the farm workers are celebrating with wild abandon, dashing and splashing in the water. In the end, the crops give forth a bounty unheard of and the communal spirit is alive and well.

The film moves as fast as a tornado in Kansas and is just as powerful with its message of collectivity and self-sufficiency, hard work and rewards. It is anti-corporate in scope and focuses on what can be attained by a group of hardworking individuals in time of need who, instead of whining about life, take adversity by the horns and turn it around through a proactive approach. That approach, of course, was considered anti-American and anti-capitalist when it came out. The vultures of the controlled press condemned it, no doubt at the behest or outright threat that radiated from the seat of power in Washington, D.C., and its dollar-a-holler whore — namely, corporate America’s big business and banking institutes.

In the words of the utopian community: “We live! We love! We fight! We hate! What don’t we do for — OUR DAILY BREAD!”

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