Our Daily Bread (1934) in The Age of FDR

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The title, of course, comes from the Lord’s Prayer evoking images of contrite men and women thankful for the bounties they’re provided on God’s green earth. Director King Vidor took an immediate interest in the project because it was a timely piece in the age of FDR’s public work programs about individual humans looking for ways to eke out an honest living.

Our Daily Bread is based on one such project with a host of men utilizing some vacant, barren land for sustenance. There is a sense the topic was too down to earth for a big studio — at least in the midst of the depression — so Vidor took on the expenses himself because he felt strongly enough about the material.

It’s a  story of hope burgeoning out of the pits of the depression. This is the key. We are used to stories of degradation and hardship in the throes of the 1930s because this was human reality. But King Vidor promotes a story that while acknowledging the headlines, hones in on a nugget of encouragement — a reminder of the indefatigable flame of the human spirit.

John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene and Karen Morley) are like so many other folks, they’re falling behind on rent, work is scarce, and they barely survive by hocking their possessions.

It might be easy to forget that the names of our two protagonists in this picture are plucked out of The Crowd — King Vidor’s magnum opus about the American way of life. The fact that two new actors don the roles feels mostly inconsequential because they are only symbols of the human experience — stand-ins for us all — and thus anyone who is genuine and honest is fit to play them. Surely we can relate.

It’s true Tom Keene and Karen Morley are not altogether well-remembered today. They aren’t electric talents, but she is wholesome (consider this interview), and he is exuberant bursting with new ideas. They set up camp in the dilapidated home on the fallow ground armed with their eagerness. By itself, it seems foolhardy.

However, John is soon joined by a passerby — a Swedish farmer (John Qualen) who knows how to raise crops and more men soon follow from all sorts of trades and backgrounds. They too want a second chance and an opportunity to prove their usefulness.

Although a stirring speech about John Smith and the Mayflower doesn’t play as compelling now, nevertheless, their de facto leader urges them to help themselves by helping others, and they need no further encouragement.

In the ensuing days, the able-bodied men hitch plows up to every conceivable contraption imaginable as they get to work. They become a bustling colony of industry made up of idyllic shanty houses. Best of all, they’re in it together.

As they gain traction, the movie is pregnant with these heart-rendering vignettes leaping to mind one after another. Upon the first sign of a harvest, they celebrate with hands raised aloft and knees bowed as the preacher among them thanks the good Lord for this bounty.

Then, the most formidable and brusque member of the commune — a wanted criminal, nevertheless is beholden to a higher form of justice, sticking out for his fellow man. He goes so far as to turn himself in so the reward money can be used to stock up on much-needed provisions until the first crop can be harvested. He’s yet another noble man who has the good of the whole in mind.

If it’s not apparent already, Our Daily Bread blends its religious sentiment with deeply socialist themes. It was, after all, the age of FDR’s New Deal sentiment effectively retrofitting how American society operated and was perceived. Still, Vidor utilizes an ongoing visual methodology Eisenstein might have appreciated. By 1950, a film as blatant as Our Daily Bread would have probably been excised from the cultural conversation.

However, although the socialist proclivities are quite apparent, for me, it’s never a political film, nor does it bludgeon us over the head with the idealogy completely. It’s very much an exercise in promoting this same dogma of the group over a single individual.

Because the story starts out with a couple — we can relate with them and appreciate them — but even as they pool together into this cooperative community, they only become two elements in a broader social amoeba. This hardly seems like an accident, especially as the narrative progresses.

If there are seasons of rejoicing and dance, then there must also be tribulation. Such is life. Tom’s indomitable vision is ultimately soured by drought and the temptation of another woman.

When Barbara Peppers shows up in the rain — we’re wary of her — what purpose could she possibly serve? With her batting eyes and saucy come-on attitude, she becomes a new love interest. And the cinema archetypes suggest Mary in all her devotedness doesn’t stand a chance. Surely, Vidor and his audience have seen Sunrise. I for one took a deepening relish in Peppers part due to her later credit as Doris Ziffel in Green Acres. She’s well nigh unrecognizable as a slender teenager, but if nothing else, it feels like an unknowing if uncanny parallel.

Vidor’s greatest triumph comes in the finale. The men band together to create irrigation to salvage their perishing corn crop before it’s too late. We have this heave-ho as rows of men pickaxe their way in unison, lumbering along to remove all the boulders from their path. They’re like a machine of manpower.

If the Grapes of Wrath is about the unstoppable tractors rolling over the land and taking it over, then these moments feel like a counterargument of frenetic human industry and solidarity. It’s not that there’s a lack of reliance on tools and the like. It only works when the humans who are behind them — living and breathing — are working together and building up a head of steam.

As they forge onward with their work night and day — everyone doing their part and investing wholeheartedly in this group utility — you see the message once more in stark relief. They are cheered onto the finish line by the women and children — their crops in sight and the goal on hand.

What an earnest climax it is! Swelling with angel song, everyone jumping with joy, doing black flips in the muddied ground. And as we watch them wading around in the mud, we know it is a signifier of life and a renewed future.

Here Our Daily Bread ceases to be a mere articulation or mimesis of the struggle to cow the depression. It’s a full-fledged metaphor for the enduring fortitude of the American spirit. Whether or not it’s a myth, King Vidor makes us want to believe in it all the more fervently. Likewise, the swelling angel songs might be too much for some — if you don’t believe in Providence. For these folks, Providence goes hand in hand with hard work.  And that flow of living water, notwithstanding the spiritual undertones, represents their daily bread.

4/5 Stars

1 thought on “Our Daily Bread (1934) in The Age of FDR

  1. This sounds fascinating. I’m not familiar with Tom Keene, but I’ve enjoyed Karen Morley in several films, especially Flesh, Dinner at Eight, and Scarface, and would like to see her in this. I can’t imagine this film being made a decade later, when the Communist witchhunts were in full effect. I will be looking for this one!

    Liked by 2 people

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