King Vidor's Our Daily Bread (1934) more than just a big finish
King Vidor’s self-produced “Our Daily Bread” (1934) is a Depression-era tale of collectivism starring Tom Keene and Karen Morley. We follow the city-dwelling couple from the brink of an eviction notice down to the farm where a lack of know-how and need for survival leads to a system of barter and sharing and winds up with an exciting race to save the dying crops.
You’ve likely seen clips of how it ends: men rhythmically marching as they swing pick axes in time chopping out a ditch that reaches from a reservoir to their dying cornfield two miles off. Trees are felled, large stones shifted, stumps pulled away as they work together to save the crop. Working straight through the night the women hold torches to light the way for the men as they continue to dig. A make-shift trough is constructed to sit over top a gully. Dust spreads across the screen as they dig on, all completely exhausted by the time the cornfield comes into view and the cheers of the women and children are heard urging them to their finish.
Yes, that makes good film. Is it the entire movie though? Well, I guess if you’re looking for action it is. But “Our Daily Bread” was intended more as an idea, agree with it or not, than an action sequence.
Vidor opens with a bill collector huffing and puffing his way up several flights of stairs to collect past due rent from the young Sims couple. Mary Sims (Karen Morley) assures the man that they’ll have the money together within a couple of days, citing the expected visit of her rich Uncle Anthony (Lloyd Ingraham) who she’s depending upon him to help out. Surprisingly the bill collector lets it go at that, tells Mary he’ll be back in two days, and departs. The man of the house, John Sims (Tom Keene), wisely interrupts his own approach home to hide behind the stairs when he hears someone exiting his apartment.
Once John and Mary exchange pleasantries and John talks about what rough going it is out there, Mary tells him to perk up because Uncle Anthony (and opportunity) are coming for dinner. No hamburger for Uncle Anthony, Mary sends John out to procure a chicken with a ukulele and empty pockets. We’re shown the butcher passing over the fat birds in favor of the skinniest chicken in the shop, for which he receives the uke as payment.
At dinner Uncle Anthony turns out to be far from pleasant, making sure to rub John’s nose in his failure and telling him how fruitless his fancy ideas are. John sucks it up and Mary asks the old-timer if he has anything for them at all. Taking a pull off his cigar Uncle Anthony lets them know he’s been hit pretty hard by all this himself, this, of course, being the Great Depression, but he does have a parcel of worthless property in Arcadia that he doesn’t plan on doing anything with. John and Mary are more than welcome to try and make something out of themselves and this barren farmland. With absolutely nothing to lose the youngsters gratefully accept.
Produced soon after the Production Code went into effect it was interesting to see the married couple’s makeshift straw beds placed a few feet apart on the floor of their new home on the farm. Only when Mary is frightened by the nighttime noises does John relent and slide his bed next to hers, though before he can hop in beside her Vidor cuts away to the next scene.
John quickly discovers that he’s no farmer, but luck intercedes when Chris (John Qualen), a Swede from Minnesota, breaks down on the road right in front John and Mary’s farm. Chris was a farmer back home, but is currently headed to California to pan gold. Instead he and his family accept John’s invitation to stay on the farm in exchange for teaching him how to work it. John has his big idea after Chris invites Mary and him over for some of his wife’s rabbit stew: If one man can contribute as much as the Swede has, what could ten men do? He has the idea of forming “a sort of cooperative community, where money isn’t important.”
Several signs are placed along the roadside to draw travelers in, and there are a lot more than ten who decide to stop. Despite a brief interview process where John really puffs out his chest and wields his power all comers are accepted into the community, and we’re quickly shown the main idea put into action when one man struggles to frame his house and the other has a hard time building a fireplace. The one man approaches, announces that he’s a stone mason and that he’ll gladly build the other man’s fireplace if he, a carpenter, frames his house. Done deal. Another example is shown where a cobbler taps at some shoes, while a violinist, wearing his one good shoe, gives the cobbler’s child musical lessons.
As for government, Arcadia quickly declares itself a dictatorship, albeit a loose one more akin to the Mob than any official form of government. But when settling down to decide how the camp should rule itself the first idea shouted out is actually Democracy, but there’s quite a bit of mumbling and moaning about that plan, so then another member declares that the farm should be run by a socialistic form of government. That idea isn’t hissed at like Democracy was, but is met with a brief silence instead. The kindly Swede Chris then steps in and dumbs it down a notch by noting that he doesn’t even understand the words being tossed around but one thing he’s sure of is that John should be Boss of the camp. The crowd cheers the idea making it so.
The Boss’s muscle is Louie (Addison Richards), a big quiet fellow, with a menacing stare that hammers home the point of the few words he does use. Louie settles the first disagreement in the town: A man is outlining the frame to his house when a bully comes along and shoves the smaller man off the property claiming it as his own. Louie’s answer is the fist.
When a public notice reveals that the farm has an outstanding debt of over $400, the mob rallies to the cause when the Sheriff arrives to auction off the property. While there are prospective bidders at the auction, they are surrounded on every side by the orneriest members of the camp who compel them not to speak through angry stares and threatening gestures. One of the camp members bid $1.75, while another quickly bumps it to $1.85, but when silence follows the frustrated Sheriff declares the entire sale off and starts to walk away. This gives a former lawyer a chance to speak out and note that by state law once two bids are placed the sale must go down. Nobody else dare bid. The people turn the property over to their Boss, John.
Tom Keene, best known for his work as a cowboy star, got his start in Hollywood under his birth name of George Duryea, and plays John Sims in “Our Daily Bread.” Keene looks a little like Joel McCrea, sounds at times like Jimmy Stewart, and would have been better off here had he been Henry Fonda. Despite lacking the skills to elevate “Our Daily Bread,” Keene does a passable job in playing the part of the inexperienced and often naïve Sims. There’s an excellent, and recent, piece on Keene over on The Bijou Blog, well worth checking out: “The Three Faces of Tom Keene.”
Karen Morley, who you’ll more likely remember as either “Poppy” in “Scarface” (1932) or in the lesser role playing Edmund Lowe’s put-upon wife In “Dinner at Eight” (1933), plays John’s wife, Mary Sims. Mary’s not so much matriarch to the camp as she is support system to John. She respects her husband’s power inside the camp by allowing him a lot of leeway as a wife in order to keep his focus upon leading.
Morley’s best scene comes when her Mary is overcome with emotion while sitting among the recently planted crops and marveling as she witnesses the first seed sprout. She shows John, who is actually the one to make the remark that such creation gives one confidence in a higher power, but it was Mary who was initially awed by the process and made John aware of it.
When Jazz-baby Sally (Barbara Pepper) is stranded at the camp it’s Mary who welcomes her with open arms. Imitation Harlow, the sassy Sally comes off as a gangster’s moll, so it’s no surprise when she sets her sights on the camp Boss, John. The burgeoning relationship isn’t really allowed to develop too much on camera, though Sally’s so shallow you can only imagine their time together was spent at activities the Code prohibited showing. While their dalliances seem common knowledge throughout the town it’s not until the corn dries up and John starts to crack under the pressure of leadership that Mary decides it’s time to confront Sally and order her out of the camp. This is the only time we see Mary’s confidence waver, but when Sally immediately agrees to go, she’s relieved that her demand was met so easily. Waiting until Mary is out of sight, Sally notes that John will be going with her to which Mary makes the strong reply “I’m not afraid of that.”
If you think the content of “Our Daily Bread” is controversial, than have a look at the story of Karen Morley told here by Michael Sragow in this 1999 SFWeekly article. Morley disappeared from film in the 1950’s after refusing to answer questions before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and making Hollywood’s Blacklist.
The character actor John Qualen is enjoyable in his familiar role as the happy-go-lucky Swede, Chris.
Addison Richards plays a stiff in Louie, and he plays him stiff, but the part is effective enough. Louie’s dark and you expect something to be revealed about his past, which it is.
Hopefully I’ve spelled out that there’s a lot more going on here than just an exciting ending: a definite story with credible characters and some decent though not outstanding acting. I don’t disagree that the last scene is overwhelmingly the best part of “Our Daily Bread,” but it’s intended to be so. King Vidor handles it masterfully and pastes what I’ve come to see as an iconic scene at the end of an otherwise strong piece of social commentary.
Despite the heavy political overtones, so obvious when viewing today, the period review from the New York Times does not remark upon this other than to say, “In its conception the drama of the collective farm and its growth as a community of the unemployed is a drama of idealism.” Variety’s original 1934 review focused on the more tangible opponent in “Our Daily Bread,” when it wrote of it “…a throng of unemployed who take up squatter rights on an abandoned farm and turn it into a thriving communal collective project. On the way they have various difficulties chiefly from that ghoulish visitor of farmlands, the drought.”
Released during the Great Depression it’s interesting to note neither source dwelling on the outspoken politics of “Our Daily Bread.” Furthermore all political references made it past the scissors (hissing Democracy?) but the missing sex scenes were still obvious to this viewer. While the Times doesn’t find what results in “Our Daily Bread” realistic, from the perspective of today I believe it certainly presents a realistic view of 1934 in at least the circumstances and setting.