Our Daily Bread (1934) exemplifies three remarkable aspects of many Depression-era movies: First, that they fearlessly cover current events, defiant of reprisal for being seen as taking social or political sides; second, in showing the audience the dismal world they already knew too well while trying to entertain them; and third, that there is great optimism despite the challenges the characters face in their grim realities. It is both this unflinching realism and this hearty optimism that Depression audiences related to, appreciated for not being talked down to, and from which they took courage.
The workers were largely for the NRA and many small businesses supported it, though a lot of businesses were not in favor the regulations involved. Indeed, many of those businesses displayed the NRA blue eagle in their window to avoid being boycotted. Not a lot of people had a lot of dollars in the Depression, and so the dollar became political, and the workers used whatever leverage it gave them whenever they could.
So what is socialism and what is democracy and when is it called dictatorial powers? It all comes together, maybe inadvertently, in Our Daily Bread and probably sets up what has been an argument since the movie came out as to whether it is a left-wing film. The director, King Vidor, was a conservative and his viewpoint for this story about homeless unemployed people getting together on a farm and feeding themselves was a way to show that people didn’t need, and perhaps should not rely on, the government for help.
Just as we mentioned in Gentlemen Are Born (1934), our intro to this series on Depression films, in our reference to the earlier 1920s series how many of the 1920s influences led to, even as they contrasted, the Depression, King Vidor actually saw this movie as a sequel to his wonderful silent film The Crowd (1928) which we discussed in this previous post. The two main characters, John and Mary Sims, who we saw struggling to keep up with the fast pace of life in the 1920s are now down and out in the 1930s with new problems. It’s an interesting concept. Too bad he didn’t revisit John and Mary in the 1940s and 1950s as well, aging and showing us what life was like for common folk throughout the course of the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, James Murray, who played John Sims in The Crowd, did not accept the assignment King Vidor offered in this time. Murray was battling alcoholism and did not sign on for the film, and would die tragically in 1936.
Playing John and Mary this time around are Tom Keene and Karen Morley. Tom Keene is handsome and energetic, but he lacks the depth of James Murray, who was a superb, natural actor. Karen Morley is more successful, particularly in a couple of scenes where they first see the crops and she marvels with wonder at the young shoots, a vast field of tiny fingers of life and the promise not only of a crop, but of survival. There is something miraculous, to be sure, about watching plants grow and it strikes this city couple especially powerfully.
Another scene where Karen Morley stands out is her suspicion over her husband’s infidelity. Karen Morley appeared in several films in minor roles in the 1930s and ‘40s, but unfortunately, her film career ended in 1947 with the communist witch hunt and when being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee she refused to answer their questions. She was blacklisted. Interestingly, in 1954 she ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of New York as a member of the American Labor Party. She would appear in plays and on television in later decades.
The film begins with Tom Keene and Karen Morley dodging the rent collector in their apartment building. It brings to mind the line in the song “We’re in the Money” that goes “…and when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye.”
Not today, though. They avoid him like the plague. Keene has been out looking for work all day and he replies to his wife, “Same old story—one hundred guys and one job.” He doesn't seem too upset about it, tough. He's almost amused. He hocks their possessions to buy food. This evening he takes a ukulele and brings it to the butcher and trades it for pretty scrawny chicken. An obliging butcher, to be sure. One is struck by the happy-go-lucky attitude of Tom Keene’s innocent John Sims.
Karen Morley’s uncle shows up for dinner and they want to impress him. Just as in The Crowd, the character of John Sims has a reputation of being a bit flighty and not being able to stick with things, and Uncle looks down on him. They ask him for help. Uncle is played by Lloyd Ingraham, and he actually provides a way out for them. He owns some property, a rundown farm that is currently vacant, and the bank is scheduled to take it over shortly. He allows them to go to the farm and run it as best they can until the bank takes over. At least it will be a roof over their heads and they won’t have to worry about the landlord throwing them out this summer. They take up the offer with enthusiasm, and like babes in the woods, the city slickers head for the country.
The farm is, indeed, pretty run down, and neither of them really knows how to survive in this environment, but luck is with them. A poor Swedish farmer, who lost his farm to the bank in Minnesota, is puttering down the road with his family intending to head west to California. But he’s run out of gas. The kindly Swede is played by dear, sweet John Qualen, whom we know from a hundred roles of playing pretty much the same character. Probably the most powerful and most poignant version of this gentle man reached its most heartbreaking impression in his marvelous scene in The Grapes of Wrath (1939) as the farmer who stoops and scoops up a hand of dry earth that the bank is going to take over and he tearfully vents his bitterness.
No bitterness here, John Qualen is full of acceptance of his fate, jokes, and is more than willing to help out the struggling young couple if they allow him to park his broken-down truck on their farm and share the work.
The idea of people taking over an abandoned farm, even city folk, is not something that was made up for this movie; it was something fairly common in those days. One example, done on perhaps a bit larger scale, this occurred in central Massachusetts during the Great Depression. There were four towns called Prescott, Greenwich, Enfield, and Dana, and the Commonwealth was taking over all of them by eminent domain to build a very large reservoir in their place. The towns were clustered in a spot called the Swift River Valley. Over a period of nearly twenty years, farms and businesses and properties were slowly bought, people were evicted, and construction began culminating in one of the largest public works projects and the largest man-made reservoir at the time. During the thirties, the state allowed people to rent one of the farms which the state had purchased from the original owners, and rather than leave the land vacant until they were ready to bulldoze the property, they allowed people to rent the farm for five dollars a month.
These renters knew their tenancy would be temporary and there was no question of their ever settling down here permanently, with the construction of the reservoir going on in the Valley, but five dollars a month was an amazingly low price for place to live. If one was able to grow some crops, even a small kitchen garden for their own use, that was truly something to be grateful and it bought them some time. You can read more about how this happened, in my novel Beside the Still Waters which is about how the people who lived in the four towns in the Swift River Valley experienced the destruction of their communities and how the last generation of kids grew up there. (The book, print and eBook, is available at Amazon, and the eBook is also available at Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.)
John Qualen shows Tom Keene how to plow and plant and they come up with the idea of living in a sort of co-operative community “where money isn’t so important.” It is this suggestion of a commune and the lack of the importance of money that perhaps branded this movie as carrying a socialist message.
Tom Keene puts up a line of signs on the highway kind of like Burma-Shave advertisements inviting men to join the co-op, specifically men with trades to help. Many stop at the farm and we see that people from all walks of life are encountering desperate times. One gentleman has no trade; he is a first violinist and he begs to stay. Though he isn’t going to be much help for farm work, Tom Keene takes pity on him and lets him stay. Later on, we see he is giving violin lessons to the children of the farmers, thereby earning his keep.
One rough, angry fellow insists he’s going to drive the tractor and that’s all. He doesn’t say much but he shoots a daggers at people with a glare that warns everybody to stand back. He is Louie, played by Addison Richards (who ended up doing a lot of TV in the 1950s). Later in the story, we will find out that he is a criminal on the run from the police.
An undertaker is allowed to stay even though they do not particularly want his services, but he ends up providing them anyway and his introduction is a moment of black humor.
They pool their resources, whatever money and any supplies they have. They talk about how they want to run their co-op. They exchange ideas about that, voting down both a democratic government and a socialist one; instead they appoint Tom Keene as their boss. He will be the sole arbiter of their community.
Is their salvation to be found in dictatorship? For some people and some countries, that was certainly their choice.
The relief of having a place to stay and work to do is wonderful, and these downtrodden men and their families come to life with new vigor. They build small shanties all over the property where they will live. Nobody calls it a Hooverville, but that’s what it is. There are carpenters and cobblers and tailors among them, but enough mechanics and farmers so that there is some chance of success in their agricultural endeavor.
The shanties they build, though they are makeshift (one guy has a car door for his front door. We see him rolling down the window in one comic scene) reminds me of the so-called tiny houses that one hears about in the news these days.
Director King Vidor reiterates his conservative declaration of this not being a socialist or, perish the thought, a communist endeavor not only by having one person in charge but also by having one fellow lead the others in a mass prayer, thanking the Lord for their deliverance. “There’s nothing for people to worry about, not while they’ve got the earth. It’s like a mother.”
Even the title, Our Daily Bread, is obviously a line from The Lord’s Prayer.
And to prove they are at least somewhat egalitarian, a Jewish tailor, whose name is Cohen, shows us that he feels right at home among these apparently nondenominational Christians. His wife, played by Nellie V. Nichols with her heavy Brooklyn "Molly Goldberg" accent, gives birth to a baby. We see no African-Americans or other non-whites in their midst, the people who were really most downtrodden and received the least federal aid during the Depression, but we must assume that Director Vidor was indeed sticking his neck out making this movie even without them. The studios rejected it and he produced it himself with his own money.
Trouble is afoot, however. It’s time for the bank to foreclose and there is a sheriff’s sale of the farm. The fellows get together and bid for the house. The bank hopes to raise over $4,000 but the highest bid is $1.85. The guys will not let anyone bid higher. A lawyer among the fellows (there’s all kinds of trades here) says this is legal and the bank must accept the bid for a $1.85. Chagrined, the bank accepts the bid, and the fellows turn the property over officially to Tom Keene to run on their behalf.
More trouble comes in the form of a loose dame. Wouldn’t you know it? Another city girl named Sally played by Barbara Pepper, passes through with her father, who unfortunately is ill and dies. The undertaker among them goes to work, plying his trade. We are not told where they bury him. By the tomatoes, possibly.
Miss Barbara Pepper is young, all alone, and they take pity on her and she decides that she’s going to stay as well, perhaps open a beauty parlor. I’m not sure how many utopian communes need a beauty parlor but Miss Pepper certainly has moxie. She is also lacking in morals. We see this because she smokes, wears heavy makeup, and she listens to jazz records on a wind-up Victrola. There’s nothing like bluesy bass and the wail of a saxophone to indicate a lack respectability.
Louie, the criminal, sees that she is making eyes for Tom Keene and he tells her to lay off because the boss is married. The criminal has more morals than she does. In what is probably my favorite line of the movie she feigns insult and replies, “My gosh, aren’t you anticipatory.”
More trouble, probably the farmers’ worst trouble in the Great Depression: Draught. They are running short of food and they may not make it until harvest. Louie does probably the most noble thing of anybody. He brings his wanted poster to John Qualen and asks him to go with him to town to turn him into the cops for the $500 reward so that the commune will have money to buy food.
Qualen refuses. He doesn’t question Louie’s decency, despite the wanted poster, and he’s not a rat.
But Barbara Pepper is. Louie goes to her next and she agrees to go into town to turn him in. The check is written out to Mrs. John Sims, which was very clever of Louie to make sure the check went to Mrs. Sims so that Barbara is not able to cash it. She needs Tom to go with her, and maybe to go away with her.
At first Barbara tries to woo Tom Keene, sticking the check provocatively in her bodice, hoping to run away with him on the money. Though he seems interested in her, he is still at this point more devoted to his wife and even more devoted to the commune. He is thrilled with the money when she finally shows it to him and he buys all the food and supplies they need. In a kind gesture, they suggest that they take a picture of the full storehouse and send it to Louie in prison with their thanks. I bet Louie would’ve liked that.
But the drought gets worse and the crops need water. The word DROUGHT is scrawled in big, angry letters across the screen.
Tom Keene is buckling under leadership responsibilities. Karen Morley tells him, “Let them think you’re not worried. Let them think you know more than they do.” Apparently, that’s how bosses govern. He wants to run away when trouble comes.
Karen Morley has it out with Barbara Pepper, tells her to leave her husband alone but the floozy replies, “This dump will never amount to anything.”
There’s a very intense scene between the husband and wife, without words. They are eating at their table and he glances at her over the rim of his cup and it is an indecipherable glance. He is thinking about running away with the floozy, mainly because he just wants to run away. His look is not of guilt or sheepishness; it seems that he is on fire with a sense of purpose and determination. We almost see that she is reading his mind but she will not try to stop him. His look of intensity makes it seem as if he is daring her to stop him, waiting for her to say something. She will allow him to make up his own mind and see where it takes him.
He leaves her.
He takes off with the floozy in her jalopy but he keeps seeing Louie like Hamlet’s ghost in his imagination, thinks of Louie’s sacrifice and he starts to feel badly. He is nervous, he stops the car and wants her to drive but when they stop, he hears the sound of a pumping station pumping water. Apparently, the reservoir in the hills above the farm is filling with water again.
John is excited. He gets an idea and he runs away from the floozy to go back to the farm.
Just as the commune has brought out the humanity in Louie, it saves Tom Keene’s marriage, curiously not because of his devotion to his wife but because of his need to succeed at the farm.
He goes to the men and suggests that they dig a long ditch from the reservoir in the hills down to the fields that will allow the water to flow down and feed the crops. They will have to work day and night to do it and it is all hand work with picks and shovels.
This is the climax of the movie. It is stirring, the scene for which the film is probably most remembered. There is no dialogue; the men gather to carve out a cross-country course from the hills down to the fields. They begin with the picks and behind them are men with shovels and they work together almost like a prison chain gang. It is tough work. We hear the rhythmic thumping of the picks slamming into the hard earth. Behind them, the men with shovels scraping away the loose dirt. Together, they seem like a slow-moving caterpillar eroding the land, crawling down the hill.
Running ahead of them, men clear away rocks and brush and cut down a tree or two. When it’s nighttime, the women come with torches and light the way and the men still work. The men work with a slavish rhythm. This is a scene about manpower and self-sufficiency. We see them lifting rocks. Dragging trees. They construct a simple span over a dry culvert, a crude aqueduct that will allow the water to flow over it. When it threatens to fall apart, they hold it up with their bare hands. At one point, when the streaming water does not take a turn in their course, a man throws himself into the mud and turns the direction of the stream with his body. It is man conquering nature, more brawn than engineering.
The water is let loose and it flows down from the highland to the fields. When the water finally barrels into the dry, thirsty crops, there is a jubilant chorus of voices in song, and the men and women and the children wallow in the mud for joy. The very last scene shows Tom Keene in a clean set of farmer’s overalls, his wife beside him sitting atop a hay wagon, and in the back, a very satisfied, grinning John Qualen.
The film was picked by the Library of Congress as part of the National Film Registry in 2015 for “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.”
Probably the weakest aspect of the film is that the message takes precedent over the story. The characters are really types and not fully fleshed-out people, and so instead of presenting a statement on the condition of man through the simple actions of the characters, the characters are dwarfed by the idea. It’s very difficult to create a "message film" without making it burdened by the message and this is where the movie could have been stronger. It did not do well at the box office, but it remains a very important film from that troubled year of 1934 and tells us so much about what people endured and what they feared and what they hoped their triumph would be.
Was it socialist or fascist? Certainly, rugged individualism played a minor role to the greater comfort of belonging to a community that cared. In these scary times, nobody really wanted to go it alone.
Come back next Thursday when younger people, without family or community to help them, leave home and face the Great Depression on their own in Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Wild Girls of the Road (1940).
See part one of this series:
Gentlemen are Born (1934)