synopsis – AMG:
Unable to secure Hollywood-studio backing for his Depression-era agrarian drama Our Daily Bread, director King Vidor financed the picture himself, with the eleventh-hour assistance of Charles Chaplin. Intended as a sequel to Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd (1928) the film casts Tom Keene and Karen Morley as John and Mary, the roles originated in the earlier film by James Murray and Eleanor Boardman. Unable to make ends meet in the Big City, John and Mary assume control of an abandoned farm, even though they know nothing about tilling the soil. Generous to a fault, the couple opens their property to other disenfranchised Depression victims, and before long they’ve formed a utopian communal cooperative, with everyone pitching together for the common good. Beyond such traditional obstacles as inadequate funding, failed crops and drought, John is deflected from his purpose by sluttish blonde vamp Sally (Barbara Pepper), but he pulls himself together in time to supervise construction of a huge irrigation ditch — a project which consumes the film’s final two reels, and which turns out to be one of the finest and most thrilling sequences that Vidor (or anyone) ever put on film.The acting by Tom Keene and Barbara Pepper is atrocious, but John Qualen saves the show as a dedicated Swedish farmer, especially when he loudly rejects the notion that communal farming is a “Red” idea (this didn’t stop the anti-New Deal press from labelling the film as “Pinko” back in 1934 — and never mind that the communist press considered the film “capitalist propaganda”!) The optimistic finale, distinguished by its Eisentein-like “rhythmic” editing, fortunately lingers in the memory far longer than the film’s dramatic and structural defects. Our Daily Bread is also enhanced by Alfred Newman’s stirring musical score, later borrowed by Darryl F. Zanuck for his production of Les Miserables (1935)
review by Martin Scorsese:
King Vidor was a fascinating figure. He was a genuine film pioneer, who actually helped guide the direction of cinema during its formative period. Vidor was one of the most respected and revered silent directors, but he was also one of the boldest, and he broke into sound in 1929 with a black musical called Hallelujah!, shot and recorded on location (it’s difficult to say which aspect was the most daring — this also happens to be a great picture). In the early ’30s, after the Depression had taken hold, Vidor decided to do something else that was unthinkable at the time: make an independent film. Our Daily Bread (1934) was financed out of Vidor’s own pocket, and he made it without stars — the most famous person in the movie is Karen Morley, who played Paul Muni’s girlfriend in Scarface (and who was later blacklisted). It’s about a group of people who have lost their jobs and their homes in the Depression and who band together to start a collective farm. In truth, the movie has its share of imperfections. The lead actor, Tom Keene, was a star in low–budget cowboy movies and he’s pretty stiff here; the dialogue, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a story by Vidor and his wife (and script assistant) Elizabeth Hill, is often quite schematic and awkward, particularly during the collective meetings (every person represents a different political position). But Our Daily Bread has a wonderful feeling for the beauty and richness of the earth, and the picture’s final sequence, in which the farmers engineer a waterway from a mountaintop in order to irrigate their farm and save their crops in the valley below, is absolutely extraordinary. Like a lot of filmmakers who began in the silent days, Vidor composed the editing rhythms and the overall tempo of this scene in his head (just as he did for the march through the forest in The Big Parade, he paced the actors’ movements with a metronome on the set). The sense of release when the water finally reaches the crops is unlike anything else in early sound cinema.
extras from the dvd:
2 landmark short documentaries by Pare Lorentz, with poetic scripts, of which, The River was nominated for Pulitzer prize, and was hailed by Joyce as “the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years”.
excellent reading about Lorentz:
The Plow That Broke the Plains:
synopsis – AMG:
Filmmaker/critic Pare Lorentz was the creative force behind the landmark documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains. The project was underwritten by the United States Resettlement Administration, a New Deal organization. Lorentz’ film accomplished visually what President Roosevelt’s radio speeches had been doing orally: serving as a wake-up call to those Americans unaware of the deprivations of the “Dust Bowl.” The film details the ecological causes for the natural disasters befalling farmers in Oklahoma and Texas. It then illustrates in up-close-and-personal fashion the devastating effect those disasters had on the farmers and their families, who were already reeling from the Depression. Lorentz concludes his film on an upbeat note, showing the efforts made by the Resettlement Administration to improve conditions for the unfortunate farmers, and to make certain that environmental reforms are put into effect to prevent another Dust Bowl. The Plow That Broke the Plains was followed by the Tennessee Valley Authority-sanctioned The River, likewise assembled by Lorentz.
synopsis – AMG:
The River was documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz’s masterful follow-up to his 1936 classic The Plow That Broke the Plains. Produced on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, The River details the history of the flood-prone Mississippi basin from prehistoric times to the Depression era. Special attention is given the efforts by the TVA to control floods and conserve soil in the area. Many of the beautifully composed shots in The River–notably the distance shots of a huge dam under construction–have become de rigeur filmclips in subsequent film and TV documentaries of the 1930s. The visual poetry inherent in Lorentz’s images are complemented by his free-verse narration. For a more prosaic treatment of the same era and events, see Elia Kazan’s 1960 recreation of the TVA’s 1930s activities, Wild River.