Sunday, September 30, 2007

Our Daily Bread: Vidor's Great Depression masterpiece


The relative obscurity into which King Vidor’s name has fallen is as inexplicable as it is undeserved.
His career was as long and successful as DeMille’s, he was as pioneering as Griffith, as innovative as Mamoulian, and like all three he had a sure sense of what went over big at the box office: he made Hallelujah (1929), The Champ (1931), Stella Dallas (1937), Duel in the Sun (1946) and Solomon and Sheba (1959).
He was around when silence turned to sound, he made quality studio pictures through the thirties and forties, and in the fifties only the epic genre was big enough for his reputation. (So unfashionable are these films today that is virtually heretical to claim that War & Peace (1956) is majestic filmmaking, and as engaging in its quiet verses as it is vivid in its action choruses. But it is, of course.)
His best films reflect his preoccupation with depicting the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, such as The Big Parade (1925), the highest grossing film of the silent era. (In his 1973 book ‘On Film-Making’ Vidor recalled that “each one of the several thousand scenes [was] trimmed to start as late as possible and end the moment the climax was reached.” This care in post-production pays off in its many set-piece highlights, among them the ‘big parade’ of troops and tank reinforcements making its perilous and seemingly endless journey down a long, dusty road, the incredibly tense scene in which the soldiers progress slowly through an eerie, sun-dappled wood infested with concealed snipers, and the powerful sequence in which John Gilbert proves incapable of killing a wounded German soldier he has followed into a shell-hole, instead offering him a final cigarette.)
The film's central idea, to humanise the Great War by conveying it subjectively through the experiences of a single soldier, was extended in The Crowd (1928), a dramatisation of a few days in the life of a downtrodden city office worker and his wife.
With innovative technique, including vivid location photography and some superb visual effects, Vidor tells the story of a young man whose initially happy marriage begins to crumble under the pressures of city life; his daughter is killed in a road accident, he loses his job and, after a botched suicide bid, takes a job as a juggling sandwich man.
It begins with a long shot of a city office building and slowly closes in on one window in which hundreds of identical desks are seen with identical workers toiling at them. (It's the prototype for similar shots in The Apartment and The Rebel.) Slowly we focus on one of them and follow his story, but Vidor is implying that we could have stopped at any other desk and learned a similar, equally valid tale. The film ends as it begins: the couple are seen at a vaudeville theatre laughing at a clown, as the camera pulls away and once again loses them, and their specific circumstances, in the all-consuming crowd.
It sounds heavy-handed and wallowingly pessimistic but it really isn't in the least because Vidor has no interest either in sentimentality or in the fetishising of gloom. It has a documentary-like matter-of-factness and never abuses the audience's emotional investment in the characters and their plight; the ending, chosen from several that were considered, is ambiguous without denying the possibility of hope.
But time and again Vidor was advised that the public wanted escapism, not reminders of reality. MGM wanted no part of Our Daily Bread (1934), yet so committed was Vidor to the project that he pressed on anyway with private backing, most of it his own: he pawned everything he owned to see the project through.
He conceived it as a follow-up to The Crowd; although the two main characters, Depression-hit husband and wife city dwellers who stake everything they have to manage an abandoned farm, are played by different actors they do have the same names - Mary and John Sims - as their counterparts in the earlier film. Still, no specific plot points are cross-referenced, so it's just as easy to think of the two films as unrelated, and it is, I think, better to. The extraordinary ending of The Crowd would be weakened by the existence of a chapter two, and the everyman status of the couple in Our Daily Bread would seem compromised by so specific a back story. So think of them as two facets of the same type, and the films as linked only by their concerns.
The Sims' get the farm working by running it as a workers' co-operative, inviting any out of work artisans to help out and share the profits. Despite this, the film advances no clear political position, and takes care to include a lively scene in which the merits of various political systems are argued over by the characters, all of them ending up soundly savaged, including democracy: "That's what got us here in the first place!" says one.
The commune see themselves rather as founding fathers of a whole new ethos, and the film is one of the very few to reflect the temper of a brief moment between the crash and the New Deal when popular disenchantment with and mistrust in central government was leading to open calls for anarchism and self-rule. The workers in the film embody the spirit of this moment, and the film could only have been made as an independent production - Hollywood had officially rallied around FDR by the time it was released.
Though surely not for this reason, it is a film that never did find its place. At the time, it was thought depressing, too close to the bone to audiences looking to the movies as a way to forget their troubles. In the years thereafter it became a relic, and when Vidor was reassessed in the sixties it was dismissed as dated, and compromised by its honey-coated ending.
None of these criticisms seem to me to hold water: the film is Vidor's crowning achievement. As a technical exercise it is breathtaking, beginning with studio interiors for the city sequences it moves to beautifully photographed rural landscapes, and we really get the feeling that these characters actually live in their makeshift shacks and work hard all day. In On Film Making he writes: "when I run my film Our Daily Bread for new audiences I am always asked if the performers were real down-and-out people, or if they were cast through an actor's agency in Hollywood."

The performances of the leads, however, are usually criticised, I think unfairly. I've always warmed to Tom Keene as the husband (even before I realised he was Colonel Tom Edwards in Plan 9 From Outer Space), who plays with utter sincerity and conviction. And for Karen Morley as his wife the film marks the end of a long apprenticeship as ingénues (Dinner at Eight), molls (Scarface) and damsels in distress (The Mask of Fu Manchu); her performance is the emotional centre of the film, and one of the best things in it. She had left MGM just before making the film following a spat with Louis Mayer but later freelance work rarely gave her the opportunities she received here, and by 1949, after a stand-off with the HUAC, she was reduced to unbilled bit-work in DeMille's Samson & Delilah. (Yet again DeMille is seen to have gone out of his way to give work to a blacklisted artist.) She retired in the early fifties, but returned to television in the seventies.

All of the players are fine, but one in particular stands out, in the community itself as much as in the cast. Bringing with her all of the vanished superficiality and high-spirits of pre-Depression days, city girl Sally, played by Barbara Pepper doing a first class imitation of Jean Harlow, pulls up in her dead sugar-daddy's car halfway through and comes within an inch of destroying the entire community with her twin weapons of sexual availability and gramophone records. (As thoroughly entertaining as it is unexpected, Pepper's appearance was, delightfully, a condition of one of the backers.) Her function is to provide the temptation for John to abandon the farm when all looks lost, and he is actually in the act of running away with her when he realises how the farm can be saved.
He returns to instigate the film's magnificent final act, which, unlike The Crowd, is unambiguous and powerfully uplifting. In this amazing sequence of choreographed toil the workers divert a stream through a hastily constructed ditch to irrigate the crops. Through superb editing, scoring and composition Vidor turns the stuff of documentary realism into compulsive, magnificent, poetic cinema. As he writes in On Film Making:
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One of my favourite sequences of all time is the ditch-digging sequence from Our Daily Bread. Although this sequence has been thrilling audiences since 1934, if I had based it on the advice of a professional ditchdigger, its impact would be as dull as its name suggests. Its basis is music. There is nothing factual about it besides the fact that the men use picks and shovels. They move many times faster than men would if they were actually digging a ditch to contain the stream of water shown in the film. But it is the crescendo of rhythm and music carrying the viewer along with it that invariably brings forth applause at its conclusion.
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Yes, it owes much to Eisenstein. But so what? It is magnificent, and it brings to a crescendo one of the most compulsively authentic documents of an era that historical circumstances have permitted, and one no less powerful and serious for being so essentially warm-hearted.