Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 8, 2007

Our Daily Bread

Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Last night Turner Classic Movies (TCM), a cable station that features vintage films, aired “Our Daily Bread,” a 1934 film that I had heard about but never saw before. Directed by silent film veteran King Vidor who worked into the late 1950s, it is the story of unemployed men taking over a Midwest farm and running it like a commune. Considering his penchant for pulp material like “Stella Dallas” and “Ruby Gentry,” it is a testament to the depth of the 1930s radicalization that he decided to write and direct “Our Daily Bread.” It is no accident that United Artists produced the film. This company was founded by Charlie Chaplin and run as a cooperative by leading directors and actors who sought an outlet for non-commercial works like “Our Daily Bread.”

The two main characters are a young married couple John and Mary Sims (played by Tom Keene and Karen Morley), who are months behind on their rent. John is unemployed and can’t even get an interview. Their luck takes a turn for the better after Mary’s well-off uncle turns an abandoned farm over to them. Whatever they lack in farming experience, they hope to make up for with sheer enthusiasm.

A few days after arriving at the farm, they begin to realize how little they know about farming. But once again, fortune smiles on them in the form of a Swedish farmer and his wife who are fixing a flat just beyond their gate. When John learns that the two have just lost their Minnesota farm, he invites them to come live with them on the farm. In exchange for their expertise, they can stay there for free.

The goodhearted Swede has to chuckle at John’s inexperience. He catches him in the act of discarding some “weeds” that turn out to be carrots. Before long, the two couples begin to make some real headway on the farm and their hopes are raised. This gives John a brainstorm. He will put up a string of signs outside the farm, like the old Burma Shave ads, that call for jobless skilled tradesmen to join them. In exchange for their labor, they will get a place to live and an opportunity to share in the sales proceeds from the harvested crops.

Eventually, their ranks grow to include both skilled and unskilled. John doesn’t have the heart to turn anybody away, including a pants presser named Cohen, an undertaker and a professor. It also includes a bank robber named Louie Fuente, who despite his gruff exterior believes totally in the commune. So much so in fact that he decides to turn himself into the law just so that the $500 reward will go to his co-workers.

Not everybody’s motives are so pure. They are soon joined by Sally (Barbara Pepper), a sexy blonde who just regards the farm as a temporary place to crash until something better turns up. She spends much of her time in her room listening to jazz, a sure sign that she is up to no good! The TCM website reports that Sally was included just to sell tickets, a sign that even United Artists had to make compromises.

The climax of the film revolves around the effort of the communal farmers to dig a three mile long irrigation ditch to the farm in a race against time. A severe drought threatens to destroy their corn crop and make them destitute. The sight of the men working together with picks and shovels is quintessential 1930s New Deal iconography. It is also a reminder of how close the USA was to Stalin’s Russia in cultural terms. Notwithstanding King Vidor’s past, he seems to have absorbed the imagery of Soviet poster art into his bloodstream.

It should be mentioned that at least one member of Vidor’s cast had Communist sympathies. Karen Morley, who played Mary Sims, was “named” by actor Sterling Hayden as a CP’er and blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She never made another film.

When watching “Our Daily Bread,” I was reminded of my visits to farm cooperatives in Sandinista Nicaragua. There is something truly inspiring about men and women working together to produce for their common good. It is one of the great contradictions of American society that with every increase in abundance since the 1930s, there has been a concomitant decrease in the potential for group solidarity. Workers used to think in terms of their collective power. Now they see themselves more as individual actors looking for ways to benefit themselves and their family. Although nobody can predict when this will change, we can be sure that as economic insecurity grows working men and women will once again be forced to look to each other for mutual aid.

UPDATE: A comment from Michael Hoover posted to Marxmail:

Chaplin’s financing of “Our Daily Bread” was later used against him when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (he decided to leave the US rather than testify). Vidor’s film won Moscow’s Lenin Film Festival prize. Vidor himself eventually became a conservative.




  1. Superb
    There is a collective tradition, but it’s well and truly buried in today’s USA

    Comment by George Anthony — January 8, 2007 @ 6:09 pm

  2. thought you might find this new British website interesting: http://www.21stcenturysocialism.com

    Comment by Billy — January 9, 2007 @ 4:35 pm

  3. […] critic Louis Proyect describes his reaction to this aspect of the film as follows: When watching “Our Daily Bread,” I was reminded of my […]

    Pingback by Our Daily Bread and Salt of the Earth: Two great films from an era of Hollywood long gone | Media Infidel — October 5, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

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