Our Daily Bread (1934) is a very short, ebullient piece of politic propaganda -- it's primitive but heart-felt and has an extraordinarily memorable and inspirational climax. The movie is naïve but generous, an utopian parable. Of course, Our Daily Bread is false in many ways, but it's not false in a pernicious way -- it's the kind of art work that imagines people behaving at their very best.
A young married couple can't pay the rent. (Their names don't matter, but the man is called "John"). The wife's uncle is wealthy and he suggests that the couple move to a farm that is lying fallow several hundred miles from the city. The couple go to the farm, but rapidly discover that they are not equipped to operate the place. Fortunately, a Minnesota Swede with a large family on a hopeless dust-bowl odyssey has his car break-down at the gate to the farm. John offers the Swede a partnership in farming the land. Two men turn out to be too few for the big acreage and so the couple advertise "Burma-shave" style along the county highway for more hands. Ultimately, fifteen or twenty desperate families show up and join the commune -- John lets them all stay, even though it seems foolish to found a commune with an undertaker and Jewish tailor as members. (The number of people in the commune, which seems outlandish to me, is necessary for the spectacular climax.) The "communists" build little houses and institute a bargain and exchange economy -- that is, a cashless society. There are various challenges -- some of the commune members quarrel, a blonde floozy destabilizes the group by trying to seduce John, and one of the pioneers seems to be a criminal. The Bank forecloses on the farm but. at the auction, the fat cat real estate speculators are frozen out and threatened when they try to bid up the premises and the communists buy the property for a $1.50, someone sourly noting that they "overpaid since a farm in Iowa got bought for 95 cents". When the enterprise runs out of cash, the menacing criminal goes to town with the floozy and turns himself in to the sheriff so that a $500 reward on his head can be paid to support the commune. This is a remarkable and resonant plot point but not emphasized or even really dramatized -- it's something we're told about rather than shown. This exemplifies the film's extreme modesty in conception and means -- most dramatic events occur off-camera. A baby is born and someone dies (thus, we see the efficacy of having an undertaker) but the film's approach to these events is resolutely non-dramatic and, even, basically non-narrative. The floozy's attempt to seduce John is a bare hiccup in the plot. At every turn, Vidor eschews melodrama for a more documentary-like approach -- although the film is quite sentimental: we see communal prayers of a standard Christian type, a rambunctious dance party, and other elements defining the founding of a city or town familiar from Westerns. Drought strikes the commune's cornfield. Everyone despairs and we see the people in the village mourning for their doomed crops in postures of grief and defeated lassitude that seem derived from some of Dovhenko's films -- the drought moves the picture into another realm in which Vidor deploys Soviet-style montage to great effect to make his points. John realizes that water impounded in a nearby reservoir might be diverted via an irrigation ditch to the commune's fields. But the corn will die if not irrigated within two days. The men in the commune set to work with pick-axes and shovels to build a irrigation ditch about two miles long from the reservoir to their bedraggled fields. The ditch is completed just in the nick of time and water from the lake behind the dam barrels down the hillside and floods into the corn, saving the crop. This sequence involving the construction of the irrigation ditch and, then, the water pouring through the ditch is intensely exciting, a tour de force of montage and one of the great glories of American filmmaking. (The movie and its majestic climax are not well-known because the picture is, after all, a baldly obvious Communist tract.) I saw the picture when I was in 11th grade on public TV -- it was part of a series of ten or so films that introduced me to directors like Satjiyat Ray, Ozu, Renoir, and Eisenstein. Almost fifty years later, I still recall the thrill I felt while watching the last quarter of Our Daily Bread. The rhythmic movement of the men cutting the channel is choreographed and proceeds day and night at a feverish pace and, then, when the water begins to pour down the canal, the stream racing along swifter than a man can run, we are given an ecstatic montage of the lifegiving water pouring across the hillside and into the corn -- at one point, a primitive aqueduct over a dry ravine fails and a men has to stand under the sluice in a flood of water supporting the boards on his shoulders; at another point, the water sweeps away its embankment on a curve and another man hurls himself into the breach to form a living dike -- the whole thing is fantastically exciting. The entirely of the film is constructed from little details that embroider the schematic plot and give it a sense of plausibility -- the man serving the eviction notice in the first scene climbs a shadowy stairwell singing merrily; at one point, the wife notes that her husband John is good at only one thing -- that is, organizing. The subplot with the floozy is unnecessary but provides some interesting insight into gender and sex roles in the early thirties -- the bad girl lounges around in lingerie listening idly to an orchestral version of the St. Louis Blues on her little record-player.
Ultimately, the film is a paean to anarchist communism and, in fact, a convincing dramatization of Peter Kropotkin's anti-Darwinist book, Mutual Aid. The climax of the film shows "mutual aid" coming to rescue to save the commune from the common enemy -- in this case, drought. Watching this film, now, almost 50 years after I first saw the picture on my parent's old black and white TV, Our Daily Bread feels to me intensely operatic -- there's a good aria for the wife, for the floozy, for John in extolling the benefits of the commune and, then, there's the subplot involving the gangster turning himself in to save the community, an operatic element if ever there was one, and, at last, one can only imagine what wonders a composer like Philip Glass or John Adams could work with the climax involving the irrigation ditch and the arrival of the salvific waters in the dying corn field. This films deserves to be better known -- it was made at the very height (or one should say "depth" of the Depression) and it shows us one future that may been possible at that moment, a road not-taken as it were. In watching the film, we have to keep reminding ourself that King Vidor and his crew and actors didn't know how things were going to turn out -- they knew that the country was down-and-out, that people were starving, that the economy was busted, and no one knew for sure the way forward. Our Daily Bread shows one possible future and, indeed, maybe one that would have been better.