Our Daily Bread: Charlie Chaplin and King Vidor at Hell’s Crossroads
Vidor King, Charlie Chaplin & the Movie Hollywood Wouldn’t Make
Vidor King, director of the 1928 silent film classic, “The Crowd”, turned his insatiable social consciousness loose once again following “Crowd” in 1934 with the release of his cinematic indictment of the economic degradation of the depression era, “Our Daily Bread” starring Charlie Chaplin (originally called Hells Crossroads) as a sequel to his earlier film. It was an updated non-sedated “go for the juggler” version of the “The Crowd” with different actors, this time with sound, music score and dialogue.
It was the dawn of Hollywood’s “talkies” and this time around his film had a voice that spoke loud and clear describing the plight of Americans in the richest land on the planet years before Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” put Tom Joad on the road or others in search of work hopped rides like bolsheviks in boxcars riding the “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” Woody Gutherie rails an effort to survive. Economic repression was the devastating result of the Great Depression putting pressure on the people, while the dirt and soil of the Dust Bowl was destroying the land and dispossessing families from their generations old heritage of farm life, property and honest labor. It was the worst of times, and, unlike Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” there were no best of times this time around.
Our Daily Bread
Vidor’s “Bread” utilized the same characters as “Crowd” as sequels will do, but, this time with a new roster of actors who would reprise the roles in a new and unique way. Vidor was a passionate filmmaker who was excited about exposing conditions that create indignities suffered when human rights are trampled. He approached magnus movie mogul Irving Thalberg, boy genius of MGM studios in an effort to gain his interest and to hand over the gold from the MGM vault to get the film produced and marketed to the public. Thalberg, however, was not interested. He wanted to entertain the public with Marx Brothers comedies and romantic comedies, and was not about to break formula and preach from a cinematic soapbox about the misery of the miserable who were growing in number in this former land of plenty while the soup line chorus broke out into a rousing edition of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” refrain after refrain. Prosperity gave way to handouts at backdoors, tramps and hobos were on the move, families and children were starving to death, it was life without a net. A dazzling, dangerous highwire act that defied death usually ended up in death or at the very least, broken dreams and spirits.
Vidor, his back literally against the economic wall decided to produce the film himself with what personal funds he had to funnel into the film project, but, not it was not enough to reach the finish line. Vidor then looked to a curious little tramp who walked with an arrogant waddle with hat and cane by the name of Charlie Chaplin who was more than willing and able to fund Our Daily Bread from beginning to “The End” Needless to say, once completed and shown, the press attacked it with the viciousness of a rabid dog, calling it pinko propaganda that had a faint Soviet Red tint to it due in large part to it’s “communal” message of survival, and the involvement of Charlie Chaplin, who had also gained a “pinko” rep. The film was released through Chaplin’s United Artists Company, whose main offices were in Hollywood…not Moscow!
The storyline follows the exploits of John and Mary, yeah I know, sounds like check in time at the No-Tell Motel, but, John and Mary who are having a hard time during the hard times keeping their collective heads above water swimming in the in the high cost ocean of the high rise city. They take what assets they have, cash out and hit the road leaving New York far behind in the rearview mirror. As luck would have it, Mary’s uncle has offered them possession of a rough piece of farmland to work and live on. They feel they are up to the challenge, roll up their proletarian sleeves and take over the abandoned farm with mucho gusto and a rush of adrenalin. Remember now these are born and bred city folks used to concrete canyons and apartments, where farming and land stewardship are as foreign to them as a conscience were to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the Fifties during the “red scare” hearings in America.
Gradually in Vidor’s film, as the farm takes shape and the land itself rejuvenates with new life for growth, John and Mary have an epiphany of sorts and decide to establish a collective of others seeking shelter from the storm of the great Depression. They had read all about the great Utopian experiments of the 19th Century, and although rarely successful, John and Mary feel they have the communal chutzpah to pull it off, so, they put up signs advertising for men who need work aand shelter in exchange for a barter of a skill taht they can to bring to the utopian table, such as carpenter, mechanic, or other talent that would help keep the collective machine well oiled and operational. Men on the move that came across the farm, saw the signs posted and realized the opportunity that may be awaiting them. As it turns out, John and Mary had made them an offer they couldn’t refuse! It was a chance to share in the farms food and profits generated, while at the same time sharing in the workload load and helping each other out. Sustainable living through brotherhood as a reality well before it became a born-again Facebook buzzword! In time the cadre of comrades grows, the utopian Garden of Eden blossoms, and it’s all for one…one for all.
Communal Collectivism? Fair Treatment? Caring for Ethnic Minorities? That’s Communism, Alright!
As the proletarian population grows, families now seek out the farm they had heard about. They are a diverse lot including an Italian and a Jewish family who all pitch in. Later, in no room at the inn symbolism, the inn being American society and it’s intolerance for the poor, a Jewish child is born on the farm.
At one point the cavalry arrives in the form of a Swedish farmer who has also been kicked of his own land and is now disposed. He joins the community and with his vast agricultural expertise begins to teach the enclave the secrets of farming, soil, depletion, regeneration of soil, the common sense of land stewardship, and the significance and importance of irrigation to fill in when Mother Nature cannot or will not comply with ample water, and drought conditions retard the land and hold it hostage.
Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” is not all soil, toil and trouble. Not by a long shot. You have to add a smidgeon of sex as an underlying undertone in any social conscious film that will acts as a diversion from the mission of it’s protagonists. In this case…the completion of the irrigation ditch. In this case, “she” is Sally who comes along and takes John for a short journey away from matrimonial sanctity with Mary, and also manages to divert Johns own sexual irrigation ditch of needs thereby neglecting his duties as prime motivator of the group farm not to mention his daily dalliance is now interfering with the daily bread of the commune! Once he has his fill of tilling Sally’s personal fertile soil, he gets back on track and tackles the construction of an irrigation ditch with the gusto of a kid at Christmas ripping open his presents in a frantic frenzy. Drought has hit the region like writers block and it is imperative the irrigation ditch be completed to salvage the farm and the work they have put into up to this point. At one point John is fed up with the project and feels it is a disaster, Mary is as astute as they come and realizes with her fine tuned female intuition that Sally is responsible for Johns discontent. Her instincts prove to be correct and John actually leaves the farm, briefly, with Sally in tow. Her gravitational pull is too strong for him to fight.
John, after a few sexual forays with Sally, gets her out of this system, deciding that the group at large has to get the fields wet and productive, but, a new wrinkle falls on the wizened face of circumstance when it’s learned few mortgage payments have been missed and things are coming to a head when the land has is to be auctioned off by the sheriff for non-payment of the mortgage. During the auction, the prospective buyer bidding have to face, shall we say, an angry line of faces of the soon to be landless, homeless formless. Intimidated, the buyers back off and the farm is sold to one of the collectives members for under two bucks! The team works diligently day and night for two days of back breaking labor to get the ditch dug and activated by diverting just enough water for their meagre needs. They are successful and the life giving water cascades over the soil
and saves the crops, saves the day, and saves the farm.
By now while water is filling the irrigation ditch, Sally is now water under the bridge as John once errant, now embraces Mary with all the gusto an wandering husband can and should. While John and Mary make merry, in the fields the farm workers are celebrating with wild abandon dashing and splashing in the water. In the end…the crops give forth a bounty unheard of and the communal spirit is alive and well. The film moves as fast as a tornado in Kansas and is just as powerful with it’s message of collectivity and self-sufficiency, hard work and rewards. It is anti-corporate in scope and focuses on what can be attained by a group of hard working individuals in time of need who instead of whining about life, take adversity by the horns and turn it around through a pro-active approach. That approach of course was considered anti-American and anti-Capitalist when it came out, and the vultures of the controlled press condemned it, no doubt at the behest or outright threat that radiated from the the seat of power in Washington DC and it’s dollar a holler whore –corporate America’s big business and banking institutes.
In the words of the utopian community: