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KING VIDOR AND PARE LORENTZ CONFRONT THE GREAT DEPRESSION

November 9, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
King Vidor and Pare Lorentz Confront the Great Depression

Our Daily Bread. 1934. USA. Directed by King Vidor

Our Daily Bread. 1934. USA. Directed by King Vidor

These notes accompany the Great Depression program on November 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.

What goes around comes around. I first wrote about King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread in October 1972 (as part MoMA’s massive Vidor retrospective), exactly 38 years after film’s release. Now, another 38 years later, another economic crisis is upon us, and I essentially agree with my earlier assessment of the film. It is still naïve, simplistic, and awkward, but it remains extremely lovely in its innocence. Intended as a sequel to Vidor’s silent masterpiece, The Crowd, its message is not so much a plea for agrarian communism as it is for humanity, a quality currently being drowned in a flood of tea. The film has much in common with the work of Vidor’s acknowledged master, D. W. Griffith, and one can easily imagine that Griffith might have made a film similar to Our Daily Bread at some point during the 1930s—if, that is, he had been allowed to remain active.

John and Mary Sims, having failed in the city like millions of other victims of the Great Depression, are given the opportunity to start a new life by returning to the soil. They are joined on the farm by a group of people who quite probably lived just around the corner from Richard Day’s set for Vidor’s adaptation of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1931). In fact, John Qualen reappears in a role similar to the one that he would carry forward to many brilliant performances for John Ford (who would soon be Vidor’s rival for Griffith’s mantle). There are echoes of other Vidor films: the farmers going out to the cornfield sing “You’re in the Army Now,” from The Big Parade; and John’s abortive flight with the seductress (delightfully played by Barbara Pepper) recalls Zeke’s weakness in Hallelujah.

At the center of the film, Tom Keene, with his wide-open face, his very American charm, and his “Vidorian” hat, looks just too much like Vidor himself for the resemblance to be dismissed as coincidental. Keene’s freewheeling performance, however, is one of the film’s problems. He is a bit too toothy, loud, and ingratiating for the sound medium. The character has not changed much from The Crowd (he still has “big ideas”), but Vidor could get away with things in his silent films that are just too grating and abrasive in a talkie, and the problem is accentuated by Karen Morley’s subtle performance and Alfred Newman’s beautifully lilting score.

The climactic ditch-digging sequence, however derivative of Soviet films it might be, still stands as one of the greatest experiments in cinematic rhythm. Vidor dusted off the metronome he had used previously in Three Wise Fools and The Big Parade, and enhanced the power of his cadenced cutting and action through the creative use of sound effects and music. The result, from the first pick breaking ground to the moment where Vidor himself appears on screen and shouts, “O.K. to go,” is arguably the most exciting final reel in any American movie since Griffith’s Intolerance.

It is some measure of the ardor Vidor felt for Our Daily Bread that he managed to make it outside the studio system and in spite of American cinema’s traditional aversion to controversial subjects. The film sprang from the director’s deeply held conviction that it needed to be made—a passionate obsession that could not be denied. This is, after all, what art—and certainly the best of Vidor’s films—is all about.

Pare Lorentz (1905–1992) was (for a short time) a pivotal figure in documentary films, largely through his association with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like an American John Grierson, but on a smaller scale, he made two classic propaganda films for the U.S. government: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, which one critic has suggested may be “the finest American documentary to date.” He also directed a longer, but less focused, film about a Chicago maternity center, The Fight for Life. His agency also produced Joris Ivens’s Power and the Land and Robert Flaherty’s The Land, and Lorentz’s efforts led to the extensive use of film by the government during World War II. (His The Nuremberg Trials (1946) was, sadly, never quite finished.)

Lorentz was friendly with King Vidor, who acted as something of a mentor. Vidor brought Lorentz to Britain in 1938 as an adviser, and through the intervention of Iris Barry (first curator of MoMA’s Film Library, as the Department of Film was once known), a special screening of The River was arranged for Grierson, Flaherty, and Charles Laughton. (Laughton was later to spend an extensive period of time at the Museum preparing for his The Night of the Hunter by watching numerous D. W. Griffith films.) This led to a wide release of the film in the United Kingdom, including an early telecast. The River also beat out Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad at the 1938 Venice Film Festival. So Mussolini’s stooges recognized the film’s value, even though it had been denied an Oscar because of Hollywood’s unwillingness to consider a government-produced film for competition.

The cameramen on The River were Floyd Crosby (F. W. Murnau’s Oscar-winning cinematographer on Tabu), Stacy Woodward, and Willard Van Dyke. In 1939 Lorentz wrote a treatment for The City, a plea for the virtues of suburbia over urban life that was heavily influenced by the ideas of critic Lewis Mumford. The film was directed by Van Dyke and Ralph Steiner (one of Lorentz’s cameramen on The Plow that Broke the Plains). Somehow Van Dyke and Lorentz had a falling out, and a permanent vendetta developed. Van Dyke went on to become the Director of the Department of Film here at the Museum, and was my first boss. He spoke of Lorentz with some animosity, but when I met Lorentz, who came in to do some research, he seemed like a perfectly nice guy to me.

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