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King Vidor's Our Daily Bread (1934): A communistic film exhibiting an American utopia through socio-realism
“‘Don't worry Mary. I know things are hard now but we'll make it in the end.’ - John Sims
‘But how, John? Who's going to save us?’ - Mary Sims
‘Not who, Mary, what. The bread will save us, the bread.’” - John Sims
Socio-Realism developed as a backlash against the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Urban centers grew, and slums increased rapidly on a new scale contrasting with the display of wealth of the upper classes. With a new sense of social consciousness, the Socio-Realists focused on the gritty realities of contemporary life and sympathized with working-class people, particularly the poor. They recorded or interpreted what they saw in a dispassionate manner through art, writings, and film. In Our Daily Bread, King Vidor expresses his own socio-realist interpretation of American society through displaying a utopia founded on communism while preserving American popular and traditional views. During the great depression, poverty and hunger were so widespread in the United States that revolution and protest seemed a distinct possibility to many groups besides the Communist Party of the United States. “In southern textile towns entire families worked in the mills from eleven to twelve hours a day for an average weekly pay of twelve dollars”.
As more and more workers lost there jobs, the number of those applying for relief rose. Since the United States lacked a federal welfare system, the limited private and public relief funds available were quickly drained away. “The reality of soup lines, of Hoovervilles that sprang up on the outskirts of countless cities, of families scavenging for food, of an army of young men and women roaming the country in a desperate search for jobs, and of millions living on the edge of starvation while bumper crops rotted in the fields shattered the American dream and the philosophy of self help, and raised for many serious questions about the future of capitalism itself.” Between 1930 and 1933 traditional trade unions, already weakened during the 1920s, saw their membership decline further due to unemployment and wage cuts.
Their treasures empty and their capacity to provide relief eroded, unions hesitated to mount strikes as a weapon to fight management at first, but the continuing difficult financial circumstances of its members and loved ones pressed them to do so. The United States entered the third period of capitalist economic development. This evaluation of the third period of capitalist development was first defined by the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928 and was characterized by an “increase in industrial output and by the incapacity of markets to expand accordingly”.
This paved the way for the Communist Party of the United States to grow and be envisioned through art, writings and film.
William Z. Foster, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the United States, once said, “Our Party, different from the Socialist Party, creates no illusions amongst the workers that they can vote their way to emancipation, that they can capture the ready-made machinery of the state and utilize this campaign to carry on a widespread and energetic propaganda to teach the workers that the capitalist class would never allow the working class peacefully to take control of the state. That is their strong right arm and they will fight violently to the end to retain it. The working class must shatter the capitalist state. It must build a new state, a new government, workers’ and farmers’ government, the Soviet Government of the United States”
In many ways this encompasses the underlying theme of King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread. One very striking scene represents this when the males discuss how to run their farm after he invites them in. One man first suggests a democracy, only to have another quickly retort, "That's how we got into this mess"; another suggests socialism, but that is quickly shut down as well until finally Chris says they need a strong leader, and proposes John; and this is carried by acclamation.
This suggests a loose parallel with a strong president Roosevelt and the New Deal as a way out of the depression (thus appealing to the popular American views), while also suggesting a uniform public ownership of the land and a complete eradication of the capitalist state (as opposed to socialism). The introduction of prayer before a meal or after a successful harvest also appealed to popular American views. They build a commune based on what each individual can contribute to it as opposed to each individual’s worth. Persons whose occupations dealt with the old government ways such as banking and law and held high positions there were quickly shut down as they had no need for it in this utopia. Workers used their various blue collar skills such as carpentry and stone laying to help each other for the better benefit of the group. One particular member, Louie, turns himself into the police for a bounty that he had so that the others could collect the money displaying the complete abandonment of individualism.
This radical disintegration of democratic society and abandonment of individualism was proposed and backed only by the Communist Party of the United States and its various branches. In unison to Foster’s quote, “That is their strong right arm and they will fight violently to the end to retain it,” the people of John Sim’s commune made sure that the land would be theirs when in a scene - after discovering that the land (that wasn’t John Sim’s to begin with) was to be put up to auction - they bullied and threatened competing buyers from placing bids and took over the process by force and retained the land. This radical display of change was backed only by Vidor’s socio-realist expressionism. In the beginning of the film Mary Sims is seen fending off a rent collector while moments later John is seen hiding from the same man.
Later John resorts to trading a small banjo for a small and sickly chicken that wasn’t enough for one individual. This immediately strikes a cord with the American working class during the Depression and captures their attention. Thus King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread works to see the American dream of prosperity and triumph from a new light. Not one of individualistic endeavor and success, but of an entire community of people as one. Hard times called for radical changes in standards of living and this commune represented just that. Although this view was not popularized by American society on a broad scale, it did promote its ideals from a working-class voice, a communistic mindset, and from a socio-realist vision.