Saturday, August 19, 2006


Both of these movies are on a disc from Image called "Our Daily Bread and Other Films of the Great Depression." The first is a Depression-era propaganda film which makes a case for a kind of back-to-the-earth socialism as an answer to the woes of underemployed city folk. Supposedly, this was intended as a sequel to King Vidor's silent classic THE CROWD and it begins with the same young married couple, John and Mary Sims, from that film, though played here by different actors (Tom Keene and Karen Morley). In the big city, owing rent but holding no jobs, they hit up Morley's uncle for a loan which he, due to the stock market crash, is unable to give them, but he does offer them use of an old farm which he owns. Despite having no farming experience, they move out there (where there is plenty of farm equipment but no furniture) and are lucky enough to cross paths with a Swede (John Qualen) whose car breaks down in front their property. Keene hires him to work the land, then gets the idea to set up a co-op farm, putting up signs looking for people who will be willing to live on the land, help out with the farming, and share in the take. Some of the men who show up have experience with their hands, but they even accept a violinist and an undertaker into the group and for a while, things go well. When, unexpectedly, the land is put up for public auction, the farmers intimidate folks into not bidding, then bid $1.85, which by law has to be accepted, and buy the land for themselves--a trick which was actually used by farmers in the Plains. There is great joy when the crops begin to come up, but of course, other problems ensue, some personal (a wild city woman, Barbara Pepper, tempts Keene into an affair and almost gets him to leave the farm) and some natural (a drought). The climax of the film involves a desperate against-the-clock attempt to construct an irrigation system to save the crops. The sequence is a bit long, but it is edited well and does make an exciting finale. Many critics have noted that the acting is not up to par, perhaps because Vidor was working on his labor of love outside the studio system and couldn't afford big names, but overall the cast isn't bad. Keene is a bit wooden, but so, as I recall, was James Murray in THE CROWD. Morley is fine, as is Qualen; Addison Richards is rather stiff as the mysterious Louie, a strong but quiet type who acts as a one-man police force but who has a secret which makes for a compelling subplot.

The reason I rented this disc from Netflix is because it contains the half-hour Dust Bowl documentary THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS. Until recently, all I knew about the Dust Bowl era was what I gleaned from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," but I just finished a great book about the Dust Bowl called "The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan which piqued my interest in finding out more. As far as I know, the horrors of the Dust Bowl have never been used for a major fiction film. This explicit piece of propaganda was directed by Pare Lorentz and made for the U.S. Resettlement Administration, a New Deal agency whose aim was to help the farmers leave the Great Plains, which had been made increasingly desolate by years of drought and dust storms. Back in the teens, the government had actively encouraged settlement and farming in the Plains, which led to boom years during WWI followed by over-farming of the land, soil erosion, and the terrible dust storms which killed animals and people and drove thousands out of the Plains. This interesting film is billed on its title card as a "picturization" of history, which means that, strictly speaking, it's not a traditional documentary, as most of the footage does not actually document historical events; it's more an impressionistic look at the period, using film shot at the time, often specifically staged by the director, to stand in for history with dramatic narration read over the otherwise silent footage, and accompanied by a wonderful score by Virgil Thompson. Most of the film is composed of sweeping shots of the land or of people working the land, with occasional close-ups of weathered farmer faces. The narration does indicate the government is largely responsible for what happened, but it also posits the government as the farmers' saving grace (through its resettlement activities). The combination of well-edited montage sequences, swelling music, and an authoritative-sounding, if sometimes melodramatic narrator, add up to an fairly effective film, though ultimately, in this post-cinema-verite age, it feels a little amorphous. [DVD]

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