Hollywood 1930s: Rural Romances and Collectivist Dreams (State Fair, Our Daily Bread)

The most popular of rural romances in the Depression era was State Fair (1933), based on Phil Stong’s book of the same title.

State Fair has been remade twice as a musical by Twentieth Century-Fox, though the first version is still the best. The 1945 film, directed by Walter Lang, boasted a rousing score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and starred Charles Winninger, Fay Bainter, Jeanne Crain, and Dick Haymes. The film was extremely popular at the box office.

In 1962, another (duller) version, directed by Jose Ferrer, featured in its cast Alice Faye (in her comeback role), and Charles Winninger, who recreated his l945 role. A younger generation of stars, including Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, Bobby Darin, and Pamela Tiffin, decorated the film. The 1962 musical moved the story to Texas, but was sentimental and condescending to country life.

State Fair

A romantic idyll about the Frake family’s pilgrimage from Brunswick to the Iowa State Fair, it featured an all-star cast: Will Rogers, as father Abel Frake, Louise Dresser, as his wife Melissa, and Janet Gaynor (at the peak of her popularity) as their daughter Margy. The two major representatives of the City are a trapeze artist, Emily Joyce (Sally Eilers), posing as the police inspector’s daughter, and a newspaperman Pat Gilbert (Lew Ayres). Margy’s beau, Harry, stays at home because “his precious milk canes are more important” to him than going to the Fair. By contrast, Pat, the City person, stands for “motion and excitement,” describes himself as, “speed and sport, that’s my line!” In comparison to Harry, who has never been anywhere, Pat has traveled extensively, covering races everywhere: “horses at Saratoga, automobiles in Indianapolis, airplanes at Cleveland.” A city boy who is not, however, “a cheap flirt, or a drugstore cowboy,” Pat wins Margy’s heart.

Images of cornfields swaying in the breeze, a meadow by a brook with a dozen of horses, and a well to do farm with wide porch covered in Virginia creepers, introduce the locale of the Frake household. The sounds of hogs eating, hammers pounding, and saws swishing provide the audio background to the visual images. The dialogue never goes beyond the level of Margy telling her father: “I wish you loved me and Wayne they way you do Blue Boy (the hog). Indeed, the father’s major concern is for Blue Boy to win the contest. “You can call me names,” he tells the superstitious storekeeper, “but don’t say anything against my hog. I got faith in Blue Boy.”

An archetypal family entertainment, State Fair opened in Radio City Music Hall to mixed reviews. Richard Watts complained in the N.Y. Herald Tribune that the film was not “in the rugged, embittered tradition of most American literary accounts of the sorrows of agriculture.

The Life of Jimmy Dolan

In The Life of Jimmy Dolan (also 1933), a morality tale about love and redemption, the eponymous hero (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is an intoxicated prizefighter that fakes a reputation as a sensitive man. When Dolan inadvertently causes the death of a reporter, he has to flee the city. Advised by his lawyer to “remain dead” for two years, he moves to Utah, living peacefully in a farm-orphanage for crippled children.

His love for Peggy (Loretta Young) is the first step in his rehabilitation and, under a new name and identity, he begins a new life. The disenchanted Dolan learns to appreciate the small joys of country life: milking cows, walking in the open fields, playing with children. Challenged by a barnstorming killer to beat him for a high prize, he goes back to the ring and donates it to pay off the mortgage. Once in the country, the former hard-boiled cynicism and embitterment associated with the Big City disappear.

Our Daily Bread

If State Fair and The Life of Jimmy Dolan evoked nostalgically a simpler, decent country life, King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) was a harsher and more important film, artistically and ideologically. Its production, exhibition, and reception are instructive in the insights they offer about the possibilities of independent filmmaking within the Hollywood studio system.

Prior to Our Daily Bread, Vidor made another agrarian romance, The Stranger’s Return (1933), a little-known film, based on Phil Stong’s screenplay. Conventional, it is the story of a young City woman (Miriam Hopkins), recently separated from her husband, who goes to her grandfather’s farm, where she finds her roots and true love, a college graduate turned farmer (Franchot Tone).

In Our Daily Bread, Vidor shows again his belief in the rehabilitative and regenerative functions of country life. Deeply disturbed by the unemployment and low morale of the Depression, Vidor sought to channel “this nationwide unrest and tragedy into a film.” “I wanted to take my two protagonists out of The Crowd, recalls Vidor, “and follow them through the struggles of a typical young American couple in this most difficult period.”

In The Crowd (1928), originally titled One of the Mob, he examined, with unprecedented realism, the predicament of two individuals in the anonymity and indifference of the Big City. To avoid melodramatic treatment, Vidor focused on the hopes and frustrations of two average people, John and Mary Sims, amidst harsh metropolitan setting. He cast the protagonists with unknown players: James Murray (an extra who happened to walk by) and Eleanor Boardman. A clerk holding a meaningless job in a huge office, John lives in a small and shabby apartment. The film was shot with seven different endings, even though Vidor opted for a grim finale, one that left John as a cipher in the crowd. Many exhibitors, however, preferred the “happy” ending; The Crowd was initially released with two resolutions.

The technical virtuosity of The Crowd is remarkable, particularly its startling opening. A beehive of activities is recorded (through hidden cameras) in the streets of Manhattan, with the camera scaling the heights of a skyscraper. The camera climbs up, gliding through a window into a large office, then stops at the hero’s desk. Influenced by German Expressionism, the film displays a giant office, populated by anonymous and faceless (thus Interchangeable) individuals, all sitting behind similar desks, performing similar tasks, in similar manner and pace.

Vidor found the nucleus of Our Daily Bread’s narrative in a Readers’ Digest article, written by an economics professor, which proposed the organization of cooperatives as a solution to the unemployment problem. He was sure that every studio in town would be happy to produce his projected film. Vidor first turned to his friend Irving G. Thalberg, who had encouraged him to make socially conscious films. But after keeping the script for weeks, Thalberg told him it was not appropriate for MGM. “All the major companies were afraid to make a film without glamour,” recalls Vidor, “even though admitting that the struggle depicted was a heroic one.” “The fact that my characters were unemployed and down to their last few pennies seemed to scare the studios.”

The only alternative was to raise funds by himself, though in order to get money from the banks, he needed to show a releasing contract with a distribution company. But there was a problem: the bankers were negatively portrayed; in a powerful scene, a banker forces the sheriff to make a foreclosure sale. Fortunately, Charlie Chaplin, one of the founders of United Artists, which functioned as a releasing company, came to the rescue. Committed to the project, Vidor pawned practically everything he owned. To save money, he rented an abandoned golf course outside of Hollywood and shot many scenes without dialogue.

Vidor conceived of his film as a second treatment of the lives of John and Mary, “the average American man and woman.” At the film’s start, the unemployed John pawns his guitar for a chicken. He claims he wants no favors, “just the chance to work.” When he and Mary inherit a broken-down farm, they leave the city, determined to make it work. But John soon realizes he lacks the necessary knowledge, so he hires a Swedish farmer and advertises for workers. Many people show up, and John selects those who would be most useful to the farm.

Vidor shows in impressive long shots the joy of people building their cooperative through various collective celebrations: constructing living quarters, plowing and planting the fields, dancing and singing. The members complement each other in skills: the carpenter builds a wooden frame for the Stonemason, while the latter builds the carpenter’s chimney.

However, the narrative resorts to melodramatics in its juxtaposition of the two women: Mary, usually dressed in white, and the City girl, the outsider (Barbara Pepper), a sexy blonde dressed in black. The City (Other) Woman spends most of her time indoors, smoking and listening to jazz records. A threat to the marital union, she is soon asked to leave. Meanwhile, a drought demoralizes everybody, and John, in a moment of weakness, decides to leave the commune with the seductive woman. But his conscience bothers him and, haunted by the image of a criminal who earlier gave himself up so that the community could collect a reward, he decides to go back. In the film’s climax, water comes through the ditch and the members throw themselves into the mud.

Some elements of the plot had appeared in Murnau’s silent masterpiece, Sunrise (1927), which also used conceptual types in a universal morality tale. The two major characters, The Man (George O’Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) stand in for every man and woman. Content with the security of their farm, they live a happy life, apart from the turmoil of the city. But one day a City woman (Margaret Livingston) appears in their village and seduces the husband to leave his farm. At the end, however, he repents and goes back to his wife. The three protagonists embody abstract forces: “the Man,” as the strong provider; “the Wife,” as the fragile and devoted wife-mother, and “the Woman from the City,” as the seductress, all flesh and carnal desire.

Our Daily Bread advocates self-sacrifice and suppression of individualistic (selfish) goals for the sake of nobler collectivist ones. An escaped convict, who becomes the commune’s policeman, decides to surrender so that his reward will be collected by the cooperative. Nominally, the form of government is democratic, though the film shows the members’ dependency on John’s charismatic leadership. A figure modeled on F.D. Roosevelt, John becomes a leader by acclamation rather than election.

The film abounds with John’s patriotic speeches to his followers. In one, he uses the Mayflower pilgrims to rally the group: “When they arrived on the continent, what did they do Stand around and beef about the unemployment situation or the value of the dollar No. They set to work to make their own employment, build their own houses, and grow their own food.” “If they got along without landlords and grocery bills,” he concludes, “so can we. What we’ve got to do is help ourselves by helping others. We’ve got the land and we’ve got the strength.” John is the commune’s owner and leader–the film stops short of advocating collectivist ownership of the land.

Our Daily Bread never resolves the tension between individualistic leadership and collectivist values. Every member seems to agree that John is the natural leader, as the Swedish farmer puts is: “All I know is we’ve got a big job, eh, and we need a Big Boss. And Yohn zims the man for the Boss.” The film is at once naive and utopian. In mode, the film adheres to doctrine of socialist realism, focusing on social types, rather than individual characters, and on everyday behavior of ordinary people. Significantly, the two leads were played by actors who were not stars, and other roles featured unknown or non-professional actors.

In visual style, Our Daily Bread draws on the work of Soviet filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin. The film’s climax, the construction of the irrigation system, is staged as a conscious tribute to Eisenstein’s montage theory. Vidor treated the building of the ditch “in a manner I imagined a choreographer would use in plotting out the movements of a ballet,” thus orchestrating every move of the barrier’s opening and the rush of water. It was the longest scene to film, taking ten days of rehearsal and shooting. For sound, Vidor used a metronome and a bass drum, and composer Alfred Newman wrote rhythmical tempos.

Vidor’s earnest sincerity and straightforward treatment lend the picture charm, if not credibility. Critic Maltby noted that the film’s ideology was anachronistic, because its pastoral fantasies were created by urbanites, not country people, and furthermore, “idealistic solutions of populist rhetoric were apolitical precisely because they were impractical.”

The real conditions of agricultural production and the increasing migration of farmers to the cities. But valid as this criticism is, Vidor’s humanistic idealism was still the only directorial voice in the l930s to actually advocate cooperative farms as a radical alternative. Collectivist values and communal lifestyles were seldom taken seriously by Hollywood and the dominant culture. One of the few directors to examine these alternative lifestyles was Arthur Penn, in Alice’s Restaurant (1969).

Frank Capra’s benevolent solutions (see Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) were less realistic than Vidor’s, but conformed to Hollywood and dominant ideology of market capitalism (free enterprise, laissez-faire economy) and romantic individualism. However, Vidor and Capra shared in common deep mistrust of governmental interference in solving problems of poverty and unemployment, and
a correspondingly strong belief in the puritanical ethos of hard work and self-sacrifice.

Institutional authority–centralized government, planned policy and economy–were rejected, in ideology and practice, in favor of neighborliness, which took the form of communal living in Our Daily Bread, or the rich benefactors helping the poor in Mr. Deeds. While not one of Vidor’s greatest films, Our Daily Bread showcases his directorial strengths and weaknesses. As Andrew Sarris pointed out, Vidor’s talent was intuitive and he was better in creating great moments than great films.

Vidor’s architectural cinema was particularly suitable for the formation of individuals against large groups. The film was well received by the critics, but not by the public. Richard Watts wrote in the N.Y. Herald Tribune that it was “an adventurous, stirring, courageous film,” emerging out of “idealistic materials of American existence,” with none of “the glibness or smooth dexterity.”

Andre Sennwald of the N.Y. Times also singled out the film’s “richness of conception,” describing it as “a brilliant declaration of faith in the importance of cinema as a social instrument.” As “a socially-minded art of amazing vitality and emotional impact,” the film was compared with the work of proletarian novelists, Albert Harper, Robert Cantwell, and William Rollins.

However, the Hearst press in California called the film “pinko,” and the L.A. Times refused advertising layout because of the film’s “too leftist” ideology. Despite the fact that it was one of the most radical films of the entire decade, Our Daily Bread still conforms to Hollywood conventions. First, its anti-city bias: the characterizations of the city woman and the banker were too simplistically one-dimensional. Second, the resolution it provides is too individualistic: with all its emphasis on organized action, Tom is clearly the charismatic leader, referred to by the members as “a strong boss.”

In the same way that collectivist values stand in sharp opposition to American capitalism and market-oriented economy, an independent production, with strong political statements, was also not viable in Hollywood.  Lessons of a similar kind would be learned by the blacklisted filmmakers of Salt of the Earth (1953), another anti-establishment independent film. A box-office failure at the time, the film was rescued decades later by film scholars who reexamined Vidor’s career.