Even in Arcadia: The Dame Who Spoiled Our Daily Bread

[This (edited) undergraduate composition was written in 1993 for the Lehman Scholars Program (LSP) module Hollywood Myths at Lehman College, CUNY. The assignment was to write weekly essays on a series of classic Hollywood films that were screened in class. The series of essays won the Terry De Antonio Prize for Film Criticism.]

Even in Arcadia: The Dame Who Spoiled Our Daily Bread

Harry Heuser

In 1934, the year in which the Production Code came into force, the formula we now recognize as quintessentially Hollywood was being set down with near scientific precision.  Certain ingredients were rationed, others became off limits, and any new recipe needed to be derived from what was left in the pantry.  Some films of the period stand out in the ways their creators interpreted the Code and took it as an opportunity to develop viable genres to suit a changed market.  The definitive screwball comedy It Happened One Night comes to mind as a spectacular success in this respect, despite the fact that it almost did not happen because the material was considered stale.  King Vidor’s ambitious Our Daily Bread, on the other hand, proved to be a one-of-a-kind experiment.  Making a virtue of Code conformity, it struggled to create an alternative form of storytelling by remixing familiar yet disparate elements.  The result, packaged though it was as a loaf of whole grain realism, is a layer cake baked Hollywood style, with the frosting of melodrama and a candle for the Roosevelt administration on top.

In its allegorical treatment of the Depression, Our Daily Bread is a messy compound of topicality and timelessness.  The narrative starts out as a sober documentary, with newsreel footage showing closed factories and unemployed workers; but the film soon turns movie by zooming in on its two protagonists, John and Mary (Tom Keene and Karen Morley) as they arrive in the fictional community of Arcadia.  So as to drive home that the couple have made a positive move from city to country, Our Daily Bread initially presents John and Mary’s period of adjustment as a light and at times humorous back-to-the-farm yarn that more closely resembles The Egg and Ithan existential agony.  To the newly established commune of farmers – a motley crew including a former pants presser, an undertaker, and a violin teacher – no problem seems insurmountable if tackled jointly.  The weather might pose a challenge; but for red-hot danger, the movie reaffirms, there is nothing like a dame.

The dame in question is Sally (Barbara Pepper), a vamp who makes her entrance during a rare Arcadian rainstorm that symbolizes her treacherous nature.  Neither gentle nor subtle, Sally has arrived with a false promise of fertility.  Painted and platinum blonde, this cigarette puffing ersatz Harlow represents the metropolitan decadence of the Roaring Twenties.  She literally introduces death into the pastoral scene.  A fellow passenger in her car just “bought the farm.”  Implanting his corpse into Arcadia’s soil, Sally poisons the community with the ptomaine of the decaying urban centers.

In Vidor’s world, it is Sally, not the neo-agrarian John, who appears anachronistic.  Sally is the flapper who missed the Black Friday newsflash.  Her idea to open a beauty parlor in this rustic environment demonstrates her inability to shed her past and to change her attitude toward nature.  To Sally, the rejuvenating spirit of Arcadia is an arcanum.  Unlike the pants-presser or the violin teacher, she does not manage to free herself from the manacles of the crumbling civilization that gave rise to and fostered her talent for prostitution.

Rendered purposeless in this community of hearts and minds, Sally sets out to destruct what she cannot comprehend by separating John from his mate.  Her natural charms are limited, however, and her siren song threatens to fall on deaf ears.  In order to carry out her scheme, she resorts to a box of man-made tricks, of which the gramophone is the most sophisticated.  Coming from the big city, the only system of exchange that Sally knows involves paper money, of the value of which the stock market crash has not disillusioned her; now, running on empty, she is determined to fill the cash register she has traded for a soul.  When an escaped convict seeks and finds redemption through self-sacrifice for the Arcadian cause, Sally turns even the reward offered for his arrest into bait for John.  Her wiles fail, but Sally’s indolence proves infectious.  Sloth and depravity nearly ruin Arcadia.  It is only when the temptress is expelled that the community can thrive again, duly revitalizing its scorched fields by channeling a distant, natural stream.

The shellacking of Sally is meant to be a testimony to the commune’s perseverance.  Yet, as that shellac-reliant siren returns unreformed to the big city, the peasant paradise remains a world apart.  Like the film itself, Arcadia is a utopian fantasy rather than a visionary proposal likely to reform society.  Depending heavily on a false goddess ex machina, Vidor’s Production Code conforming melodrama is not the mature work of social realism it purports to be.  At the core of its moralising wholesomeness lies the staleness of the age-old distrust of urbanity, a sophistication that has been gendered female ever since Eve.

%d bloggers like this: