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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Ever Heard of King Vidor?

King Vidor is one of those film legends with whom we are familiar without knowing who he was or what he did. Born in 1894, this American film director, screen writer and technical innovator has works that span from 1913 to 1981.Truly incredible is the sheer quantity of films he produced. I was very grateful to visit one of the most fascinating areas of the Berlinale: the Retrospektive section, where films discovered somewhere in the world were painstakingly restored to an amazingly high quality. One of these treasures is his famous 1928 black & white silent film, THE CROWD. Another film I’d seen clips of, but never in its entirety, was OUR DAILY BREAD. Completed in 1934 but with the feeling I was looking at our own current economic struggle with the coronavirus, the drop in the stock markets, and the rise of the right-wing extremists. I hoped these old films would give me an insight as to how people survived those hard times.

The film OUR DAILY BREAD was introduced by the internationally acclaimed film preservationist, Serge Bromberg, who had searched far and wide for lost film treasures. His successful company, Lobster Films, Paris, has the most extensive and rare collection of films in the world. Lobster Films painstakingly restores these lost works of art, bringing them to life in such a high quality that we barely notice the flaws in the footage which had developed over time. Not only are we fortunate that he brought this fine collection but that he also bestowed his lovely art of storytelling, giving us an insight into his skills.

Bromberg began his story with a description of how he became a distributor via the art of preservation. At one stage he was in New York City in 1984, hunting down the archives from a company, Blackhawk Films, which used to sell original copies of old 8mm as well as 16mm films. However the invention of VHS eventually bankrupted in Blackhawk Films. Bromberg found out who the business owner was, then began the search for him. However, the owner, David Sheppard, had moved to L.A. along with his entire inventory. The persistent Bromberg jumped on a plane and began calling every David Sheppard in the phone book— until he found him. Meeting in the early hours, the two forged a deal of friendship that evening as well as a merger of the two companies. If it were not for their serendipitous meeting, we would not be seeing this incredible collection of King Vidor’s work.

OUR DAILY BREAD was supposed to be the sequel to THE CROWD. Vidor had wanted to use the same cast, but unfortunately his principal star, James Murray, had become an alcoholic. This was not his only obstacle. The Great Depression, along with his political views hinted at communism or socialism— thus the film was not picked up by any producers. He decided that this film was important enough for him to sell his car and mortgage his home in order to finish it. It was one of Vidor’s favorite films despite that it only broke even. However, OUR DAILY BREAD did land on Orson Wells’ list as of one of the 10 best motion pictures ever made. In 1979, King Vidor was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his "incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator." After just a mere taste of some of his films, I could see that he was ahead of his time and truly a genius.

OUR DAILY BREAD

King Vidor, USA 1934

Set in the Great Depression, John Simms and his wife Mary live in the city and down to their last penny, uncertain what to do. Asking a rich uncle for help, they are given the opportunity to take on their uncle’s run-down farm and make it into something. So off they go, following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s slogan, “Back to the Land,” where they find themselves in the middle of nowhere grinning stupidly yet optimistically. They have no choice but to work hard and make something out of the place. The film has a socialistic overtone, since the only way they can move forward is to have knowledgeable people work with them, sharing in the profits at the end. It also shows the American dream and glorifies the fact that if you work hard, you will achieve something. If you all work together, you will achieve even more.

The scenes have wonderful choreography, whereby all workers have a rhythm and are at one with Nature. At times it reflects the feeling of an Andrew Wyeth painting, Christina’s World. It may be a naïve or idealistic view of the Great Depression, but Vidor doesn’t seem to be far off in finding solutions on how to handle the hardships that faced countless people. Is there a kernel of something in this film that will help us with our current world crisis?

STREET SCENE

King Vidor, USA 1931

I saw only three of Vidor’s films, but this was my favorite. The screen play was done in 1929 by Elmer Rice and begins with a sizzling hot, hot summer’s day in New York City. The setting is the stoop and the sidewalk in front of a tenement. The residents slowly emerge, and the gossip flies high. The relationships among the residents are often complex, where hints of anti-Semitism, sexual harassment and unfaithfulness rise and fall during the course of the film. A tragedy that one hope will end with a peaceful solution— yet uncertainty lies just around the corner. What I particularly loved about this film were the actors. Each was quite a character, and no one was beautiful. I think we’ve lost this bit of realism showing that anyone could be living on that street. Netflix can’t hold a candle to these superb old films!

HALLELUJAH

King Vidor, USA 1929

King Vidor portrays the lifestyle of an African American family in the South that he knew from his own childhood in Texas. This film broke ground in many areas as the first musical film ever made –not to mention Vidor’s first sound production. It was technically a brilliant first attempt to change from silent films to ‘talkies’ in contrast to other films at the time with their myriad problems trying to make a fluid storyline as well as synchronizing the footage. He also decided to introduce a radical subject matter for that time, making it difficult to find a studio to back him. People did not want to see a film with an African American cast as was ahead of its time.

He got financial backing only by agreeing not to receive a salary for the production. Equally difficult was the challenge to find professional actors for the roles. He even had African Americans on his production team, very rare for the time. The only thing that seemed a bit strange was the mixture of religious spirituality along with an erotic sexuality. Perhaps he wanted to show that God prevails over the devil’s temptations. Either way, I found the film quite interesting as we see the hardworking cotton sharecropper, Zeke, and his family working hard, hoping for success despite the many temptations along the way. This film is to be digitally restored in 2020 by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the Library of Congress.

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