In 1928, King Vidor made The Crowd, a movie about John and Mary Sims, and then made Our Daily Bread in 1934, which is a movie about the same married couple. Different actors play the roles in the two movies, but even if they had been played by the same actors, the second movie really does not seem to be a sequel to the first, especially since the son they had in the first movie is inexplicably missing in the second.
The Crowd is basically about a man, John Sims, who thinks he will make it big in the big city. In fact, his father expresses those big dreams for him when he is born on July 4, 1900, as propitious a birth date as one could want. As a child, his life is compared, somewhat superficially, with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. At the age of twelve, he expresses his dream of being big himself. That is the day his father dies, suggesting that our dreams have a way of being interrupted by the harsh realities of life.
An intertitle sarcastically announces that John has become an adult, and that he is one of the seven million people in New York who believe the city depends on them. That is a stretch, because a lot of people have no such illusions, but John certainly does. He ends up with a job in which he is just one of a thousand people. All in all, it is not a bad job: he works indoors, sitting down, no heavy lifting. He even has the opportunity to steal a little time from his boss trying to win a contest coming up with a good advertising slogan. And there is no overtime apparently, because at the moment the minute hand indicates it is 5 o’clock, everyone leaves his desk and heads for the exit.
Bert works in the same office with John, and he lines him up with a blind double date, where John meets Mary. Though Bert is a fun-loving guy, yet he is a better worker than John and eventually gets promoted. Furthermore, Bert is not contemptuous of other people the way John is, sneering at the crowd and remarking to Mary that most people are a pain in the neck. John sees a man juggling balls with an advertisement on the clown suit he is wearing. He points out that the poor sap’s father probably thought he would grow up to be president. Much in the way that Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) is destined to become the geek in a sideshow in Nightmare Alley (1947), so too is John destined to become the juggler in the clown suit as punishment for his derisive remark.
After kissing Mary a couple of times and seeing an advertisement (“You furnish the girl, and we’ll furnish the home”), John asks Mary to marry him. They get married, but there is no home to furnish, only a small apartment with a Murphy bed, where John dreams about the big house he thinks they will eventually own. After a while, it all starts to get on their nerves, and they start quarreling, although John is the one who does most of the complaining and sniping. They almost split up, but then Mary tells John she is pregnant, and so they make up. They have a son and soon after that a daughter. And soon after that, they start quarreling again, with Mary growing weary of John’s dreams about making it big while Bert actually got a promotion.
While at the beach, John starts juggling balls to amuse his children, recalling the geek motif of the juggler in the clown suit. Nevertheless, John comes up with an advertising slogan based on juggling balls, and it wins him five hundred dollars (about seven thousand dollars, adjusted for inflation). After John buys some presents, they call their children through the window to come and get the toys he bought them. Heedlessly, the children run across the street, and their daughter is run over by a truck and killed.
After a few months, John is still so upset that he cannot do his job. Even though Bert is now his supervisor and would probably be understanding, John quits before Bert can say anything, throwing a tantrum, flinging his ledger on the floor, and saying, “To hell with this job.” Oddly enough, when he gets home, Mary is in a great mood as she prepares food for the company picnic. We have to wonder, if Mary has recovered well enough to think about having fun, why can’t John at least go to work and do his job? In any event, John tries to get work elsewhere, but fails at one job after another, once again putting stress on the marriage. In some ways, this reminds us of Penny Serenade (1941) and The Marrying Kind (1952), two movies in which a marriage ends up on the rocks on account of the death of a child. Like those two movies, the idea is that a good marriage can ultimately survive such a tragedy.
Mary tries to make ends meet by sewing dresses while John hangs around the house depressed. Her brothers come by and offer John a job, but he turns it down because it is a “charity job.” John leaves and almost commits suicide by leaping in front of a train, but ends up finding work juggling balls in a clown suit. He goes home to find that Mary is leaving him to go live with her brothers. He talks her into going to a show with him, having purchased the tickets with the money he made, and at the theater having a good time, they see his advertisement of the clown juggling balls in the program, suggesting that he might succeed again in the future.
Apparently John fails to make a go of it coming up with advertising slogans, however, because in Our Daily Bread, we find that he no longer even has the job juggling balls while wearing that clown suit. An uncle gives them an opportunity to work an abandoned farm, and they decide to take it. I guess John is no longer too proud to take charity from one of Mary’s relatives. Unfortunately, they know nothing about farming. A genuine farmer, who lost his own place, breaks down on the road, and John invites him and his family to join them. John then gets the idea of inviting other people to join the farm, using their diversity of skills to turn it into a cooperative commune.
Naturally enough, there are scenes showing how well this works out, but there are also scenes of trouble. There is a discussion of the kind of government they will have for themselves, and we get just a taste of political discord. There is a scene involving a troublemaker, who is quickly forced to behave himself. John tells Mary about one of the members of the commune trying to steal some stuff and sell it for his own personal gain. We want to see more of this, because there are not many movies premised on the idea of desperate families forming such a commune, and we are curious as to whether these elements of discord could be overcome. Unfortunately, the movie diverges from these issues.
First, it slides into a man-against-nature situation, in which drought threatens to ruin their crops. There are lots of movies about farmers struggling against the elements, and it seems a shame to waste time on that theme here. The only good thing that can be said in its favor is that they all pull together and build a path from the river to the crops for the purpose of irrigation, solving the problem through their own effort and ability. Another movie might have had someone pray for rain, followed by a downpour, so at least we were spared that deus ex machina.
Second, there is a diversion with no redeeming features at all. It concerns the arrival of a blonde femme fatale, who almost succeeds in getting John to desert his wife and the farm by running off to the city with her. Movies about a wicked woman making a good man go wrong can be lots of fun, but that plot element does not belong here. Besides, it is a little irritating the way Mary blithely takes John back after abandoning her, even if only temporarily.
The movie should have spent less time on the drought and none at all on the femme fatale, thereby leaving more time to dramatize all the difficulties in getting people to cooperate in such an enterprise, especially since many of us have doubts as to how well something like that would work out anyway.