Gender and Power in Ida May Park’s Bread (1918)

Kino Lorber

It is difficult to ignore the concept of food in Ida May Park’s Bread, a silent, socially-conscious drama that she wrote and directed in 1918, of which only a short fragment survives today. Not only is the importance of food signaled right from the title, but throughout the approximate 19 minutes of extant footage (it was originally a six-reel feature), many forms of cuisine—such as meat, potatoes, pies, and cakes—are given visibility. Most interestingly, Bread hones in on the symbolic role of food, specifically in the way that Park utilizes it to highlight gendered imbalances of power in the entertainment industry.

If that last point made you wince because of its haunting resonance today, then be forewarned that aspects of Bread’s plot could quite easily be ripped from the headlines of many a #MeToo news story. According to the press sheet for the film published in The Moving Picture Weekly at the time of its release, the film follows a young woman with theatrical aspirations, played with a weary somberness by Mary MacLaren. After her uncle dies and leaves her a few hundred dollars, she escapes her small town for New York City. (The Moving Picture Weekly lists her name as Candace, but in the existing footage she is called Helen.) The surviving fragment begins with Helen meeting with Emil Krause, a leathery theatrical manager, who we later learn paid for her (and presumably all his female clients’) new clothes when she arrived in New York. She seems uncomfortable in his office, and in these opening minutes, he aggressively comes at her, asking her to remove her hat so he can see how tall she is. There’s a sickening moment when, having cornered her against the door frame to measure her height, Park gives us a close-up of Krause’s hand locking the door behind Helen. The next shot is of a terrified Helen, her eyes darting to Krause. Eventually Helen makes her escape from Krause’s literal clutches, thanks to the arrival of another man, a playwright named Arnold Train, who most likely was introduced during the lost portion of the film that precedes this scene.  

Following this horrible encounter, the rest of the fragment shows Helen living through “dark days:” a fellow actress calls her a “straight-laced Puritan” for not succumbing to Krause’s advances; without a job, she has no money for rent; hunger and despair begin to shroud her every waking minute. She bumps into Krause again on the street and he offers her a small part in one of his plays—her tryout the following day will be “strictly business” he promises unconvincingly. Hungry and weak, Helen agrees and goes back to her rented room. She mends her ever-loosening dress and, after fainting at the sight of blood from a needle prick, realizes she needs food. While she counts her few remaining coins, an intertitle announces that she has just enough money for a single loaf of bread. She goes out into the rainy night to procure her sustenance.

The surviving fragment ends right after Helen has purchased the bread and, back out on the sidewalk, bumps into a man and drops her loaf onto the sideboard of a passing car. The car is carrying Train and another male character on their way to drunkenly celebrate the former’s successful play opening.
The Moving Picture Weekly explains that, in the car, is “the man [Helen] thought she loved and another man who loved her worthily,” although, without having seen the entire film, it is unclear which man is which. The fragment literally ends with Helen seeing the bread on the car, asserting that she will not give up, and running after it. According to the press sheet, she eventually makes it to the men and faints. But a happy ending is in store: she ends up accepting a marriage proposal from the man who truly loves her (Train, according to film historian Mark Garrett Cooper).

While watching this fragment—now available on DVD/Blu-ray as part of Kino Lorber’s new box set Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers—I was struck by the disgusting timelessness of the narrative. The “casting couch” we have heard so much about in 2018 is right there in 1918, with a young actress at the disposal of a powerful man. In that scene, Krause is so systematic in his lecherous advances that it is clear he has done this before. And Park effectively presents Krause’s initial sexual appetite and then connects it to the idea of an excessive, satiating meal to further highlight Helen’s vulnerable state in comparison to Krause’s position of power. When Helen runs into him again on the street, he corners her against a restaurant window with “Chowder House” emblazoned on it in large letters. Before a dizzy and faint Helen agrees to come in for the tryout the next day, she looks into the window. Thanks to a point-of-view shot, we see the pile of food there—bottles of beer, fish, and more—a vision that compels her to agree to his offer. A few scenes later, when Helen is back in her room, Park cuts between shots of a hungry Helen and shots of Krause, perhaps at the same restaurant, gorging himself on a large meal of steak and potatoes.

Park’s overall overtness is actually quite effective and energizing; she is not subtle at any point about Krause’s dominant position and how this affects Helen. Nor is she subtle in her framing of the bread, which she explicitly presents as a “talismanic narrative device,” to borrow a phrase from Cooper. Visually, this is expressed by a close-up of the loaf as the baker wraps it. The camera is placed above the bread, which makes it seem immense, durable, and hearty. Immediately after, there is a close-up of Helen’s face, as she tearfully raises her eyes to the camera, a small smile beginning to glimmer. The intertitles that follow reinforce the symbolic value of this loaf of bread: “The mis-shapen loaf was surely a good omen. She felt certain of a change of luck.”

A few moments later, Helen cradles it, referring to the bread’s warmth as akin to “a good friend’s smile.” After she drops it outside, another intertitle explains its importance outright: “The bread meant more than sustenance to her…it symbolized all the good things of life.” Bread, in essentially a religious way, is unequivocal about this loaf being a token of hope, a form of spiritual and physical nourishment for Helen. It is also Helen’s path forward, as well as an emblem of her impoverished state up until this point—a lack previously defined in relation to Krause’s excessive consumption and repulsing (sexual) appetite.

Park also uses food to show us Helen’s inner desires. The aforementioned point-of-view shot of the restaurant window is repeated later when Helen reaches the bakery and looks into the store, seeing a display crammed with cakes and other desserts. Astutely, Park uses these two point-of-view shots to sandwich a scene where Helen, while mending her dress, fantasizes about an alternative reality, highlighting that these images of culinary surplus represent something far greater for her than just sustenance. Via double exposure, we see both Helen sewing and a well-dressed Helen enjoying an intimate meal with a man (Train, again according to Cooper) with food served on silver platters. The meal becomes both a symbol of professional and romantic fulfillment and perhaps a survival mechanism for the young, desperate, and hungry woman.

All this is not to suggest that Park is always unambiguous while constructing her story. The inclusion of Helen’s friend who admonishes her for not accepting Krause’s advances highlights that the patriarchal system is not always black and white, and that women can be active participants in its injustices. MacLaren’s performance, reminiscent of her role as a poor shop girl in Lois Weber’s Shoes two years earlier, also subtly reinforces Helen’s vulnerability. Throughout almost the entire fragment, MacLaren plays Helen with a sensitive mix of discomfort, exhaustion, unhappiness, and quiet resolve. In one striking moment, Park frames Helen from behind as she leaves her boarding house to go get the bread. With slumped shoulders, she opens the door and turns to walk out, only to discover it is raining. Her head sags slightly as she hesitates. She turns around toward the camera and sees her landlady, whom she cannot afford to meet, so she turns back, pauses, and then puts the outer layer of her skirt over her head. In these brief, subtle moments, MacLaren physically captures the complexities of Helen’s situation—the desire for nourishment and success, the weary impoverishment, and then her determination. Given Park’s overall explicit style, it is not surprising that the scene, so emotionally delicate in the hands of MacLaren, is juxtaposed with a drunk Train getting into his car to head to his party, aware of the rain that is in no way an obstacle to his evening.

Ultimately, Bread is a story about one woman’s dawning recognition of the injustice and cruelty that exist in the world. Food—both access to and scarcity of—is the vehicle through which Park highlights this loss of innocence. In a fascinating parallel, Park, who started out as a theater actress before moving into screenwriting and then directing, also articulated her behind-the-scenes work on the film through culinary phrasing. In the brief press blurb about the director-screenwriter, The Moving Picture Weekly reported that, “Asked why she insists upon writing her own continuity, directing and cutting her own film, she smiled and said: ‘To that question the old culinary maxim applies—“too many cooks spoil the broth.”” Park effectively asserts her control as the authorial voice behind the film by wielding the language of the domestic space. Given that that same article does not let Park escape her gender (“While most women have a hard time doing one man’s job, Ida May Park…is holding down three hard jobs in a masterful fashion”), Park’s use of this cooking cliché highlights how female authority is often tied to the kitchen. It does not matter that Park—who was involved as a writer, director, or writer-director on over 40 films—was at Universal, a studio where many women, like Weber, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison, and Ruth Stonehouse, worked as directors during the silent era. She is still a woman, which, from today’s perspective, makes her reclamation of female authority outside of the kitchen all the richer.

Bread, with its visible nitrate deterioration, was one of numerous silent-era titles discovered buried under the frozen ground in 1978 in Dawson City, Canada. This story of discovery, survival, and vulnerability, so well documented in Bill Morrison’s absorbing 2016 documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, is also one of hunger. For contemporary silent film fans like myself, there is an urgency to consume what has survived from early cinema—the numbers vary slightly, but per one film scholar, over 95 percent of American silent films are currently lost as a result of the passage of time, improper storage conditions, and many other factors. In Park’s case, only a handful of the titles that she scripted and/or directed survive in archives (and some, like the 1918 The Risky Road, also included in the Kino Lorber set, only in fragment form). Thus, what remains of Bread, along with existing trade press articles and scholarship, partially fulfills my own craving for getting a closer look at Park’s work. We know from the February 1918 issue of Photoplay that she “directs quietly, occasionally taking the actor’s place and demonstrating exactly how she wants a thing done, but more often explaining the situation and letting the player go through it in his own way.” It’s fun to imagine what moments of weary hunger she demonstrated for MacLaren, and, alternatively, what scenes she let her actress feel her way through. We also know, thanks to film historian Anthony Slide’s commentary on the Kino Lorber set, that Park had a reputation for being a tough director at Universal, and he suggests that she had MacLaren draw real blood in the scene where Helen pricks her finger while sewing.

Park’s directorial career ended in 1920, after she had left Universal, directed one film starring Lew Cody, and then made two films, with her husband Joseph De Grasse, for Andrew J. Callaghan Productions. The timing of this conclusion was not unique to Park. The 1920s saw the emergence of the vertically-integrated Hollywood studio system and the solidification of cinema as a lucrative American business. As Hollywood became a centralized, masculinized business, almost all of the early women filmmakers who excelled behind-the-scenes in the more flexible, young industry in the years prior were effectively pushed out. Over time, the majority of these women were largely forgotten by the industry, excluded from the canon, and neglected by film scholarship for decades. Bread, in its fragment form, represents both tangible access to Park’s work and the vulnerability of silent film, but also highlights the need for us to devour whatever we can today, in order to better understand and experience the true breadth of film history.

It is difficult to watch Bread today and not think about the powerful men in many industries abusing their status by sexually assaulting, harassing, and exploiting women and men in more vulnerable positions. It is also hard to see this film and not think about the woman behind it. Less well known than silent-era directors like Weber, Dorothy Arzner, or Alice Guy Blaché, Ida May Park created a body of work that demands contemporary reconsideration. And Bread specifically highlights the maddeningly circuitous path of progress; in 2018 we might be better equipped to deal with wicked men, but the mainstream American film industry has continually failed, since Park’s time, to celebrate and promote female filmmakers on a large scale. Bread may not be an explicitly feminist film in the way that we understand that today—given the surviving footage, it seems to be more a critique of the theatrical world— but what remains still speaks to where we’ve come from, and where we still need to go.