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Gabriel Over the White House is a unique political fantasy produced by liberal Walter Wanger and conservative William Randolph Hearst during the "winter of despair" -- the months after Roosevelt was elected but before he was inaugurated in March of 1933. Horrified, MGM's Louis B. Mayer delayed the release until Herbert Hoover left office, so as to minimize awkward associations.
That winter was said to be the darkest season of the Great Depression. With no federal insurance for bank deposits, the personal savings of ordinary people were wiped out along with the paper fortunes of speculators in the stock market. With the collapse of the economy fears of revolution were being taken seriously. Thousands of WW1 veterans would soon march on Washington demanding relief, only to be routed by the U.S. Army. The newspapers were full of dire predictions of disaster.
Taken from an obscure book, Gabriel Over the White House is a fantasy incitement for the overthrow of the government. It recommends that America be ruled by a dictator-president deriving his power "directly from the people", the Fascist system already in place in Italy and just coming to power in Germany. Radical sentiments were common in 1932 -- some Americans welcomed the notion of a strongman to come along and set things right. These same issues are in debate today, when some say that Presidential powers have been abused. The film's irrational religious angle also finds relevance in our present political climate.
As the country sinks into chaos, newly elected President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) ignores starving Americans and continues to conduct 'business as usual' along party lines. He avoids taking action by regarding both John Bronson, the populist leader of the "Army of the Unemployed" (David Landau) and Nick Diamond, notorious racketeer (C. Henry Gordon) as "local problems". Presidential assistant Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley) is also bachelor Hammond's lover; both she and first secretary "Beek" Beekman (Franchot Tone) are horrified when their boss crashes his official car while speeding at 98 mph. Things look bad until Hammond suddenly awakes from his coma "a new man". No longer interested in his pleasures or personal relationships, the President dedicates himself to the problems of the nation. He breaks with his party cronies and eventually dismisses his entire cabinet. Hammond promises to reenergize the economy by enlisting the unemployed into an Army work corps for public projects. Pendie and Beek are amazed by the President's fiery determination, and worry that he may also be insane -- he sometimes acts as if possessed. When Congress threatens impeachment, the President declares martial law, shuts down the legislature and assumes dictatorial powers. To fight the racketeers, Hammond then takes on the racketeers, leading to terror attacks against his administration. Beekman is made head of a special Army detail that arrests and executes known gangsters in special military courts. Hammond then turns to balancing the budget by forcing our European and Asian allies to pay their debts from WW1 --- or else.
Gabriel Over the White House is wildly provocative (and prophetic) propaganda. In a uniquely American way it conflates religious faith and political will to produce an ultimately confusing fantasy. The Angel Gabriel possesses the near-dead President Hammond in a spiritual takeover represented by a plaintive trumpet, a gust of wind and a lighting change. As in a naïve religious play, God takes over the government to do what needs to be done. And as every dangerous zealot knows, There's No Law Against What's Right.
Gregory LaCava's swift direction draws a strong contrast between the before- and after- versions of Jud Hammond. The carefree party candidate makes jokes about his power, speeds in his limousine for a thrill and plays with his nephew while ignoring grave economic news on the radio. He doesn't know where on the map Siam is. He brings his mistress right into the White House as his 'personal assistant'. His speeches are vague promises of prosperity and meaningless slogans about America picking itself up by its bootstraps in the tradition of Valley Forge, etc.. The post- accident President demands respect at all times, curtly dismisses his old cronies and makes bold policy statements in press conferences. 1
Although this is before Roosevelt's New Deal got underway, Hammond/Gabriel's public works program has similarities with the National Recovery Act -- except that Roosevelt refused to meet with protesters that marched on Washington. Hammond's suspension of civil rights and his imposition of martial law by presidential fiat is much more like Hitler, who also claimed to best represent the desires of his nation's citizens. Hammond defines democracy as a dictatorship in the name of the majority. Also like Hitler, and some more recent presidents, Hammond suspends the law to arrest and execute "enemies of the people" as he sees fit to define them: Nick Diamond is a swarthy foreigner, and therefore isn't considered a "real American" with rights. While handing down death sentences in his military star chamber, Beekman uses his final statement to praise the leadership of the all-wise Hammond. The show trial resembles those designed to please a Stalin, a Hitler or a Chairman Mao.
The wilder ideas make our heads spin. A gangland "drive by" shooting at the White House leaves both a security guard and poor Pendie riddled with bullets. At the finish, Hammond gathers the ambassadors of debtor countries for a Billy Mitchell-like demonstration of air power. He first lectures the "irresponsible" foreigners for building up their armies and navies while ignoring their war debts to America, forcing American to re-arm as well. It's rather prophetic to see the Japanese ambassador present watching Hammond's dive-bombers blow up obsolete American battleships. Hammond then proceeds with a stirring description of future wars -- fought with invisible gases and death rays, no less -- until the ambassadors are stunned into acquiescence.
Hammond's self-serving conviction that America allows herself be pushed around by the rest of the world probably still resonates with a portion of the public, those that believe America is too generous with its foreign aid. Why anybody should think that these nations would accede to Hammond's threats is a mystery.
In his book Hollywood Censored, 2 Gregory D. Black reveals that the original Gabriel Over the White House book took place in the then-distant future of 1950, removed from present-day political situation. Even MGM and Louis B. Mayer found the shooting script "wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree". Republican Mayer considered the preview cut a scathing indictment of the do-nothing Herbert Hoover administration. Changes were ordered. Some "prosperity is just around the corner" speeches were cut. Pendie was shown becoming engaged to Beek, thus solving the presidential hanky-panky issue. More importantly, the center of Hammond's ultimatum to the assembled ambassadors was jettisoned. As originally filmed, Hammond delivers a direct threat -- unless they pay up, he vows to build an enormous air force that will bomb them into submission.
Finally, the original extended ending was cut. (spoiler) After collapsing and reverting back to his original personality, Hammond repudiates what he's done, tells his party cronies that he'll get things back to business as usual by canceling his foolish foreign treaties and recovery policies. But Hammond collapses before he can speak to the public or do anything official. Realizing all of Hammonds' good works are in jeopardy, Pendie purposely withholds the President's medicine. He dies.
Gregory D. Black reports that it was censor Will Hays who wanted the idea of divine intervention played up, to suggest that the President was not deranged, but inspired. Hays also had a scene removed where the President and his cronies play poker in a smoky "back room". All of these retakes were done in great haste. The president's war threat was the first piece to go -- MGM did not want to antagonize its European distributors!
The review in The Nation was entitled "Fascism over Hollywood". Most other criticism only pointed out how naïve the film was. But Gabriel Over the White House didn't draw much attention in release and was soon forgotten, becoming another political anomaly of Hollywood history. The only other film with a claim to the same level of political-spiritual delirium is 1952's Red Planet Mars. It proposes that God lives on Mars, plain and simple. God's radio messages overthrow communism and bring us all a future of Christian joy.
This well made fantasy will perplex ordinary viewers while leaving political thinkers with their mouths hanging open. Walter Huston, Karen Morley and Franchot Tone are excellent. Were actor C. Henry Gordon a bit chunkier in the face, he'd be a dead ringer for Al Capone. The movie displays some fancy editing but is mostly content to film things straight on -- especially Huston's commanding oratory. The actor played many remarkable character parts beyond his better-known triumphs in The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Gabriel Over the White House is in great shape for both picture and sound. The main titles are a bit unsteady but from then on the picture is exemplary. No extras or trailer is included. I'll soon be reviewing another Warner Archive Collection "political" film, Warner Bros.' 1939 Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gabriel Over the White House rates:
1. Actor Mischa Auer (famous from LaCava's My Man Godfrey) plays Mr. Thieson, a press corps reporter who appears to be from a left-wing paper, perhaps one with communist sympathies. Hammond (1) ignores Thieson's pleas for compassion for America's starving poor, but Hammond (2) makes a stirring speech about the rights of common citizens -- and tells the delighted Thieson that he wants to be quoted.
2. Black, Gregory D.: Hollywood Censored Cambridge University Press 1994. Black's book lays out a convincing argument that Catholic zealots were behind the Production Code's stifling censorship, and thoroughly investigates the production of several 1930s films that became significant censorship cases.
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.