Gabriel Over the White House
|Gabriel Over the White House|
|Directed by||Gregory La Cava|
|Produced by||Walter Wanger
William Randolph Hearst
|Music by||William Axt|
|Editing by||Basil Wrangell|
|Distributed by||Metro-Goldwyn Mayer|
|Release dates||March 31, 1933|
|Running time||86 minutes|
Gabriel Over the White House is a 1933 American Pre-Code film starring Walter Huston that has been variously described as a "bizarre political fantasy" or a "comedy drama" that "is surprisingly socialist in tone (albeit veering toward National Socialism)" and which "posits a favorable view of fascism."
The picture was directed by Gregory La Cava, produced by Walter Wanger and written by Carey Wilson based upon the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed, who did not receive screen credit, and received the financial backing and creative input of William Randolph Hearst.
When the film opens, U.S. President Judson C. 'Judd' Hammond (Huston) is variously described as "a Hoover-like partisan hack" or "basically a do-nothing crook, based on, to some extent, Warren G. Harding." Then he suffers a near-fatal automobile accident and goes into a coma. Through what Portland State University instructor Dennis Grunes calls "possible divine intervention," Hammond (an "FDR lookalike") miraculously recovers, emerging "a changed man, an activist politician, a Roosevelt."
President Hammond makes "a political U-turn," purging his entire cabinet of "big-business lackeys." When Congress impeaches him, he responds by dissolving the legislative branch, assuming the “temporary” power to make laws as he "transforms himself into an all-powerful dictator." He orders the formation of a new “Army of Construction” answerable only to him, spends billions on one New Deal–like program after another, and nationalizes the manufacture and sale of alcohol.
The reborn Hammond's policies include "suspension of civil rights and the imposition of martial law by presidential fiat." He "tramples on civil liberties," "revokes the Constitution, becomes a reigning dictator," and employs "brown-shirted storm troopers" led by the President's top aide, Hartley 'Beek' Beekman (Tone). When he meets with resistance (admittedly, from the organized crime syndicate of ruthless Al Capone analog Nick Diamond), the President "suspends the law to arrest and execute 'enemies of the people' as he sees fit to define them," with Beekman handing "down death sentences in his military star chamber" in a "show trial [that] resembles those designed to please a Stalin, a Hitler or a Chairman Mao," after which the accused are immediately lined up against a wall behind the courthouse and "executed by firing squad." By threatening world war with America’s newest and most deadly secret weapon, Hammond then blackmails the world into disarmament, ushering in global peace.
The film is unique in that, by revoking the Constitution, etc., President Hammond does not become a villain, but a hero who "solves all of the nation's problems," "bringing peace to the country and the world," and is universally acclaimed “one of the greatest presidents who ever lived.” The Library of Congress comments:
|“||The good news: he reduces unemployment, lifts the country out of the Depression, battles gangsters and Congress, and brings about world peace. The bad news: he's Mussolini.||”|
Context and analysis
Controversial since the time of its release, Gabriel Over the White House is widely acknowledged to be an example of totalitarian propaganda. Tweed, the author of the original novel, was a "liberal champion of government activism" and trusted adviser to David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister who brought Bismarck's welfare state to the United Kingdom. The decision to buy the story was made by producer Walter Wanger, variously described as "a liberal Democrat" or a "liberal Hollywood mogul." After two weeks of script preparation, Wanger secured the financial backing of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's staunchest supporters, who had helped him get the Democratic presidential nomination and who enlisted his entire media empire to campaign for him. Hearst intended the film to be a tribute to FDR and an attack on previous Republican administrations.
Although an internal MGM synopsis had labeled the script "wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree," studio boss Louis B. Mayer "learned only when he attended the Glendale, California preview that Hammond gradually turns America into a dictatorship," writes film historian Leonard J. Leff. "Mayer was furious, telling his lieutenant, 'Put that picture back in its can, take it back to the studio, and lock it up!'"
Released only a few weeks after Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration, the film was labeled by The New Republic "a half-hearted plea for Fascism." Its purpose, agreed The Nation, was "to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter concurred in 2007 that the movie was meant to "prepare the public for a dictatorship," as well as to be an instructional guide for FDR, who read the script during the campaign. He liked it so much that he took time during the hectic first weeks of his presidency to suggest several script rewrites that were incorporated into the ﬁlm. "An aroma of fascism clung to the heavily edited release print," according to Leff. Roosevelt saw an advance screening, writing, “I want to send you this line to tell you how pleased I am with the changes you made in ‘Gabriel Over the White House.’ I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help.” Roosevelt saw the movie several times and enjoyed it. After a private screening, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that "if a million unemployed marched on Washington... I'd do what the President does in the picture!" Alter comments:
|“||That the Rooseveltian hero of the popular film was a dictator must have seemed an advantage to the real-life president. It would help pave the way for precipitous action, if the role required it.||”|
In the crisis of the Great Depression, many people suggested that dictatorship might be necessary to save the United States. While Roosevelt's adversaries feared the possibility of "totalitarian New Dealism," some of FDR's supporters had no such qualms: though he resented the suggestion, Roosevelt was often seen in the 1930s as a "benevolent dictator." First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt “lamented that the nation lacked a benevolent dictator to force through reforms." Influential columnist Walter Lippmann told Roosevelt, "The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers"; in his column, Lippmann wrote, "The more one considers the scope and the variety of the measures that are needed for relief and reconstruction the more evident it is that an extraordinary procedure—'dictatorial powers,' if that is the name for it—is essential..." In his inaugural address, FDR said:
|“||If we are to go forward we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because, without such discipline, no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.||”|
The American people, he added, "have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it."
The New York Herald Tribune welcomed FDR's inauguration with the headline "FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY." FDR economic adviser Herbert Feis commented, "The outside public seems to believe as if Angel Gabriel had come to earth."
The film was released in Britain, but was not a commercial success. Newsreel film of the Royal Navy was spliced into the yacht sequence in the British version, implying that both Britain and the United States were co-operating to obtain disarmament.
The movie made a net profit of $206,000.
Following the election of Barack Obama, People magazine film critic Leah Rozen included Gabriel over the White House as one of "five films you should absolutely see before inauguration day." Asked "Why is this a film we have to see before Obama comes into the White House?" Rozen said "it couldn't be more timely... it's at a time of economic panic, huge financial disaster... You kind of go, 'Gee, did they just write this now?'..."
- Walter Huston ... President Judson Hammond
- Karen Morley ... Pendola Molloy
- Franchot Tone ... Hartley Beekman - Secretary to the President
- Arthur Byron ... Jasper Brooks - Secretary of State
- Dickie Moore ... Jimmy Vetter
- C. Henry Gordon ... Nick Diamond
- David Landau ... John Bronson
- Samuel S. Hinds ... Dr. Eastman (billed as Samuel Hinds)
- William Pawley ... Borell
- Jean Parker ... Alice Bronson
- Claire Du Brey ... Nurse (billed as Claire DuBrey)
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