Gabriel Over the White House
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|Gabriel Over the White House|
|Directed by||Gregory La Cava|
|Produced by||Walter Wanger|
William Randolph Hearst
|Screenplay by||Carey Wilson|
|Based on||Gabriel over the White House: A Novel of the Presidency|
by T.F. Tweed
|Music by||William Axt|
|Edited by||Basil Wrangell|
|Distributed by||Metro-Goldwyn Mayer|
|March 31, 1933|
Gabriel Over the White House is a 1933 American pre-Code political fantasy film starring Walter Huston as a genial but politically corrupt President who has a near-fatal automobile accident and comes under divine influence—specifically the Archangel Gabriel and the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. Eventually he takes control of the government, solves the problems of the nation, from unemployment to racketeering, and arranges for worldwide peace, before dying of a heart attack. The movie received the financial backing and creative input of William Randolph Hearst. It was directed by Gregory La Cava, produced by Walter Wanger and written by Carey Wilson based upon the novel Rinehard: A Melodrama of the Nineteen-Thirties (1933) by Thomas Frederic Tweed. Tweed did not receive screen credit (the film's opening credits say "based on the anonymous novel, Gabriel Over the White House") but he was credited in the copyright information. The supporting cast features Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, C. Henry Gordon, and David Landau.
As U.S. President Judson C. 'Judd' Hammond (Walter Huston) is being sworn in, Hammond's young nephew Jimmie Vetter (Dickie Moore) interrupts the reception. Jim wants to be a gangster when he grows up. The cheerful conversation among Hammond and the other men as they leave the reception highlights the favors owed, the promises made to be kept and made to be forgotten, and the corruption that has brought him to office. The last comment from a departing official: “You’ll make the best President the Party ever had!”
Harley Beekman (Franchot Tone) is the youngest presidential secretary in history, but Hammond puts him at his ease, telling him that he prefers to be called Major instead of Mr. President and christening Beekman “Beek”. A Miss Pendola Molloy (Karen Morley)—a charming and beautiful young woman—arrives after everyone else has gone and gives Beekman her card, asking to see the President. In the office, Hammond is laughing with his valet Sylvester (Fred Toones) at all the kings congratulating him on his inauguration. When Beek gives him Miss Molloy's card, Hammond tells him that there are two people who can be admitted to his presence at any time; Jimmie being one, Miss Molloy the other.
Beekman brings Molloy in, telling her that this is his first official duty—escorting her to the President's office. Once there, Hammond introduces her to Beek—as Beek's new assistant. The easy-going banter makes it clear that she is the President's mistress. She tells Beek to call her Pendie and bids him a pointed “good night.”
Beek announces that in future questions must be submitted 24 hours in advance, but today the president will take questions. A reporter asks if the President will meet with John Bronson (David Landau), and Beek realizes that Hammond doesn't know who that is. Covering for him quickly, he says that the President didn't hear the question and prompts Hammond with the information he needs—that Bronson is the leader of a march on Washington of a million unemployed men wanting work. Hammond delivers one glib reply after another. Bronson is a dangerous anarchist who will be arrested if he comes near the White House; unemployment is a local problem; racketeering is a local problem; the American people need to learn how to live with Prohibition. A young reporter named Thieson (Mischa Auer) recounts a litany of horrors exposed by his paper detailing a collapse of the American democracy. The President replies with largely rhetoric and the statement “Our party promises a return to prosperity!” May the president be quoted, they ask? No, the president may not be quoted. Thiesen stands alone, stricken.
In the office, Hammond is combining business and favors as usual. Pendie gives him documents to sign; the Springfield Memorial Society has sent him a gift, the quill pen and inkwell that Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Hammond is not impressed, and laughs at the fact that he is using it to sign a bill for sewers in Puerto Rico. When Pendie points out that Hammond could really do something with that pen, he tells her she's an idealist. “The Party has a plan, and I’m just a member of the Party.” Jimmie bursts in, and Hammond is more interested in him than in Pendie. While Bronson speaks eloquently on the radio, saying that “the right man in the White House can bring us out of despair and into prosperity again,” Hammond plays treasure hunt with his nephew, oblivious to what is going on. After Hammond leaves for Annapolis, Jimmie goes to the box of marshmallows in the desk and stuffs himself with candy.
The President insists on driving to Annapolis himself, racing the motorcycle escort at speeds exceeding 98 mph. A tire blows and the President's car goes off the road. At the White House, Dr. Eastman (Samuel Hinds) has called in two other doctors, who agree that Hammond is “beyond any human help.” A breeze ruffles the lace curtains, and the bed is flooded with white light. The light returns to normal and Hammond reaches out to the bell-pull. When Eastman comes to the bedside, Hammond says “The doctors are wrong: Judd Hammond isn’t going to die.”
The press are going crazy for want of news. It has been weeks, and Dr. Eastman says only that the President is still in a coma. Only Eastman and Sylvester have seen Hammond. The reporters leave, and Eastman confides in Beekman and Molloy, who is desperate. The president has been perfectly well for two weeks, but he is not the Judd Hammond whom Eastman has known for 15 years. He says nothing but sits silently reading and thinking, “like a gaunt gray ghost with burning eyes that seem to see right down into you.”
When Molloy approaches Hammond with affection, he just stares until she removes her hand from his arm and, calling her Miss Molloy, coolly gives her an assignment — get the facts about Bronson — and tells her to go.
The President tells Beekman to summon the cabinet to a meeting in one hour. Before Hammond comes in, they agree that whatever happens, the Party must come first. They want him to use the military to deal with the marchers. He refuses to call out the Army against American citizens, and when the Secretary of State threatens to resign, the President instantly accepts. “I suggest you read the Constitution of the United States. You’ll find the President has some power,” he warns them. Later, surrounded by press members who ask what happened, Hammond tells them the truth — and says that they can quote him.
Racketeer Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon) has Bronson picked up and brought to his lavish headquarters. Diamond observes that the government, like the American people, are “just a bunch of boobs.” He sees a profitable partnership in store, but Bronson won't be bribed, and when he sees Diamond drawing a small black circle on a piece of paper, he adds that Diamond can't put a million men on the spot.
The marchers continue, singing "John Brown's Body". Machine gun fire from an ambulance wounds Bronson fatally. He tells them to carry on, and they keep walking. The march is nearing Baltimore. The President summons the Secretary of War and tells him that the marchers are to be fed and given shelter and their medical needs met. He also asks Beekman to make arrangements for him to go to Baltimore.
Beek and Pendie are in awe of Hammond. Pendie recalls a conversation when Beek told Pendie that “a simple honest man could solve everything.” Beek replies that “The way he thinks is so simple and honest that it sounds a little crazy.” “He’s doing the things you wanted,” she says. “And If he’s mad, it’s a divine madness. Look at the chaos and catastrophe sane men have brought about.”
The President goes to Baltimore and walks alone into the rally, where he meets Alice Bronson (Jean Parker) and pays tribute to her father, a martyr who died trying “to arouse the stupid, lazy people of the United States to force their government to do something before everybody slowly starves to death.” A chant rises, “We want work.” Hammond promises to create an Army of Construction, and the men sing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
That night, the President is at his desk and Molloy gives him a sheaf of papers. He is bewildered and doesn't recognize his own words. When she replies that it is his address to Congress, he replies "I never saw it", and pauses. A white light blooms outside the window, stirring the curtains, and then disappears. Hammond looks up and turns his head from side to side, as if listening, and then straightens up confidently, saying “Ah yes, my address to Congress.”
A shaken Pendie tells Beek what has happened. “There was something in the room that made me shiver.” She reminds Beek that from the time of the accident they both felt that the President was really two men but she just became aware of a third being. She asks, “What if God sent the Angel Gabriel to do for Judd Hammond what he did for Daniel?” Beek says he thought that Gabriel was a messenger of wrath, and she replies that to some he was a messenger of revelations. “Hmmmm,” Beek muses, “Gabriel over the White House.” In his office, Hammond looks out the window into the dark, to the empty sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue. A dense crowd of people materializes, and then fades away. Hammond says nothing, but turns out the light and leaves.
The Cabinet is holding a secret meeting. Beek comes in with a stack of envelopes and hands them out. They are bewildered. “How did Hammond know we were here?” one asks. The envelopes contain notes from the President: They are all fired. Infuriated, they plan to go to Congress.
On Capitol Hill, a majority of both houses of Congress are planning to impeach and remove the President. He enters the chamber and asks that the rules [of order] be suspended while he answers questions. He asks them to declare a state of national emergency and adjourn so he can take power. He counters accusations of dictatorship with the statement that if he is a dictator it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson's idea of democracy: the greatest good for the greatest number. Facing the threat of martial law, Congress gives him what he wants.
Some time later, Hammond addresses the American people by radio to tell more of his plans. The Army of Construction is working. Next he will stop foreclosures, enact a National Banking Law, direct aid specifically to the 55 million people who work in agriculture, and attack racketeering. Prohibition has been repealed but that is just a start. Diamond and his cronies are listening and laughing: Diamond thinks ratification by the states will take three years.
Diamond comes to the White House and is shown into the President's office. He looks around and pauses near the bust of Lincoln. It makes him uncomfortable and he sits down. The President comes in holding a thick dossier: Diamond's biography. Hammond observes that Diamond has already helped the government tremendously by eliminating his competition; that the best way to solve the current situation would be for Diamond to go back to his native country. Diamond, however, sees no reason to give up. The President warns that the government is about to “muscle in on his racket.”
The first U.S. Government Liquor Store is bombed, and machine-gun fire rakes the White House, gravely wounding Pendie just as she and Beekman are about to confess their love to each other. In the hospital, they do. The President comes in as they kiss. He gives Beekman a new job, head of the Federal Police, a mobile unit of the Army. It will be temporary, to eliminate gangsters. He also suggests a wedding at the White House. All the racketeers are taken care of except for Diamond. Beek shows up in uniform at Diamond's stronghold, with ultramodern assault vehicles that devastate the fortress. Under arrest, Diamond is confident that his lawyer will get him “habeus corpused right out of there,” but Beek points out that this will be a military trial. He presides and Diamond and his men are executed by firing squad.
Hammond next deals with the problem of the war debts owed to the United States by assembling representatives of the debtor nations on board a yacht wired for broadcast to the world. He demonstrates America's “new Navy,” a Navy of the Air. The country had been spending billions of dollars on antiquated armament. From now on, he declares, battleships are useless. Aircraft [biplanes] in the United States Navy of the Air destroy an empty battleship in a demonstration. Disarmament will make it possible for the world to re-purpose the billions wasted on weaponry that has become obsolete. He addresses the people of the world: “The next war will be a terrible story... the next war will depopulate the Earth..invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, annihilating death rays will sweep to utter destruction not only the men, but the children who would constitute another generation and the mothers who bear them. Armies and Navies will be destroyed from the air, ....Shall we save this world, restore it to a condition where it can truly be said that there is Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men...?”
The Washington Covenant is being signed. An aide hands him the official pen, but he uses the Lincoln quill (which, judging by her smile, was placed there by Pendie). He signs slowly, collapses and is carried into his private quarters. Everyone leaves but Eastman, Beekman, Sylvester, and Molloy. Eastman says that it is his heart, and Beekman goes to allay the world's fears.
Molloy kneels beside the couch and smooths his hair. The light on Hammond's face changes [through time-lapse photography or double exposure], first intensifying the hollows in his eyes and cheekbones and around his mouth — evoking an image of Lincoln — and then brightening until all the shadows disappear. Molloy is wide-eyed as he turns toward her and says “Hello Pendie old girl.” The doctor offers him medicine. “There’s nothing you can do for me, Eastman,” he says.
“Does the President of the United States meet with your approval?” he asks Molloy, feebly. “He’s proved himself one of the greatest men who ever lived,” she replies. “Hold my hand, Pendie.” She takes it. Although the window is closed, the curtains stir. Pendie feels him go and looks around toward the window, where the curtains stir again. Beekman and Pendie come out to the assembled dignitaries arm in arm. She is looking at something high up and above their heads. Beekman brings the President's thanks and then announces that the President is dead. Outside, throngs waiting along the fence watch as the flag on the White House roof is lowered to half-staff, to the last notes of "Taps".
- Walter Huston as President Judson Hammond
- Karen Morley as Pendola “Pendie” Molloy
- Franchot Tone as Hartley “Beek” Beekman - Secretary to the President
- Arthur Byron as Jasper Brooks - Secretary of State
- Dickie Moore as Jimmy Vetter
- C. Henry Gordon as Nick Diamond
- David Landau as John Bronson
- Samuel S. Hinds as Dr. Eastman (billed as Samuel Hinds)
- William Pawley as Borell
- Jean Parker as Alice Bronson
- Claire Du Brey as Nurse (billed as Claire DuBrey)
- John Larkin as Sebastian - Valet (uncredited)
Production began in February 1932. Gabriel over the White House was released on March 31, 1933, with a run time of 85 to 87 minutes. A review print screened by Daily Variety on Dec. 31, 1932, ran for 102 minutes, indicating that as many as 17 minutes were cut.
Walter Huston had recently portrayed Lincoln in the biographical film Abraham Lincoln (1930), which was adapted for the screen by Stephen Vincent Benet, author of the epic poem John Brown’s Body, winner of a 1929 Pulitzer Prize. Huston's performance in the film was highly praised, in spite of the fact that the cosmetics used to make him look younger in the scenes of Lincoln's youth had a comical effect.
According to Turner Classic Movies, modern sources have uncovered the fact that Louis B. Mayer did not see the script before filming (however, this is contradicted in the biography of producer Walter Wanger) and, as a staunch Republican and supporter of Herbert Hoover, held the film back until after the inauguration of President Roosevelt on March 4.
In a 2013 article in The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that “The story is extraordinary—and so is the story of its production, as told in Matthew Bernstein’s biography of its producer, Walter Wanger, who gave the project its impetus. Hammond is a wild man with a purpose—and the new U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, loved it. As Bernstein tells it, this was no surprise; the movie was conceived as a Rooseveltian vehicle from the start. Wanger bought the novel on which it was based—a British futuristic fantasy by Thomas W. Tweed—in January, 1933, two months before the inauguration (which, until that year, took place on March 4; the Twentieth Amendment, which passed the same month, moved it to January 20). Wanger rushed the movie into production (Hearst himself wrote some of Hammond’s most flamboyant flights of political rhetoric) and rushed it into production (they shot for two weeks in February) so that it could be released soon after the inauguration.”
“Wanger was working under the aegis of the production company owned by William Randolph Hearst, an ardent Roosevelt supporter (and who had much to do with Roosevelt securing the Democratic nomination) whose films were distributed by M-G-M, the boss of which, Louis B. Mayer, was a rock-ribbed Republican. Though Mayer was appalled, he didn’t block its release (on March 31). In a piquant detail, Bernstein reports, “When Wanger, a staunch Roosevelt supporter, approached [the producer Irving] Thalberg about his differences with Mayer over politics and production ideas, Thalberg had told Wanger, ‘Don’t pay any attention to him.’” (Thalberg was the ill-fated “boy wonder” producer who ran the studio along with Mayer, and whom F. Scott Fitzgerald transformed into the title character of “The Last Tycoon.”) Rather, Wanger faced an even higher authority—the censorious Hays Code office, which required some changes, even some reshoots that blunted some of the sharpest political satire.”
Richard Brody, writing for The New Yorker in 2013, says that “One of the reasons for the movie’s impact is its direction, by Gregory La Cava, who is one of the most distinctive of Hollywood talents of the nineteen-thirties and early forties... He’s essentially a comic director, but one whose sense of humor is laced with dark and poignant melodrama. His joltingly mixed moods have a novelistic sensibility, with a fluid and astute visual vulnerability to match. I’ve written here about his 1941 comic drama “Unfinished Business,” perhaps his masterwork (followed closely by “My Man Godfrey” and “Stage Door”) and compared it to a novel by Dawn Powell. In “Gabriel,” Hammond comes off not as a stuffy and out-of-touch grandee such as Hoover, but as a free-swinging, superannuated vestige of the Jazz Age, a character from Fitzgerald in the era of Steinbeck. La Cava's direction of Huston is kaleidoscopically dazzling; together, they turn the abstractions of straw-figure advocacy into an emotionally intricate and ever-surprising character. Hammond's quasi-divine possession comes off as a sort of distanced madness, a fury that grips him not at all blindly; he calmly and unapologetically observes himself rising—or going deeper—into world-historical grandeur. In the presence of radio microphones and world leaders, Hammond delivers a wild speech (dictated by Hearst), that, in its utopian and histrionic extremes, foreshadows the climactic oration by Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator” even as the specifics of the principled power-grab at the core of the film seem downright fascistic.”
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 Barbara Hall. Bernstein contradicts this statement saying that Mayer was kept posted all along, particularly through communications from the censor. According to Bernstein's biography of Wanger, however, "Mayer was furious, telling his lieutenant, 'Put that picture back in its can, take it back to the studio, and lock it up!'"
Variety reviewed the film on Dec. 31, 1932. It described the film as “A mess of political tripe superlatively hoked up into a picture of strong popular possibilities...a cleverly executed commercial release... Huston plays the part so persuasively that witnessers will be tricked into accepting its monstrous exaggerations.” Tone and Morley “carry what amount to walk-on parts and make them look like leads.“
Reviewing it on April 1, 1933, Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times observed “It is a curious, somewhat fantastic and often melodramatic story, but nevertheless one which at this time is very interesting. It is concerned with a fictitious President of the United States named Judson Hammond ...who in the first sequences is portrayed as a careless partisan politician, becomes an earnest and conscientious President, who tackles the problems of unemployment, crime and the foreign debts something after the fashion of a Lincoln.”
The film was labeled by The New Republic as "a half-hearted plea for Fascism". The Nation said that its purpose was "to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country."
The blurb for a 1998 film series titled “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic” at The Library of Congress comments on the film as follows:
President Judson Hammond is transformed from party hack to dynamic leader after his miraculous recovery from an automobile accident. 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. Gabriel Over the White House is a delight precisely because of its confused ideology. Depending on your perspective, it's a strident defense of democracy and the wisdom of the common man, a good argument for benevolent dictatorship, a prescient anticipation of the New Deal, a call for theocratic governance, and on and on.
In a March 25, 2018, article for Politico, The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist, Emmy award winner Jeff Greenfield suggests that the film “offers us significant insights into what tempts countries to travel down an authoritarian road.” “Rushed into production with the financial help of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst ...it was designed as a clear message to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he might need to embrace dictatorial powers to solve the crisis of the Great Depression. (It was an idea embraced by establishment types like columnist Walter Lippmann, and the influential editorial pages of the New York Herald-Tribune.)”
Greenfield adds “The movie was welcomed by, among others, FDR, who told the filmmakers “it would do a lot of good.” (It was more than coincidental that the fireside chats, the public works programs and banking reforms all became part of FDR's “first 100 days.“) “Gabriel Over the White House” was both a critical and commercial hit... It turned a tidy profit of some $200,000. But it faded into obscurity, in large measure because the idea of a ‘benevolent dictatorship” seemed a lot less attractive after the degradation of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.’ “ However, Greenfield sees relevance today, and says the film is worth watching to understand our era.
Richard Brody wrote an article for The New Yorker, The Hollywood Movie Made for FDR’s Inauguration in 2013. He concluded:
“It’s hard to imagine such a film being made now (except in the novel’s original form, as a dystopian fantasy); it’s even harder to imagine any modern-day liberal exulting in it. The difference may be in the morality of power; it may also be in the incommensurable depth of the crisis faced in the Depression, about which the movie, though fantasy, seems utterly reportorial.”
Producer Walter Wanger, "a staunch Roosevelt supporter," bought the story in January 1933, two months before FDR's inauguration. After two weeks of script preparation, Wanger secured the financial backing of media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
The film was released in Britain,[when?] 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.
- Bernstein 434
- Clute and Grant, 380
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- "Gabriel over the White House (1933) - Notes - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
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- Brody, Richard (21 January 2013). "The Hollywood Movie Made for F.D.R.'s Inauguration". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2018-11-05.
- Hall, Mordaunt (1933-04-01). "Walter Huston as a President of the United States Who Proclaims Himself a Dictator". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
- Ron Briley, "The Sun Comes Out Tomorrow," in Young, Nancy Beck; Pederson, William D.; Daynes, Byron W., eds. (2001). Franklin D. Roosevelt and the shaping of American political culture. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. p. 24. ISBN 0-7656-0620-8. Retrieved August 22, 2010.
- Birdwell, Michael E. (2000). Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism. New York: NYU Press. p. 15. ISBN 0-8147-9871-3. Retrieved 22 August 2010.
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- Leff, Leonard J.; Jerold Simmons (2001). The dame in the kimono: hollywood, censorship, and the production code. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. p. 39. ISBN 0-8131-9011-8. Retrieved August 21, 2010.
- Hayward, Mike; Hayward, Mike (2002-03-15). "The Dame In The Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, And The Production Code". Variety. Retrieved 2019-10-20.
- Schroeder, Alan (2004). Celebrity-in-chief: how show business took over the White House. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. p. 287. ISBN 0-8133-4137-X. Retrieved August 21, 2010.
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- Greenfield, Jeff (March 25, 2017). "The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist". Politico.
The film, directed by Gregory La Cava, had been rushed into production with the financial help of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and it was designed as a clear message to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that he might need to embrace dictatorial powers to solve the crisis of the Great Depression.
- Alter, Jonathan (2007). The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 432. ISBN 0-7432-4601-2.
- Bernstein, Matthew (2000). Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 488. ISBN 0-8166-3548-X.
- Clute, John; John Grant (1999). The encyclopedia of fantasy. New York: Macmillan. p. 1079. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
- Gabriel Over the White House on IMDb
- Gabriel Over the White House at AllMovie
- Gabriel Over the White House at the TCM Movie Database
- Gabriel Over the White House at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Ann Hornaday, "The 34 best political movies ever made" The Washington Post Jan. 23, 2020), ranked #23