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
Written by Story
T.F. Tweed
Carey Wilson
Bertram Bloch
Starring Walter Huston
Karen Morley
Franchot Tone
Music by William Axt
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Edited by Basil Wrangell
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer
Release date
March 31, 1933
Running time
86 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $232,400[1]

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"[2] or a "comedy drama"[3] that "is surprisingly socialist in tone (albeit veering toward National Socialism)"[4] and which "posits a favorable view of fascism."[5]

The movie was directed by Gregory La Cava, produced by Walter Wanger[2] 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.

The supporting cast features Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, C. Henry Gordon, and David Landau.


When the film opens, U.S. President Judson C. 'Judd' Hammond (Huston) (possibly a reference to Judson Harmon) [speculation?] is variously described as "a Hoover-like partisan hack"[6] 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[7] Dennis Grunes calls "possible divine intervention,"[8] Hammond (an "FDR lookalike")[9] miraculously recovers, emerging "a changed man, an activist politician, a Roosevelt."[3]

President Hammond makes "a political U-turn,"[5] 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."[10] 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.[6]

The reborn Hammond's policies include "suspension of civil rights and the imposition of martial law by presidential fiat."[11] He "tramples on civil liberties,"[12] "revokes the Constitution, becomes a reigning dictator," and employs "brown-shirted storm troopers"[13] 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,"[11] after which the accused are immediately lined up against a wall behind the courthouse and "executed[6] by firing squad."[14] By threatening world war with America’s newest and most deadly secret weapon, Hammond then blackmails the world into disarmament, ushering in global peace.[15]

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,"[13] "bringing peace to the country and the world,"[9] and is universally acclaimed “one of the greatest presidents who ever lived.”[14] The Library of Congress comments:

Context and analysis[edit]

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"[17] and trusted adviser to David Lloyd George,[18] the Liberal Prime Minister who brought Bismarck's welfare state[19] to the United Kingdom.[20] The decision to buy the story was made by producer Walter Wanger,[17] variously described as "a liberal Democrat"[21] or a "liberal Hollywood mogul."[9] After two weeks of script preparation, Wanger secured the financial backing of media magnate William Randolph Hearst,[22] one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's staunchest supporters,[23] who had helped him get the Democratic presidential nomination[24] and who enlisted his entire media empire to campaign for him.[25] Hearst intended the film to be a tribute to FDR and an attack on previous Republican administrations.[21]

Although an internal MGM synopsis had labeled the script "wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree,"[26] 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[27] 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!'"[28]

Released only a few weeks after Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration, the film was labeled by The New Republic "a half-hearted plea for Fascism."[29] Its purpose, agreed The Nation, was "to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country."[30] Newsweek's Jonathan Alter concurred in 2007 that the movie was meant to "prepare the public for a dictatorship,"[14] 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.[31] "An aroma of fascism clung to the heavily edited release print," according to Leff.[28] 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.”[31] Roosevelt saw the movie several times and enjoyed it.[32] 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!"[33] Alter comments:

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."[9] First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt “lamented that the nation lacked a benevolent dictator to force through reforms."[34] Influential[35] columnist Walter Lippmann told Roosevelt, "The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers";[36] 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..."[37] In his inaugural address, FDR said:

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."[38]

The New York Herald Tribune welcomed FDR's inauguration with the headline "FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY."[39] FDR economic adviser Herbert Feis commented, "The outside public seems to believe as if Angel Gabriel had come to earth."[40]

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.[1]

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?'..."[3]


Cast notes:


  1. ^ a b Bernstein p434
  2. ^ a b Clute and Grant, 380
  3. ^ a b c "The SHOWBIZ Obama Watch." Showbiz Tonight. CNN. 26 December 2008. Co-hosts: A.J. Hammer, Brooke Anderson.
  4. ^ Clute and Grant, 381
  5. ^ a b 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 21 August 2010. 
  6. ^ a b c Goldberg, 302
  7. ^ Instructor Biography: Dennis Grunes, Portland State University
  8. ^ Dennis Grunes, "Gabriel Over the White House,"
  9. ^ a b c d Giovacchini, Saverio (April 2004). "Book Review: Benjamin L. Alpers, Dictators, Democracy, & American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s". The American Historical Review. American Historical Association. 109 (2): 553. doi:10.1086/530428. 
  10. ^ "Gabriel Over the White House". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  11. ^ a b Glenn Erickson (4 November 2009). "Gabriel Over the White House". Glenn Erickson. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  12. ^ Sachleben, Mark; Kevan M. Yenerall (2004). Seeing the bigger picture: understanding politics through film & television. Peter Lang. p. 38. ISBN 0-8204-6248-9. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  13. ^ a b "Gabriel Over the White House". Retrieved 2010-07-26. 
  14. ^ a b c Alter, 6
  15. ^ David Walsh (April 20, 2005). "An Interview with Louis Pizzitola, author of Hearst Over Hollywood". World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International. Retrieved 2010-07-28. 
  16. ^ "Film Series on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic". Library of Congress. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  17. ^ a b Bernstein, 82
  18. ^ Bloomfield, Maxwell H. (2000). Peaceful Revolution: Constitutional Change and American Culture from Progressivism to the New Deal. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 146. ISBN 0-674-00304-7. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  19. ^ Palyi, Melchior (1950). Compulsory Medical Care and the Welfare State: An Analysis Based on a Special Study of Governmentalized Medical Care Systems on the Continent of Europe and in England. Chicago: National Institute of Professional Services. p. 21. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  20. ^ Yergin, Daniel; Joseph Stanislaw (2002). The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 6. ISBN 0-684-83569-X. Retrieved 2010-07-25. 
  21. ^ a b Black, Gregory D. (1996). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 137. ISBN 0-521-56592-8. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  22. ^ Bernstein, 83–84
  23. ^ David Walsh (April 20, 2005). "An Interview with Louis Pizzitola, author of Hearst Over Hollywood". World Socialist Web Site. International Committee of the Fourth International. Retrieved 2010-07-28.  Cf. Winfield, Betty Houchin (1994). FDR and the News Media. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 11. ISBN 0-231-10009-4. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  24. ^ During the 1932 Democratic National Convention, Hearst, fearing that the nomination would otherwise go to Newton Baker (whom he regarded as a "reactionary") or the Catholic Al Smith (which he feared would make "all hope of electing a Democrat gone") had persuaded John Nance Garner to release his delegates to Roosevelt, thus giving FDR the nomination. Procter, Ben H. (2007). William Randolph Hearst: Final Edition, 1911-1951. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 170. ISBN 0-19-532534-6. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  25. ^ Goldsmith, Bonnie (2009). William Randolph Hearst: Newspaper Magnate. Edina, MN: ABDO Group. p. 76. ISBN 1-60453-763-9. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  26. ^ Black, Gregory D. (1996). Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-521-56592-8. Retrieved 22 August 2010. 
  27. ^ Barbara Hall, Collection Overview, Introduction: History of Cinema: Series 1: Hollywood and the Production Code, Primary Source Media's Online Guides (Gale, Inc., 2007)
  28. ^ a b 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 21 August 2010. 
  29. ^ 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 22 August 2010. 
  30. ^ 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. 
  31. ^ a b c Alter, 185
  32. ^ Rollins, Peter C.; O'Connor, John E., eds. (2005). Hollywood's White House: The American Presidency in Film and History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. p. 153. ISBN 0-8131-9126-2. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  33. ^ Streitmatter, Rodger, ed. (2000). Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 26. ISBN 0-684-86766-4. Retrieved 4 September 2010. 
  34. ^ Freidel, Frank (2006). Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous With Destiny. Newtown, CT: American Political Biography Press. ISBN 0-945707-38-X. Retrieved 20 August 2010. , as quoted in Caldwell, Christopher (1999). "ER: Authoritarian and Aristocratic". The Washington Post Company (28 July 1999). 
  35. ^ Jacqueline Foertsch, American Culture in the 1940s (Edinburgh University Press, 2008) ISBN 0-7486-2413-9, p. 56
  36. ^ Steel, Ronald (1999). Walter Lippmann and the American century. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers. p. 300. ISBN 0-7658-0464-6. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  37. ^ Walter Lippmann, "Extraordinary Powers," February 14, 1933, reprinted in Lippman, Walter (1936). Nevins, Allan, ed. Interpretations, 1933-1935, Volume 2. New York: The Macmillan Company. p. 7. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  38. ^ Franklin Roosevelt's First Inaugural Address, Wikisource
  39. ^ Alter, 4
  40. ^ McElvaine, Robert S. (1993). The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941. New York: Times Books. p. 165. ISBN 0-8129-2327-8. Retrieved 4 September 2010. 


  • 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. p. 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. 
  • Goldberg, Jonah (2009). Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. New York: Random House, Inc. p. 503. ISBN 0-7679-1718-9. 

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