Gabriel Over the White House
|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|
The movie 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 (the film's opening credits say "based on the anonymous novel, Gabriel Over the White House") 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) 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 causes a near-fatal car crash and goes into a coma. Through what Portland State University instructor Dennis Grunes calls "possible divine intervention," (characterized by a breeze blowing through a closed window) Hammond awakens as a decisive man of action.
President Hammond makes "a political U-turn," purging his entire cabinet of "big-business lackeys." When Congress impeaches him, he responds by declaring martial law, 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 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", called "Federal Police", led by the President's top aide, Hartley 'Beek' Beekman (Tone).
When he meets with resistance 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 annihilation with America's newest and most deadly secret weapon, Hammond then blackmails the world into disarmament, ushering in global peace. At the very moment the other nations of the world finish acceding to his "covenant" of world disarmament, Hammond, his supposed divine mission completed, suffers a fatal stroke which also seems to be divinely attributable (again a breeze through a closed window), and the story ends.
Despite revoking the Constitution and all the other actions he has taken, Hammond is not portrayed as the villain of the piece, but rather as the one 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:
- Walter Huston as President Judson Hammond
- Karen Morley as Pendola Molloy
- Franchot Tone as Hartley 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)
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. 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.
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. "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 as "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." "An aroma of fascism clung to the heavily edited release print", according to Leonard Leff, author of books on movies.
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.
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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.
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