Director: Gregory La Cava
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There are many classic film buffs out there for whom the Pre-Code era of 1930-1933 is the source of their greatest viewing pleasure. It’s easy to understand why—it’s a momentous time in film and world history. Sound trickled in, flowed steadily, and quickly inundated motion picture production. With that sound, it was possible to hear the songs and seductions that brought musicals and sex vividly to life—and scared the hell out of the Hays Office. It was also the time when the Great Depression grabbed onto the world economy and plunged it as low as it had ever been experienced in the United States. All types of films explored the plight of the unemployed, from Busby Berkeley musicals to gangster flicks to comedies about slumming socialites.
One type of film that wasn’t particularly common in the United States at that time, but was in its ascendancy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, was the propaganda film. Hollywood moguls interested in churning out mind-distracting entertainment certainly weren’t interested in it. In fact, there’s only one well-known propaganda film from that era done by the only movie mogul who not only had the interest, but also the experience to pull it off—Gabriel Over the White House, a production of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures.
Hearst, of course, was the notorious newspaper baron whose politics and personal preferences trumped truth and impartiality in the heyday of yellow journalism and beyond. In the early 1930s, Hearst used his various bully pulpits to tout what would become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.
Gabriel Over the White House, a truly bizarre film on first viewing, centers on the Hoover/Hardingesque political hack, Judson “Judd” Hammond (Walter Huston), who we first see taking the presidential oath of office, change his evil ways, baby, after a coma-inducing car accident puts him in touch with an unseen presence. His mistress, Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley), who also mends her fornicating, father-fixated ways to embrace the more age-appropriate marriage-minded presidential press secretary Hartley “Beek”’ Beekman (Franchot Tone), senses the presence and identifies it as the angel Gabriel.
Hammond is shown before the conversion hobnobbing with his party cronies, all of whom hold cabinet seats, carelessly discarding the problems of massive unemployment and rampant crime as “local matters.” Hammond, the rare bachelor in the White House, is a real bad boy. After installing Molloy as his “private secretary,” and putting off all serious questions at his first press conference with jovial dismissal—and the announcement that all future press conferences will require questions submitted in writing beforehand—he decides to take a joy ride in his limo with several of his staff. He floors it, pushing past 110 mph so as to shake both his security escort and trailing reporters. The car blows a tire and careens off the road. The condition of the passengers in the ill-fated car is never revealed, but the comatose president is not expected to live.
As divine presences always seem to do in movies, the unseen messenger arrives on a gust of wind that ruffles the curtains covering the president’s open bedroom window and fills the room momentarily with light. The doctor, Beek, and Pendie are hurriedly called in from their death watch in an adjacent room by Judd’s nurse. Judd has regained consciousness. He’s alert, but distracted, as though he were listening to a voice beyond the wall. His coldness toward Pendie announces his renunciation of the immoral pleasures of the flesh, and with a vigor and seriousness of purpose never seen in him before, sets about mending the ills of the country. He fires all of his sleazy cabinet members, encourages labor leader John Bronson (David Landau) and his million unemployed men to come to Washington to talk about stimulating the economy, and sends tanks against notorious bootlegger and criminal Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon). When the political hacks in Congress rebel against Judd’s sweeping social-welfare proposals, he declares martial law.
In his zeal to fill up the nation’s depleted coffers, he decides to collect the debts the nations of the world owe the United States for supplies and assistance it provided during and after World War I. He deploys the Navy to prevent any interference with his grand plan—to gather all of the leaders of the world on a naval vessel and watch American bombers destroy two American battleships. These planes, rather than some antiquated battleships, represent the military force of the future, and he will not hesitate to use them if the debts are not paid and a new understanding of peace is not reached that very day. The leaders of the world line up to sign and stamp their seal on a peace accord. Hammond enters the room last. Looking not at all well, he stumbles to the table on which rests the document and, with a shaky hand, signs it. Then he collapses and dies, his brief resurrection rescinded now that his divine work has been completed.
It would have to take someone with the enormous ego Hearst had (or the absurb humor of the Blues Brothers) to promote his politics as a mission from God. The authoritarian way Hammond goes about doing good reminded me of another film that most people see quite benignly, but that I have always contended was rather fascistic—The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Gort and the bombers are much the same, as are Klaatu’s and Hammond’s ultimatums. The difficulty in seeing Hammond’s actions in a completely sympathetic light have to do with our understanding of and revulsion against martial law. Doing right by assuming absolute control just doesn’t taste right. Nonetheless, there’s no mistaking the appeal of Hearst’s agenda to a country bent by the Depression, from the proposal for a federal works program Hammond promises to the throngs of jobless men chanting, “We want work,” thrusting their shovels into the air, to the war on crime, with Nick Diamond unmistakably modeled on the real gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, whose death in 1931 precluded him from suing Cosmopolitan for defamation of character. Many of the programs Hammond outlines actually formed part of the New Deal; indeed, Hearst sent the script to his candidate, FDR, for suggestions and revisions and worked them into the screenplay.
Despite Hearst’s adulterous, live-in relationship with Marion Davies, he preferred to project a moral protagonist in Hammond. Pendie comes off a bit like Mary Magdelan crossed with Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The very presence of women seems to be undesirable, and there are only four in the entire picture: Pendie, Hammond’s nurse, Hammond’s sister, and Bronson’s wife—a reformed sinner, a traditional helper, a relation with a walk-on who looks after Hammond’s beloved nephew Jimmy (Dickie Moore), and the wife of a labor martyr. Not a substantial woman in the bunch. And Pendie’s romance with Beek is one of the most bloodless I’ve seen, that is, until Pendie is felled in a hail of machine-gun fire from the Diamond gang, but miraculously lives to tell the tale and trot off into marriage.
Gregory La Cava is a skilled director with such classics as My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937) to his credit. I believe it is his skill in bringing this film to life that disguises its true nature as a propaganda picture. Huston plays the sinner quite realistically, as do all of the crooked pols who surround him. His saint is forceful and rather wooden, appropriately a vessel rather than a man. Franchot Tone, who always seems a bit precious to me, really nails this character, a 1930s version of Tony Snow before Hammond’s transformation, revealed to be a really likeable guy. Karen Morley is better in this film than in most of her output, putting more feeling into her unfortunate, flat voice.
Gabriel Over the White House was an eerie film for me to watch again. Yesterday’s corrupt prosperity, today’s economic collapse, and a president from one of the most corrupt states in the union offering change we can believe in—including a return to some New Deal measures—parallel the world of this ancient Hollywood oddity. This is a timely film to ponder.