Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Director: Gregory La Cava

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

gabriel%202.jpgIt 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. 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.

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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.

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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.

  • jonathan lapper spoke:
    4th/02/2009 to 4:58 pm

    Wow, I love movies like this, movies that make you feel a little uneasy with their “right-thinking” message. And Huston is one of my all time favorite actors. I found it for sale at hard to find DVD outlets for as little as a quarter and I also found it online (it’s out of copyright now) so I’m downloading it now to burn onto DVD and watch.
    Another thing classic film buffs like me love about the pre-code era is the creakiness of it, at least I do. The odd pauses, the silences between lines of dialogues, the lack of a consistent musical score in the background, etc. They always feel slightly otherwordly to me. Oddly enough, by the time the code was actually enforced they had conquered most of the problems that beset them at the beginning of the sound era so the films of that period are even more “other” than they otherwise would be.

  • Sarah spoke:
    4th/02/2009 to 6:11 pm

    Wow. What a bizarre film.
    I can’t promise that I’ll watch it but I can safely say I’m glad I’ve now heard of it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 7:54 am

    Jonathan – I think you’ll like it, especially Walter Huston, who was just perfect. I like him, too, and he always seems to carry a certain air of authority with him that makes him a natural in these parts. I remember seeing him in one other oddity – a scripted interview he conducted with D. W. Griffith about The Birth of a Nation before its 1931 reissue.
    Sarah – This is a pretty good film, actually, and certainly a jaw-dropper. I’d give it a try.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 10:31 am

    Marilyn, I’ve now watched it. I started last night and couldn’t stop until it was over. It was outright shocking at times. The scenes of Tone telling Diamond it wouldn’t be a trial by jury but a court martial and then their summary execution with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Jesus! That was chilling! Or the paper headline that announces Congress has adjourned and says in smaller print below, as if it was unimportant, “Hammond dictator.” And the scene on the battleship, especially when the Germany president says that Germany cannot afford to pay its debts because the people are already starving, which Hammond completely ignores. God! I just got angry. I want to go back in time and beat Hearst to a pulp for the ideas that populate this movie. The sight of the richest country on Earth demanding other countries pay back their debt makes me queasy, especially considering what we now know became of Germany thanks to too much staggering debt. And anyone who has a cursory knowledge of debt in this country’s history knows we have always carried it, except for a brief moment in 1835 when it was reduced to zero. Since then it’s gone up. So I wonder, was Hammond going to pay off the billions of debt America owed in 1932? It’s almost explicitly implied that America has never carried debt in that scene.
    Those are just a few examples, but overall I have to say this is one of the creepiest and scariest movies I’ve ever seen. I found its ideas of how to correct wrongs and fix problems with a country in dire financial straits to be disturbing to say the least. And the fact that the angel, or whatever it is, isn’t personified like a Clarence or an angel in the outfield, but simply a mystical spirit entering the bedroom, like Pazuzu in The Exorcist and entering Hammond who then turns the largest Democratic Republic in the world into a dictatorship and “fixes” all of our problems. I wish this were widely available on DVD because I’d make it my next pick for TOERIFC. Maybe by next year it will be.
    And I’ve seen the Griffith interview on TCM more than a few times. There’s old D.W., still spouting bullshit in a desperate attempt to save face some 16 years after Birth of a Nation and Huston and that Confederate saber – the whole thing is weird.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 10:57 am

    Yup, Jonathan, it’s scary all right, as propaganda always should be. There have been critics on both the left and the right about its socialist/totalitarian message. To me, the politics and practices most closely resemble Stalinism. And yes, the German ambassador’s statement is perhaps the most chilling to me of all. This film is really a capsule of some of the radical politics so active in the 30s. FDR found the film to be fine and inspirational, but I’m glad he took the good without most of the bad, even though he went around the term limits of the Constitution as a sort of benign authoritarian.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 11:00 am

    You know, I almost didn’t review this film because I thought everyone already knew about it. I guess I was wrong about that.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 11:41 am

    even though he went around the term limits of the Constitution as a sort of benign authoritarian.
    And he tried to pack the Supreme Court. I’ve always viewed the thirties as the most radical period of the twentieth century, which is why doc after doc with someone like Grace Slick telling me how the whole world changed in 1968 always irritate me. I don’t deny the importance of any decade much less the sixties, but the thirties was a time when the world seemed like it was open to just about anything, any idea, any method, any leader. And most of it didn’t settle until the whole damn place caught on fire for the six years running from 39 to 45.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 12:22 pm

    You’re right, Jonathan, but with one exception.
    I would have to say that in terms of conservative radicalism, the Reagan-Bush-Bush era has been the most extreme, with George W. and his administration the most radically right of them all. One of the reasons the Clintons have earned the undying (and do mean undying, as they are still a hot topic among pundits) hatred of the Right is that they interrupted the full flow of the Right’s transformation of the way this country works.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 12:58 pm

    I don’t disagree that Reagan-Bush-Bush is the most extreme makeover in the conservative radicalism mode, just that the thirties was a time when going into it one wasn’t sure which political discipline – Communism, Fascism, Socialism, Capitalism, Nazism – was going to come out on top and it wasn’t at all clear to anyone which were good, which were bad and which were ugly, or some combination of any one of the three.
    And speaking of the propaganda of authoritarianism supported by this movie we now have Uncle Tiberius eagerly telling us that he was in fact right, that torture is a good thing and if only we stupid, uneducated agitators would shut up and let him go about the “tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” of protecting the country everything would be fine. His contempt for the Constitution, for the United States, is amazing. I honestly don’t think he has or will ever understand that everything he wishes to do goes against the principles of the constitution. He would never understand someone saying so, but he’d be much better suited to the old Soviet Union’s Kremlin.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/02/2009 to 1:23 pm

    Yes, I understood your meaning, and that was an exciting and uncertain time.
    Cheney’s not in the administration anymore, but he still gets press from all his cronies. There’s not much we can do about that, just keep working to put things back together again.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    6th/02/2009 to 11:38 pm

    This is one of those films I could have seen but didn’t back when I was in NYC. What would make a perfect Walter Huston double feature would be this film with Capra’s American Madness. I only got to see that film because I temporarily had access to the 16mm collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/02/2009 to 7:58 am

    What was the gist of American Madness, Peter?

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    7th/02/2009 to 9:10 am

    I had to look up IMDb to remind me of part of the plot for American Madness. Huston has his little bank which his board want to merge with a larger bank. In the meantime, the bank is robbed, and the accused is one of the bank employees. Bank customers are in a panic about the safety of their money (this was 1932). Huston eventually reassures his customers that their funds are safe, and the real robbers are caught.
    What I remember best is a befuddled Sterling Holloway after the robbery repeatedly saying, “You could have hit me with a feather”.
    It wasn’t until I read Joe McBride’s biography about Capra that I found out that he was not enthused about banks for himself.

  • LaVonne spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 8:35 pm

    I liked this movie. I thought it’s message was inspiring: that a president of the USA, surrounded by special interests, might play the man and become the people’s president instead of the toadie of the president’s people.

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