Divine Madness by matthew c. hoffman

“You can do important things with that pen if you wanted to.”
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“If we are to go forward we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because, without such discipline, no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.” ~ President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

Gabriel Over the White House is a Depression-era fantasy that was released in 1933. I saw it for the first time in the mid-1990s at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago before I took over the programming there. It made such an impression on me; I would always remember actor Franchot Tone in his armored car, giving the signal to fire upon a barricaded group of gangsters. But it’s a film more about ideas than action; for me, the emotional climax of the film became the President’s selection of a particular pen. Gabriel Over the White Houes is a very bizarre film, and twenty years after first seeing it at LaSalle, it was on my short list of films planned for 2013’s Rediscovered film series. But I’ve saved it for this year’s theme. To this day, Gabriel Over the White House remains controversial with many unflattering labels applied to it, such as pro-fascist.

Based on a political fantasy called Rinehard by British author T.F. Tweed, the film version tells the story of a newly-elected President who is simply part of the political machine. With the Great Depression affecting millions, the country has lost all hope. Many of the problems that face America– such as unemployment—the President sees as local problems. He literally tunes out the voices of discontent. His recklessness outside the White House ultimately leads to tragedy with an injured President beyond all human help. From this point on, his life will become two with a new man emerging—a crusader who will restore confidence, prosperity, and the spiritual health of a nation. It is through his hands that America will be rehabilitated.

Gabriel Over the White House was directed by Gregory La Cava. He originally worked for William Randolph Hearst as a producer of early animated cartoons, but he eventually became a director of live-action silent movies. He is best known for the films he made in the 1930s, most notably My Man Godfrey (1936) with Carole Lombard and William Powell and Stage Door (1937) with Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. La Cava showed that he could handle comedy as well as heavy drama. In last season’s Rediscovered film series, we had shown Gallant Lady with Ann Harding, which was another La Cava picture.

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Gabriel Over the White House was produced by Walter Wanger, who had recently joined the MGM studio, as well as by William Randolph Hearst himself. The newspaper tycoon had influence in the movie business. His Cosmopolitan Studio was created for the express purpose of making movies starring his mistress, Marion Davies. In addition, Hearst was, at that time, a strong supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With his influence, he had helped FDR win the Democratic nomination in 1932. The film reflects Hearst’s own vision of the ideal president—a social activist who is really a benevolent dictator. Hearst also had a hand in the writing of the script, including those speeches made by President Judson Hammond. The film was reportedly pushed through by Walter Wanger when studio head Louis B. Mayer was away on vacation. Mayer, a staunch Republican, was horrified when he saw the finished film at a preview. Though he delayed the film’s release, he did not pull it from distribution.

The film was designed to usher in the FDR administration and was in fact released after his election. Roosevelt is said to have approved of the film. One can clearly see the building blocks of his New Deal at work in it. Most strikingly, when President Jud Hammond creates a construction army made up of the unemployed, it foreshadows the creation of the WPA in 1935. In a sense, Gabriel Over the White House is a shrewd piece of Hollywood propaganda in which the previous administration of Herbert Hoover is characterized as do-nothings.

Gabriel has been called pro-fascist because President Hammond bypasses Congress and the Constitution in order to pass through his emergency acts. He is called a dictator by members of Congress who are powerless to stop him. Viewed within the context of the 1930s, Hammond’s actions may have seemed more justifiable to desperate audiences who, at that time, had no inkling of what fascism would lead to in Europe. But in 1933, at the bottom of the Depression, there was talk of anarchy. Democracy itself was in danger. The collapse of the capitalist system was more than a theory. Many Depression audiences would’ve been more accepting of a President single-handedly challenging the system for the greater good—especially if that President were Walter Huston.

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Huston is a favorite of ours here at the Classic Film Series. More recently, we saw him last spring when we screened D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. Coincidentally, in Gabriel there are visual references to Lincoln in an overt attempt to justify the actions of President Hammond. As though the approval of the angels wasn’t enough, the film also suggests our 16th President silently consents.

The Canadian-born Walter Huston was one of the great actors in the early talkie period and appeared on Broadway before becoming a Hollywood star in films like The Beast of the City, American Madness, Dodsworth, and many others throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. His career culminated with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. His casting as the fictional President Hammond—in the wake of his Lincoln portrayal from three years before—is ideal.

One of the more unusual scenes is President Hammond’s creation of the Federal Police, a military squad operating in mini-tanks. This group is designed specifically to deal with– and dispose of– the foreigners, that is, the bootlegging criminals. The President’s secretary, as played by Franchot Tone, is given the new task and leads the army. The gangsters are arrested and sentenced in a military tribunal. With intended irony, their demise at the hands of a firing squad appears to be set on Ellis Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background. And no, this film is not a comedy—despite the outrageous scene depicting a drive-by shooting in front of the White House. As incredible as the storyline is with the formation of the Federal Police, it’s not far removed from what would develop across the ocean in Germany with the SS.

President Hammond (Huston) with his two secretaries played by Franchot Tone (right) and Karen Morley.
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The younger generations will not grasp the historical context of the film. They will not understand references to the Bonus Army or have any knowledge of past Presidents like Hoover, Harding, or even FDR. It would be interesting, then, if this story were re-imagined today. We live in a world of political gridlock and party politicians where even the government itself can shut down. Those who allow that to happen are the “traitors to the concepts of democracy.”  In 2015, with trillions of national debt and half the world wanting to destroy us or take advantage of us, tonight’s film certainly gives us something to think about: a leader who not only recognizes the problems of the day but offers clear solutions to solve them. But here, the implication is that only divine intervention can make this so.

The film bypasses our system of checks and balances, civil liberties, and even the Constitution itself. The greater good in Gabriel Over the White House becomes the “Washington Covenant” that is formed among all the nations of the world. The word covenant evokes a Biblical connotation as God’s promise. The promise that Hammond makes leads to nothing less than world disarmament and world peace, albeit enforced world peace. These were simple, direct solutions to the world’s problems.

Much has been written negatively about the politics of Gabriel Over the White House. As a political drama, it certainly reveals much about the mindset of the nation at that time. But those who dismiss the film as propaganda miss its value and overlook its cinematic qualities. This is a unique, fantasy film that projects an alternate vision of what America might’ve become in the Great Depression. It extrapolates upon that idea, and it does so in the most entertaining of ways.

For more about the politics of Gabriel Over the White House, here is a 2013 article from The New Yorker.

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