With so many pre-Code movies, it can be difficult not to feel that they come to us from some alternate history than the one we were transmitted by Code-compliant Hollywood, so much more progressive and politically engaged that the trick is remembering it's our own hidden history, as real and important as the censorship that squashed all that bracing skepticism and representation into ticky-tacky halfway through 1934.Gabriel Over the White House
(1933) also comes from our own hidden history, unfortunately. It would be much more comfortable to blame it on the Mirror Universe.
In short and without exaggeration, Gabriel Over the White House
is the single most fascist film I have seen from a Hollywood studio. Co-produced at MGM by Walter Wanger and especially William Randolph Hearst, it refined a near-future British political melodrama into a ripped-from-the-headlines call for an American strongman, as authoritarian as anything out of Europe and anointed in the line of Lincoln. The fantasy begins with the inauguration of President Judson "Jud" Hammond (Walter Huston), a tall stern-profiled man quickly revealed as the kind of fatuous glad-hander who gives lame ducks a bad name. Jovially reassured by one of the senators who gerrymandered his path to the White House that "by the time they"—the American people—"realize you're not going to keep them"—his campaign promises—"your term'll be over," he wastes no time installing his longtime mistress as his "confidential secretary," distributing ambassadorships and cabinet appointments among his cronies, and reeling off optimistic platitudes to the press corps while simultaneously dismissing nationwide unemployment and organized crime as "local problems." He signs whatever bills his party passes across his desk and looks set to embarrass America on the world stage with such piercing questions as "Say, where is
Siam?" The respect he holds for his office can be gauged by the jokey glee with which he uses the very quill with which Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation to sign off on a job of infrastructure graft in Puerto Rico. And then this booby-in-chief gets into a joy-riding road accident and is left in a coma, sinking fast while the White House frantically stalls; the doctors somberly declare the end "merely a matter of hours . . . he's beyond any human help," but as they leave the room a mysterious breeze troubles the curtain, a light from nowhere brightens on the vacant form, and President Hammond rises from his deathbed a messianic visionary, no longer as corrupt as Warren G. Harding, as ineffectual as Herbert Hoover, or as incapacitated as Woodrow Wilson but "a gaunt grey ghost with burning eyes that seem to see right down into you" who swings into nation-saving action as decisively as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Or Hitler. About two-thirds Hitler and one-third FDR if you ask me. I'm all for financial relief and reform, but nativist star chambers give me cold feet.
To a certain degree, the ideological disorder of Gabriel Over the White House
offers a litmus test for the viewer's own politics: which of Hammond's extraordinary actions seem humane and justified and which start you wondering if William Dudley Pelley had a hand in the script? Allowing for a certain steely-eyed rigidity of affect, the newly inspired president's initial clash with his administration is downright sympathetic. In the summer of 1932, Hoover had disastrously mobilized the U.S. Army against the "Bonus Army," a thousands-strong shanty town of disenfranchised veterans and their families peacefully protesting in Anacostia Park. Encouraged by his cabinet of hacks to dispense similar treatment to an "Army of the Unemployed," Hammond instead declares his newfound allegiance to country over party, "Gentlemen, I refuse to call out the Army against the people of the United States," before visiting the protesters' camp in Baltimore to offer each man his personal assurance of "necessary work waiting to be done" with an "Army of Construction" that sounds remarkably like the Works Projects Administration. When Congress balks at supplying the $4 billion budget, the unstoppable Hammond proposes to dissolve Congress with a declaration of national emergency; when Congress resists being dissolved, he invokes martial law. A stunned edition of the Washington Herald
reveals the fate of the legislative branch: "Adjourns by Overwhelming Vote – – – Hammond Dictator!" Now, with all that pusillanimous bureaucratic deadweight out of the way, the great man can really get things done. It is no small factor in the film's mirror-queasiness that several of them are things which an American president, scant weeks after production wrapped on Gabriel
, would actually do. Though Hammond's radio presence is a little more stentorian than a fireside chat, the emergency initiatives he announces to the "overwhelming support" of the American public fall right in line with the radical common sense of the New Deal, prioritizing the stabilizing of banks and the protection of homes and farms from foreclosure; he just includes the repeal of Prohibition within his first hundred days where FDR would leave it till the end of the year. It's his next few directives that take his dictatorship from turbo-charged president-elect to something more consistent with other totalitarian regimes rising around the world in the spring of 1933. The film expects us to cheer it all alike.
Whether through careful study or parallel evolution, the fascist rhetoric of this film is spot-on. It's got the bits of truth that make the lies go down like velvet, the condemnation of broken-down society and the powerful nostalgic appeal to some lost integrity reclaimable in the right hands. "A plant cannot be made to grow by watering the top alone and letting the roots go dry," Hammond warns Congress in a timely condemnation of trickle-down economics before turning the metaphor on his audience. "The people of this country are the roots of the nation and the sturdy trunk and the branches too . . . You've closed your ears to the appeals of the people. You've been traitors to the concepts of democracy on which this government was founded. I believe in democracy as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy, and if what I plan to do in the name of the people makes me a dictator, then it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson's definition of democracy—a government for the greatest good of the greatest number!" That's American authoritarianism as good as anything I've heard in the last few years. By his appeals to the unassailable patriotism of the Founding Fathers, his populist reverence and his denunciation of the nation's lawmakers as traitorous parasites, we are encouraged to view Hammond's seizure of power as an exercise in real
democracy, a return to the honest, direct truth of America over the self-serving shell game of big government that merely bamboozles American citizens out of their rights. It's familiar, inflammatory, and seductive. What audience exhausted by the ever-deepening Depression and fed up with the incompetent indifference of the Hoover administration wouldn't agree? The plot feels like the same kind of persuasive buy-in. Hammond handled the Bonus Army better than Hoover, so we trust him; he's handling the Depression just as well as FDR, so we trust him again; and therefore when he decides to junk the judiciary along with the legislature and turn over the powers of judge, jury, and executioner to his paramilitary secret police, shouldn't we trust him still? He's only doing what's best for America. Who gets to be part of America, of course, is especially important in times like these—all fascist ideologies must have a scapegoat and foreigners are the best you can get. Hammond finds his in the racketeers flourishing under Prohibition. Forget all-American Cagney; built up by Hammond's speeches as "the greatest enemy of law and order America has ever known . . . a malignant cancerous growth eating at the spiritual health of the American people . . . arch-enemies of these United States . . . the enemies of every honest citizen, the enemies of our nation," the gangsters of Gabriel Over the White House
are an explicitly foreign body headed and personified by C. Henry Gordon's Nick Diamond, a sallow-eyed, smarmily dapper, still-accented "immigrant boy who became the most famous man in America," as if organized crime is never homegrown, as if there's no other kind of crime in America. Advised by the President to deport himself and leave the liquor trade to the U.S. government, Diamond retaliates with a drive-by shooting of the White House and Hammond immediately calls out the newly created "Federal Police." At this point I confess the film starts to assume a slightly farcical quality for me, except it's so humorlessly earnest it's scary. The criminals have Tommy guns; the Federal Police have tank-mounted rocket launchers. Diamond and his organization never see the inside of a courtroom which they know how to buy their way out of; they are dragged off to a dramatically lit bunker and court-martialed by a military tribunal presided over by the young chief of the Federal Police. "We have in the White House a man who has enabled us to cut the red tape of legal procedures and get back to first principles—an eye for an eye, Nick Diamond," he pronounces with satisfaction, "a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." The gangsters are summarily executed by firing squad as the shadow of the Statue of Liberty looks on. By the time the President is threatening to unleash an air war of "invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, annihilating death rays" on the other nations of the world unless they pay America's debts and sign the "Washington Covenant" of universal disarmament and peace, I can see the biplanes and the tall silk hats perfectly well, but I still have the anachronistic feeling I'm watching some kind of balls-out Reaganite fantasia of American totalitarianism, under God. Or, you know, Fox News.
You were wondering about the title? It's the insight of Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley), the President's former mistress, now chaste helpmeet; seeing him wake so suddenly full of vital and resolute purpose and yet strangely remote from sentiment or desire, she becomes convinced that he's inhabited by some presence beyond his own will, "a simple, honest . . . divine madness." Eventually she puts a name to it. "I'm not a very religious person, Beek, but does it seem too fanciful to believe that God might have sent the Angel Gabriel to do for Jud Hammond what he did for Daniel?" Her interlocutor is Hartley Beekman (Franchot Tone), the amiable, slightly crooked presidential secretary who in keeping with the salvation tone of this whole project will reform into Hammond's incorruptible right-hand enforcer, not to mention Pendie's lawfully wedded husband; at the moment he's just a staffer not up on his Bible. "Gabriel? I thought he was a messenger of wrath." Poetically grave as a magdalene, Pendie corrects him, "Not always. To some, he was the angel of revelations, sent as a messenger from God to men." Now we know the identity of the breeze, the light. Now I try not to fall down a hole of eschatology, because the allusion automatically figures America as the new Jerusalem, decreed seventy weeks to mend her transgressions and bring in everlasting righteousness. In concert with the politics described above, it means that this film asserts that God has sent America a fascist savior against whose smashing of democratic idols only the foolish and the wicked would stand—I'm astonished it has not been reclaimed and celebrated by the Evangelical right, unless the left-wing whiff of FDR is scaring them off. In fairness to the filmmakers, I feel this assertion may have dovetailed accidentally from the source mythologies of Christianity and American exceptionalism, but at this particular world-historical moment it still jumps out at me a mile. There's a lot in this story that suggests its authors, whether credited screenwriter Carey Wilson or Hearst himself, did not think maybe as much as they should have about their premises. As soon as Hammond finishes signing the Washington Covenant with Chekhov's Lincoln quill, he collapses insensible—he's dying again, the spirit of Gabriel departing now that its work is done. He regains consciousness just long enough to be assured by Pendie that he's "proved himself one of the greatest men who ever lived" before he expires as peacefully as he should have all those car-crashed weeks ago, the light fading from his face as the divine afflatus ruffles the curtain one last time. I don't know how you feel about the reveal that instead of a wastrel soul redeemed and energized by divine inspiration, we have been watching a comatose body with an angel of wrath and revelation inside it, but I normally look to horror fiction for that sort of thing. I have similar reservations about the way the camera returns meaningfully to a marble bust of Lincoln and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" rises over the soundtrack at spiritual moments; I fear they are intended not just to confer the legitimacy of our sixteenth president on his fictional thirty-second successor but to imply that Lincoln himself was a vessel of divine possession. That just seems like an insult to Lincoln. Lastly, while I understand that the U.S. was a lot more naïve about authoritarian regimes in 1933, I am amazed at the film's apparent confidence that the institutions of American government will just pick up where Hammond-Gabriel left them—I think it must have envisioned its dictatorship on the idealized Roman model of extraordinary powers of limited scope and duration, whereas I want to know if Beek will inherit the one-man rule of America and if we're going to have proscriptions by Christmas.
If, out of civic-mindedness or curiosity, you are thinking of throwing yourself on the grenade of this movie, I should warn you that in addition to being probably evil, it's kind of bad. I've been fascinated by it ever since I caught it last spring on TCM, but that's an intellectual reaction with inclusions of emotional revulsion: I don't actually recommend it as art. It suffers from the common propaganda problem of resembling a set text more than an entertainment; its characters are strawmen and its tone suggests a black comedy whose sense of irony has been laparoscopically removed. Walter Huston actually gives a committed and flexible performance as both the good-time party hack and the sacred monster who replaces him, but Franchot Tone and Karen Morley could be replaced with lobby cards of themselves at no cost to the production and I have to look at IMDb to remember that there are any other human actors in it at all. Nonetheless, it exists and we might as well acknowledge it. It's an incredible document and a shivery reminder of just how plausible and attractive fascism could look to a disillusioned, frightened America. Well, we figured it out again. Have a nice Presidents' Day! This regime brought to you by my inspirational backers at Patreon