May 24, 2015 by smumcounty
The 30’s are my go to decade for classic films. I watch more films from that decade than any other. Don’t ask me why. That’s just how I’m wired. As such I’ve come to know something of the history of that period, particularly The Great Depression. Nothing to be surprised at. If I was into 70’s films, I would know a lot about disco and wide lapels. Pretty much every film of the 30’s was influenced in some way by the Depression, whether it is overtly as in “Gold Diggers of 1933” or “Wild Boys of the Road” or indirectly as in the escapist films like “Top Hat” which were the polar opposite of the conditions in society. But no other film has made me realize how desperate those times must have been as “Gabriel Over the White House”.
The film opens with the new president, Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) being sworn into office. The festivities afterward make it clear that everyone is hopeful that this new broom can sweep clean and bring changes to the country. However, it becomes clear very soon after what kind of politician he will be. During his first press conference when he is informed of a million unemployed men led by John Bronson (David Landau) who are camped out in large cities across the country, he replies that unemployment is a local problem to be solved at the local level. When he is asked what should be done about the violence caused by bootleggers and racketeers like Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon), he again states that this is a local problem. The buck decidedly does not stop here. When one particularly earnest reporter lists a litany of the country’s woes and inquires what the government intends to do about it, the president replies with the usual platitudes about American exceptionalism. “America will weather this depression as she has other depressions, through the spirit of Valley Forge, the spirit of Gettysburg and the spirit of the Argonne.” Things don’t look very good for the country with this guy in charge.
Shortly thereafter, things take a dramatic turn. After a near fatal car accident, the president slips into a coma from which his doctors don’t expect him to recover. Miraculously, he does recover and he comes out of the coma a changed man. He has a more formal, serious demeanor. His secretary, who he once referred to affectionately as Beek is now Mr. Beekman (Franchot Tone). His personal secretary and one-time mistress is now Miss Molloy (Karen Morley). He has a newfound interest in the unemployed, requesting all the information they can find on John Bronson and his followers. When he meets with his cabinet and they offer him their sympathies for the accident he tells them to reserve their sympathy for the American people who are in dire need of it. The army of the unemployed is marching on Washington and the Secretary of State insists they call out the army to have them dispersed. Instead the president fires the Secretary of State and later meets with the marchers, promising to create an army of reconstruction that will put them to work until the economy gets moving again, not unlike the Works Progress Administration that FDR would later institute.
Ok, now we’re talking. Here’s a president who, instead of calling out the army to attack the unemployed marching on Washington, proposes federal programs to get the country moving again. Miss Molloy is so taken by the President’s transformation that she attributes it to the angel Gabriel. In fact, there are certain moments – when the president gets a faraway look in his eyes, he’s infused with a heavenly glow, and a light breeze rustles the curtains at the window – which impart a distinctly divine feeling to the proceedings. Something is definitely up.
The President’s decision to use the power of the presidency to solve the problem of unemployment isn’t met with universal acclaim. His cabinet is convinced he has gone too far and needs to be stopped. To that end, they meet secretly to plot against him. The meeting is interrupted, however, by Beekman who arrives with a letter from the President for each of them, a letter requesting their resignation. The cabinet swears vengeance on this lunatic and plan to go to Congress to have him impeached.
The next scene is of a joint session of Congress where the congressmen call for the president’s impeachment. President Hammond breaks in on this session with demands of his own. He demands that Congress adjourn and allow him to take on the powers of a dictator in order to more easily effect the changes that the crisis requires. If the congressmen refuse, he threatens to declare martial law. The argument is quite persuasive because the next shot is of a newspaper headline declaring “Congress Accedes to President’s Request – Adjourns by Overwhelming Vote – Hammond Dictator!”
Wha, wha, whaaa? The film has just taken a dark twist. With the new powers that he has been given, he moves quickly to institute changes that will put people to work and get them some relief from debt. His sights are then turned to the problem of lawlessness and racketeering caused by the 18th amendment (that’s the one that instituted Prohibition.) In an attempt to starve the likes of Nick Diamond and his ilk on money, the President single-handedly repeals Prohibition and puts the government in the business of the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The bootleggers, as one would expect, don’t take kindly to anyone muscling in on their racket. They bomb the government liquor stores and even stage a drive by shooting of the White House in which Miss Molloy is wounded. This then prompts the President to form a federal police force with Beekman at the head which is assigned the task of wiping out the bootleggers. Beekman takes to this job eagerly. Wearing a military style uniform we see in quick succession Beekman capture Nick Diamond and his gang, put them to trial in a court-martial, with Beekman as the judge, condemn them to death, and then execute them by firing squad, with Beekman giving the order to fire.
So, unemployment and hunger, check! Bootleggers and racketeers, check! Next comes the problem of war debts owed the US government by the European powers dating from World War I. As the President keeps stating, “those debts have got to be paid.” But is he willing to go to war with the Europe? This movie is just crazy enough for that but instead the President calls a conference of the European leaders on his private yacht. There he gives them a demonstration of the ease with which the Navy’s air force can destroy a ship. He warns that future wars will be unimaginably destructive and he paints a picture of a world depopulated by poison gas and “death rays”. He reasons that if the world were to disarm, not only would it ensure peace but the money saved by not having to build armies and navies could be used to pay off the war debts that have been incurred.
Sure enough, the next shot shows a headline declaring “Washington Covenant To Be Signed Today!” All the world powers are gathered at the White House in order to sign the disarmament agreement. Japan signs, Great Britain, France, and the last to sign is President Hammond. He signs his name and then promptly collapses. He is transferred to his bedroom where he passes away while Miss Molloy watches over him. Beekman then enters the conference room and announces to the gathered dignitaries, “Gentlemen, the President of the United States is dead.” Cue shot of the flag being lowered to half staff over the White House and The End.
So, to sum up, a new president is inaugurated and he immediately disbands Congress and makes himself a dictator in order to bring relief to the country suffering under the Great Depression. This includes the creation of a federal police force with powers to court martial and execute American citizens. And this is presented not as a dystopian vision but as a desired future, an instructional manual for ruling the country. How did this film get made? This is not a fringe studio creating sensational fare in order to make a buck. This is MGM, the largest most successful studio in Hollywood at the time. What’s more, this is not a B film. Walter Huston and Franchot Tone are big stars. The director, Gregory La Cava, is an A-lister.
The film is based on the book “Rinehard” by Thomas Frederic Tweed. MGM producer Walter Wanger, a liberal Democrat, purchased the rights to the book two months before FDR’s inauguration and rushed it into production to be released shortly after the new president took office. Financial backing for the film was supplied by William Randolph Hearst’s production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst was a big supporter of FDR and saw this film as a repudiation of former Republican administrations and as a how to manual for the new president. Certainly, the president’s reaction to the unemployed marching on Washington can be seen as a direct rebuke to Hoover’s reaction to the Bonus Marchers of the previous year. This group of WWI veterans demanding an early payment of bonuses they were promised by the government was routed from their campsites by the army under orders from Hoover. As a how to manual, Hearst had a hand in crafting the script writing much of the political oratory of President Hammond.
Not everyone at MGM was as excited about this film as Wanger. Studio head Louis B. Mayer only learned the plot of the film when he saw a preview. Mayer, a staunch conservative, afterwards declared “Put that picture back in the can, take it back to the studio, and lock it up.” However, head of production Irving Thalberg, another liberal, had Wanger’s back and assured the film’s release.
Hearst wasn’t the only one to have a hand in the film’s story; FDR read the script during his campaign and suggested some small revisions, including changing the location of the war debt conference from a battleship to the president’s yacht. Despite the vision of the president becoming a dictator, FDR was complimentary. After seeing an advance screening he wrote to Hearst, “I want to send you this line to tell you how pleased I am with the changes you made in ‘Gabriel Over the White House.’ I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help.”
This feeling of the acceptance of authoritarian rule to solve the country’s problems wasn’t reserved to Wanger and Hearst. On inauguration day, the New York Herald-Tribune ran this approving headline: “For Dictatorship If Necessary.” The liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal asserted FDR should have “the powers of a virtual dictatorship to reorganize the government.” The journalist Walter Lippman during a private meeting with FDR shortly after he took office told the new president, “The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.”
Hitler had just consolidated power in Germany in March of ’33 and many in the US expressed admiration for Mussolini. Talk of dictatorship was in the air in 1933. I think this speaks volumes to the seriousness of the crisis at the time. This was four years after the stock market crash and the country was only now reaching the depths of the Depression and there was no end in sight. People were getting desperate, perhaps desperate enough to imagine a temporary suspension of our democracy in order to fix the problem. It’s as if the Depression had hit the country so hard that it had shaken people’s faith in democracy, although, according to President Hammond the changes he institutes are democracy as our founding fathers envisioned it. In his speech to Congress when he calls for extraordinary powers he states, “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 for the greatest number.” When I first saw this film, scenes like that one left me dumbfounded.
It’s hard to say whether FDR could have taken on the powers assumed by the president in this film. During that meeting with Lippman he seemed doubtful whether such powers were advisable. Fortunately, FDR had a Congress that was willing to work with the president rather than against him, as in the film, and he never needed to test whether the country would allow him to assume such powers. So this film, rather than a prescient vision of the future, remains a classic film curio.