Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
52. Gabriel Over The White House (1933)
A crooked president reforms mysteriously. Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, Arthur Byron, Dickie Moore, C. Henry Gordon, and David Landau. Screenplay by Carey Wilson. Additional dialogue by Bertram Bloch. Based, uncredited, on a book by T.F. Tweed. Directed by Gregory La Cava. A Cosmopolitan Production distributed by M-G-M.
“Shortly after he is elected President of the United States, bachelor Judson C. Hammond hires Harley Beekman as his general secretary and longtime friend Pendola ‘Pendie’ Molloy as his confidential secretary, and holds a press conference in the White House. When asked by reporters about the problems of unemployment, racketeering, foreign debt and hunger, Judson responds only with vague, optimistic platitudes, then announces that his answers are ‘not quotable.’ Disturbed by Judson’s cavalier attitudes, Pendie gently tells her boss that he should take his duties more to heart and ‘do important things.’ Instead, Judson, under the influence of Jasper Brooks, his Secretary of State, continues his course of indifference and ignores the protests of John Bronson and his growing army of the unemployed. Judson’s attitudes change, however, when he is involved in a high-speed car accident and is plunged into a life-threatening coma. Although his doctors predict that he will die, Judson suddenly regains complete consciousness and spends two weeks in bed ‘thinking.’
“When he finally emerges from his rooms, a thoughtful but energetic Judson orders Pendie to make contact with Bronson. To the surprise of his Cabinet officers, Judson defends Bronson and his right to march on Washington and fires Brooks when he challenges this new stand. Judson also changes his press policy, answering reporters’ questions at length and allowing them to quote him for the first time. While the rejunevated Judson is busy implementing his new ideas, Antone Brilawksi, a notorious New York bootlegger and racketeer known as Nick Diamond, tries to bribe Bronson to halt his protest march to Washington because the presence of Bronson’s camped ‘army’ in the city distracts the local police from Diamond’s illegal activities. When Bronson bravely refuses Diamond’s bribe, he is shot and killed by Diamond’s henchmen as he is leading his protest marchers out of the city. Against the wishes of his Secretary of War, who wants to send in troops to stop the march, Judson allows the protest to continue and even visits the marchers’ camp to announce the creation of a federal ‘army of construction,’ which will employ thousands to build new roads and buildings.
“After Pendie confides in Beekman, with whom she has fallen in love, her belief that Judson has been inspired by the spirit of God’s messenger, Archangel Gabriel, Judson demands the resignation of all his Cabinet members. Judson then addresses the Congress and, after requesting that a national state of emergency be declared, asks that Congress relinquish its power voluntarily to him. When various Congressmen accuse him of creating a dictatorship, Judson responds that his dictatorship is based on Thomas Jefferson’s definition of democracy–‘a government for the greatest good of the greatest number.’ Fed up with bureaucratic resistance, Judson declares martial law and uses his presidential powers to dismiss the Congress. As his first act under martial law, Judson undertakes to have the prohibition amendment repealed and calls Diamond to the White House. After Judson informs the gangster that the government is going to ‘muscle in’ on the liquor selling ‘racket,’ Diamond orders a bomb attack on a government liquor store and tries to assassinate Judson.
“Outraged by Diamond’s attack, in which Pendie is seriously wounded, the president assigns Beekman to oversee a task force that will eliminate the country’s racketeers. Using tanks and machine guns, Beekman and his men force Diamond’s gang out of their hideout and, after a military trial, execute them. Judson then deals with the problem of foreign debts by calling a conference on his presidential yacht and threatening various world leaders with American military build-up if they refuse to stop their own excessive military spending. By blowing up two American battleships in front of his peers, Judson demonstrates a commitment to disarmament and encourages his allies to sign a peace covenant and repay their debts. After all of the world leaders sign the historic covenant, a weak and weary Judson puts his own name on the document, then, with his life’s work done, dies.” (This summary is brought to you by TCM.)
Let’s get something straight. Regardless of the film’s politics or the political lens through which you view the action, Gabriel Over The White House is a bad picture. It’s ham-fisted, self-important, and unfunny. It purports to be a serious drama with nobly inspired solutions to all the social and political problems of the world; that is, there are no laughs. Yet it demonstrates so little awareness of the institutions it criticizes — while offering answers that are simple, pat, and absurd — that it can’t really be taken seriously. It’s a fantasy with no political bite, just a political bent. To this point, I don’t think one must either champion or condone the film’s messaging to recognize why it’s an Essential, although there’s also no sugarcoating the fact that, while strange and to be taken with a grain of salt, it is a piece of propaganda, suggesting that a complete dismantling of the country’s republican institutions could be a way to fix every issue facing the United States in 1933 (crime, war, poverty, etc.). And the process it posits as vital in doing so involves an autocrat — a dictator — in the true sense of the word; not only someone whose actions would be benevolent and for the greater good, but also divinely mandated.
I’d love to argue that the melodrama is purposely overwrought to showcase the dangers of fascism, a political ideology that would prove to have serious consequences (in the form of a second World War, launched just six years after this film’s release). But I can’t. And because I can’t… this is why it’s a Pre-Code Essential. You see, it’s so of its era, dealing with themes and issues that spoke directly to the people of 1933, who maybe did, at the time, take the picture as seriously as it wants to be taken. Not because the film alone earns such political validity, but because they were a public in the brunt of a Depression, crying out for a leader — a White Knight — to end suffering and lead the country back to prosperity. Indeed, in November 1932, the people elected someone they believed would be their White Knight: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And Gabriel Over The White House, based on a British novel, was conceived by liberal Walter Wanger and (then pro-Mussolini) William Randolph Hearst right after FDR’s election. It was rushed into production in early 1933, and intended for release just before his March inauguration — a picture for the FDR era. In fact, FDR consulted on the script and apparently found the film “helpful.” (Many critics then and now have had a field day with that.)
Naturally, this didn’t sit well with the head of the studio that released Hearst’s Cosmopolitan pictures, M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer, a pro-Hoover (and anti-FDR) Republican, who delayed the film’s release and ordered changes that would ensure it couldn’t be seen until after Hoover left office (when it wouldn’t be viewed as such an attack on his presidency — although the “army of the unemployed” stuff was anything but subtle). Also, an attempt was made on FDR’s life in February 1933 that necessitated the revision of a scene in which an attempt was also made on “President Hammond”‘s life… Regardless of whatever was changed though — and for British audiences, apparently the ending was also altered to make it seem like the main character’s injury made him do things that were both positive and negative, thereby complicating the simple “fascism can be peaches and cream” narrative — the released picture, premiered in late March 1933, was still bold and rebellious, and it was met with mixed responses… Yet, that it even was received well by some, who didn’t see it as a fairy tale of wishful thinking, is a testament to the fine actor at the center (Huston commits 100% — which, typically, is part of what makes a bad film so rotten: commitment), the public’s need for a White Knight, and frankly, a lack of awareness about what was happening, and was soon to happen, in Europe.
Beyond this flirtation with fascism that would cool in the post-WWII era (in favor of another “ism”, of the commune sort) and the aforementioned topical subject matter, Gabriel Over The White House isn’t just a film for its era… it’s a film that could only be made in its era. Such an outright condemnation of this country’s government, and the unvarnished romanticizing of a completely different form of power (which the text, again, seeks to justify by having it deigned by God) could have NEVER happened under the Code… at least, not in this super-earnest “maybe here are some solutions for you” kind of way. It’s because of this political freedom — born from the freedom of speech — that Gabriel is a Pre-Code Essential. You don’t have to support fascism, support FDR, or even have to equate the two, to appreciate that the film industry was such in 1933 that this subject matter was not automatically verboten. And the idea that this kind of material, whether it’s well-knowledged or not (here, I don’t think it is), can exist, is what makes the Pre-Code era so fascinating. Yes, Gabriel Over The White House is pure fantasy — somewhat unintentionally — but it’s a snapshot of an era. And that’s a photo that Hollywood, even as it became more pro-FDR, wouldn’t allow to be taken in any other time but this one. For you history lovers, it’s a non-negotiable; it’s “for the people” (of 1933).
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Monday for our monthly Musical Theatre entry!