The four months between the election of Franklin Roosevelt on November 8, 1932 and the beginning of his first term on March 4, 1933 were the absolute nadir of the Great Depression, perhaps the worst four months in the history of the United States. Twelve million people, a quarter of the work force, were unemployed. Two million people were homeless. Farm prices were down by sixty percent. Industrial production had fallen by more than half since 1929. The American economy had ground to a halt.
It was also the Golden Age of American cinema, or to be more accurate, radical American cinema, an era that ranks right up there with the Soviet cinema of the 1920s and the French cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. Before the well-known but little understood “Hay’s Code” that took effect in 1934, you could walk into a movie theater and see films ranging from sophisticated romantic comedies like Gold Diggers of 1933 to dark, disturbing science fiction like The Island of Lost Souls and the original King Kong to radical attacks on the prison industrial complex like I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
In the Fall of 1932, after witnessing Hebert Hoover use the United States Army to break up an encampment of over fifty thousand unemployed men in Washington DC, the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst commissioned director Gregory La Cava to make a film version of the novel Rinehard by the British writer Thomas Frederic Tweed. The movie, which was eventually called Gabriel Over the White House, was meant as a blueprint for Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office, an exhortation to the President elect to do what he had to do to bring the economy back, even if it meant ruling as a a dictator. Starring Walter Huston as a thinly fictionalized amalgam of the do nothing Herbert Hoover and the dynamic Roosevelt, Franchot Tone as his Chief of Staff, and the blacklisted communist actress Karen Morley as the President’s ex-lover, it’s been a controversial movie ever since studio boss Louis B. Mayer held up its distribution until Hoover left the White House. It was finally released on March 31, 1933, well into Roosevelt’s Hundred Days. The current critical consensus on both the left and on the right is that this rarely seen and difficult to find film is fascist propaganda, perhaps the only genuinely fascist movie ever to come out of Hollywood.
President Judson Hammond establishes his dictatorship.
For Jonah Goldberg of National Review, Gabriel Over the White House is the smoking gun that proves the ideological connection between the Nazis, who were “national socialists,” and New Deal Liberalism.
The film depicts an FDR look-alike president who, after a coma-inducing car accident, is transformed from a passive Warren Harding type into a hands-on dictator. The reborn commander-in-chief suspends the Constitution, violently wipes out corruption, and revives the economy through a national socialist agenda. When Congress tries to impeach him, he dissolves Congress.
The Library of Congress summarizes the film nicely. “The good news: He reduces unemployment, lifts the country out of the Depression, battles gangsters and Congress, and brings about world peace. The bad news: He’s Mussolini.”
While there’s some truth to Goldberg’s argument – Hearst flirted with fascism in the mid-1930s and probably did attend the Nuremberg Rally in 1934 – and quite a bit more truth to the liberal consensus that the film is a cautionary tale about wanting the government to do too much too fast, it’s a lot more complex than any of them make it out to be. While I do not agree with Portland State film critic Dennis Grunes that Gabriel of the White House is a great work of art – it falls apart in the second half – I don’t think it’s fascist propaganda. Rather, and it becomes more obvious if you look more closely at Thomas Frederic Tweed, a member of the British Liberal Party and political adviser to David Lloyd George, Gabriel Over the White House is basically a “think piece.” What if the President had the same authority that Lloyd George exercised during the First World War, where he governed the United Kingdom at the head of a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives, or the power that Franklin Roosevelt wielded in the 1940s, when the Second World War finally wrenched the United States out of the Great Depression for Good? I suppose you could call Lyndon Johnson, who called for a “war on poverty,” or Ronald Reagan, who called for a “war on drugs,” fascists, but I think that would be simpleminded. Fascism, as Robert Paxton demonstrates in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, is a very well-defined historical process that cannot simply be reduced to authoritarianism or to the suspension of civil liberties.
Gabriel Over the White House is centered around three historical events, the above-mentioned Bonus Army, Al Capone and the end of Prohibition, and the court martial of General Billy Mitchell. The film opens with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond, who’s an intellectual lightweight in the mold of Warren Harding or George W. Bush. Hammond, a party hack in the pocket of his adviser and Secretary of State Jasper Brooks, not only promises to get little done about the Great Depression. He’s barely aware of its existence. A terrific scene early in the film, where Hammond frolics on the floor of the White House with his seven-year-old nephew while a radio broadcast reporting the news of the “Army of the Unemployed” in the background, perfectly sums up his character. Later, when he takes the wheel of the Presidential Limo and tries to outrace his body guard, speeding along at over 100 MPH, he graduates from seven-year-old to reckless frat boy. He also wraps his car around a tree and almost kills himself.
Lying in bed with a fractured skull, a concussion, and “traumatic brain injury,” Judson Hammond seems near death. Since he’s a party hack and a puppet, of course, it’s no big deal one way or another. Jasper Brooks can easily replace him. Just about the only people who care are the White House Press Corps, who, with the President immobilized in bed, have no copy to file with their newspapers, and are at risk of losing their jobs. After his recovery, however, President Judson Hammond is a new man, a forceful, dynamic leader in the mold of Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, who quickly gets to work. The first thing to go are the George W. Bush style nicknames he gives to his people. Pendola Molloy, who’s now an assistant to his Chief of Staff, is no longer “Pendy” but “Miss Molloy.” Hartley Beekman is no longer “Beek” but Mr. Beekman. Hammond is now his own man, as his Secretary of State and former puppet master Jasper Brooks finds after he suggests that the President use the army to dismantle the camps of the Army of the Unemployed. Unlike Herbert Hoover, who sent Douglass MacArthur after the Bonus Army, or Barack Obama, who destroyed Occupy Wall Street with a coordinated attack by militarized city cops, Judson Hammond decides that The Army of the Unemployed have a legitimate claim on his time. So he fires Brooks heads off to see the Army of the Unemployed for himself.
While the early scenes involving The Army of the Unemployed aren’t exactly on the level of Sergei Eisenstein, they are excellent left-wing agitprop. Hollywood used to be so much better than it is today. While today we get ponderous, and genuinely fascist, superhero movies, and tedious Star Wars reboots, back in 1933, American cinema dramatized reality almost as soon as it happened. Only three months after Hebert Hoover crushed the Bonus Army, a major Hollywood studio commissioned an A-List director to tell their story.
John Bronson, the leader of the Army of the Unemployed, is no hippie who should “get a job.” He’s an incorruptible American hero who organizes a “March on Washington” fifty years before Martin Luther King, fearlessly declines the offer of a bribe from a thinly fictionalized Al Capone, and is eventually assassinated for his trouble. The scenes of the unemployed marching to Washington singing “John Brown’s Body” are genuinely inspiring, multicultural -– Gabriel Over the White House is one of the few films of the era where you actually see black actors -– and revolutionary, not fascist. When Hammond goes to their camp in Baltimore, he declines secret service protection. Like a genuine leader, he actually listens to the people. We don’t want charity, they protest. We want work. Hammond’s solution, relief camps that employee military veterans to build public works, are a fictionalized dramatization of the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) Roosevelt would implement over the next few years.There’s also a great scene where Hammond looks out of the entrance to the White House and imagines a crowd of the unemployed singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic in Lafayette Park. It’s astonishing in its beauty and simplicity, immediately recalling what Pendy had remarked about Hammond’s “diving madness.”
“He’s so honest and so simple it almost makes him seem crazy, but look at the mess all the sane people have made of the world.”
The second story arc, which involves Nick Diamond, a greasy ethnic mobster originally named Anthony Brulewski, and clearly modeled on Al Capone, is much weaker. Whether he’s acting on instructions from Hearst, or simply following the novel too closely, La Cava, becomes more of a propagandist than an artist. By 1933, everybody was sick of Prohibition. It did nothing to stop alcoholism. It encouraged organized crime. It needed to go. President Hammond’s solution, to legalized alcohol and give the federal government a monopoly over its sale, and its tax revenues, enrages Diamond, who bombs a state liquor store, killing several people, and has a carload of his thugs drive by the White House and pepper it with machine gun fire. Pendy is wounded, not seriously, but seriously enough to give Hammond an excuse to go to war, and nominate Hartley Beekman as the head of a newly formed “Federal Police Force.” Does it promote fascism? Perhaps. The Federal Police Force seems closer to Hitler’s Brown Shirts or Mussolini’s Black Shirts than it does to the FBI – which is fascist enough as it is – and Nick Diamond is portrayed in a way that’s certainly anti-immigrant and borders on out and antisemitism, but it’s no more fascist propaganda than Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, John Milius’s Dirty Harry or any number of cops shows on television. The main problem is simply that it’s dramatically implausible. There’s no way Diamond would hold up in a warehouse and have his men fire on Hartley Beekman’s armored column, or actually believe that he’s going to get a fair trial when he knows Hammond’s already declared himself a dictator.
What partially saves the Nick Diamond section of Gabriel Over the White House is his summary execution. Diamond and a group of his men are lined up against a wall, dressed in white shirts and blindfolded, while a firing squad takes aim. As Hartley says “ready, aim, fire” the camera pans up to reveal New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It’s xenophobic as hell – Judson Hammond is reversing a process that never should have begun – that wave of Southern and Eastern European immigrants which spoiled his nice Anglo Saxon country – but it works. It’s a stark, breathtakingly simple expression of just how sick most Americans were of Prohibition and the organized criminals it made rich. It’s not propaganda for “law enforcement” the way De Palma’s The Untouchables so clearly is. Even though Franchot Tone is a terrible actor and comes off like such a smirking little preppy boy you almost root for Nick Diamond, Hartley Beekman is no J. Edgar Hoover, no career bureaucrat who plans on building a permanent federal police force. Being head of the federal police is a temp job. Get rid of the mobsters, avenge “Pendy,” then go home.
This would have been a great scene if La Cava had cast Jimmy Stewart instead of smirking little preppy Franchot Tone.
While it does quite vividly dramatize the bombing of Pearl Harbor eight years before it happens, the final story arc of Gabriel over the White House is not only the weakest dramatically, it’s flat out implausible. After Hammond discovers that the United States is a massive creditor nation, he summons the heads of state of Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, all of whom have defaulted on their wartime debts, onto the Presidential yacht to witness a demonstration. He repeats the demand that they pay the money they owe the United States. They refuse. So he re-stages Billy Mitchell’s 1921 sinking of the captured German Super Dreadnought the Ostfriesland. It’s a pretty effective bit of camerawork by Gregory La Cava. I can’t find anything written about how he did it on the Internet, but it looks as if he just filmed the first part of the scene in New York Harbor. He caught on film what looks to be a pair of Colorado-Class battleships, then switched to models to show their destruction. This cinematic bombing must have been even more jarring in 1933 than it is now. Bombing was fairly new back then, and the violence La Cava is able to express using a pair of plastic models and a few model planes hanging inside a Hollywood Studio is impressive indeed.
It’s also totally implausible. Neither the British nor the Japanese, both who had developed naval aviation to a point far beyond the Americans, would have been particularly impressed by the destruction of two old dreadnoughts. The Germans, in turn, who have never been a sea power, but who by 1933 were already rearming, would hardly have been so impressed by a display of American air power that they decided to stop their weapons program and cough up a few hundred million dollars to the United States government. Hammond’s antiwar speech, which is prescient in his argument that morality often doesn’t keep up with the pace of technology, is also hypocritical in the extreme. He’s preaching peace at a group of great western countries he’s simultaneously trying to bully with a display of American military power.
The original ending of Gabriel Over the White House was butchered at the request of Louis B. Mayer. In the lost director’s cut, Hammond comes back to his senses and tries to renounce everything he’s done since the concussion, but Pendy saves him, stealing his heart medicine so he dies before he can betray his own legacy. I don’t think the original footage is available — even the butchered version of the movie is difficult to find — but it’s just as well. The longer it goes on the more La Cava’s film loses steam. I doubt an extra five minutes would have saved it. In the end, Gabriel Over the White House is a dramatic and aesthetic failure that sacrifices itself as a film to make a political case for the coming New Deal. But by all means see it if you can find a copy, not only for the terrific early scenes of the Army of the Unemployed – which hint at a genuinely great film that was cut short to get the movie to the theaters for before Roosevelt took office – but for the sheer curiosity of the whole spectacle.
Note: I have purposefully avoided comparing William Randolph Hearst and President Judson Hammond to Donald Trump, but the parallels are obvious.