not in our stars, but in ourselves
This is one of those films that, when it’s all over, all you can say to yourself is this: what the holy hell did I just watch? Perhaps that’s just my reaction, but Gabriel Over the White House (1933) has a richly deserved reputation as an oddity among oddities. Many Pre-Code films are sexy, racy, amoral, etc., but a fair number of them are politically incendiary as well. Gabriel tends very strongly toward the latter, with nary a whiff of the former. With a title referring to an archangel, maybe that’s not such a surprise.
The film opens with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston). He seems like a good-natured sort of guy, happy to party and hobnob and do whatever “the party” asks of him. He thanks a seemingly senior politician or lobbyist or something for all those votes from Alabama; the other man laughs and says, “Wait ’til you get the bill for ’em!”, and then Hammond laughs too. He likes playing with his nephew and with his private secretary, Pendola Molloy (Karen Morley). He doesn’t like being quoted in newspapers or paying attention to big issues – the biggest of which is the Great Depression. In a foolish stunt, he crashes his car and sustains a major concussion. After his injury, he seems to be a changed man. No longer the party puppet, no longer the weak-willed and -minded playboy, he transforms into a ferocious man of action. He fires his cabinet. He declares martial law. He creates a new army out of formerly unemployed men. He threatens other world leaders with annihilation if they don’t pay their debts to the U.S. and pledge world peace.
The Library of Congress summed things up pretty well: “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.” Oops.
Gabriel is blatantly in favor of a benevolent dictatorship, no question. It was co-produced by none other than that not-so-benevolent dictator, William Randolph Hearst, and received artistic input from him and from Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt had just been elected when Gabriel was in production, but he supposedly took time out of his insanely busy schedule to suggest some of the New Deal-like initiatives that Hammond undertakes. He, too, liked the idea of a benevolent dictatorship. As far-reaching as Roosevelt’s reforms were, they weren’t quite as totalitarian as Hammond’s.
Overall, I’d say that Gabriel is (a) batshit crazy, and (b) pretty amateurish. I have checked and re-checked, and apparently this really is a production of MGM – not RKO. Could have fooled me. MGM was supposed to be the studio of glamour, prestige, high gloss, big stars – indeed, more stars than in the heavens, as the publicists used to crow. This film, however, feels distinctly Poverty Row. That just may be what happens when you have two non-filmmakers with strong opinions (Hearst and Roosevelt, in case you’re not keeping up) sticking their noses in where they don’t belong. In any event, it’s not exactly an artistic tour de force. With the exception of Huston, the acting is pretty poor; the direction is about as skillful as mine would be; and the overuse of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other references to Lincoln are awfully tired.
Now, dear reader(s), I do hate to get political, but it’s hard not to watch Gabriel Over the White House – bizarre, amateurish, and pro-dictatorship as it is – and not think of Barack Obama. I like Obama. I really do. But he has been a good deal weaker than I would have hoped. Especially now, in his second term. What does he have to fear? Why not do crazy socialist/dictatorial (what a world, when they end up being the same thing) things – such as dissolving the malfunctioning Congress – for the good of the people? Why not use a display of muscle to ensure that no one fucks with us? I catch myself thinking these things, and wondering how I turned pro-fascist. In the face of the government’s apparent erectile dysfunction, it’s hard not to want to see it man up. Alas, the result usually isn’t world peace or prosperity. It’s usually even more oppression, depression, imprisonment, misery, agony, etc., etc., etc…. Bummer. Maybe we’ll just have to wait for another Batman reboot.