Gabriel Over the White House (1933)


USA. 1933.


Director – Gregory LaCava, Screenplay – Carey Wilson, Based on the Novel by Anonymous, Additional Dialogue – Bertram Bloch, Photography (b&w) – Bert Glennon, Music – Dr William Axt, Art Direction – Cedric Gibbons. Production Company – Cosmopolitan Productions


Walter Huston (President Judson Hammond), Karen Morley (Pendola Molloy), Franchot Tone (Hartly Beekman), C. Henry Gordon (Nick Diamond), David Landau (John Bronson)


Judson Hammond becomes the new President of the USA. However, once in Oval Office, Hammond dismisses the pressing issues of mass unemployment and rampant racketeering as merely ‘local problems’. Hammond is then caught in a car crash. He comes around from this changed and starts making radical changes – enlisting the unemployed into an army to rebuild industry, using tanks and troops to stop racketeers and executing them in summary court martials. He then starts to mobilise the American Navy and threatens war unless hypocritical European nations repay war debts.

Gabriel Over the White House is one of the most amazing artefacts to have emerged in the video era. The film was little seen when it came out and prints were out of general circulation for many years – it, for example, rarely screens on tv. The film’s notoriety as a political fable grew in infamy. Seeing it is a truly unique experience.

Gabriel Over the White House was produced by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst – the same real-life figure that became the model for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). The film is almost a dramatised political campaign speech. It sits right atop the major issues of the Depression era – unemployment and homelessness, Prohibition bootlegging and mobsters. It is a fantasy of a desire for ruthlessly decisive action to solve these sweeping problems. (This was made before Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, and uncannily prefigured many things that Roosevelt adopted as President, albeit less extreme). The President is initially portrayed as a flabby politician who ignores the pressing problems until an accident and the ambiguous suggestion of angelic intervention. It is what he he becomes after that point that makes Gabriel Over the White House so amazing (and notorious). Newly reformed, he initiates martial law; fires his weak-minded congress; nationalises bootlegging; mobilises the army against mobsters, court martials them before a military tribunal and sentences them to execution before firing squad – even admittedly without any evidence.

It is when Gabriel Over the White House finally starts to take on US foreign relations that it gains a spectacular tackiness, seeming to embody the most obnoxious attitudes of American imperialist bombast, wherein the US builds up a massive Naval power (the scenes of which contain an interesting early prediction of an Air Force of bombers), all to scare other nations into paying outstanding war debts. “The United States must have the greatest Navy in the world because we want world peace,” The President says at one point. (Clearly, US financial needs are equal to world peace – which these days may actually be closer to the truth that one thinks). What is alarming about this is that when a country like Germany, which in actuality ended up being financially crippled into massive inflation by war debts (all of which created the conditions that allowed Adolf Hitler to rise to power), objects to this, it is dismissed as being no more than a cowardly bad debtor. A truly unique film.

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