Gabriel Over The White House

The latest episode of the FilmCouch podcast features an in-depth look at an astounding movie called Gabriel Over the White House. The film was made in 1933 (in the heart of the Great Depression) and it tells the story of a newly elected President of the US, Judson Hammond. He’s not exactly a great leader. It’s implied that he’s somewhat corrupt, and he doesn’t seem to assert himself at all, instead just acting as a figurehead for the party (for example, he signs everything that comes across his desk without question). He seems to spend most of his time messing around with his secretary and giving nicknames to his subordinates. But then he has a sorta religious experience and becomes inspired to institute real change… and this is where things get really nutty.

I don’t really want to get into too much detail, but the movie is completely and totally absurd from this point on… and it’s stunning to watch. President Hammond essentially fires his entire cabinet because they disagree with his decisions, then institutes martial law, effectively making himself a dictator (how he manages this, I don’t know, but who the hell cares in a movie like this). He does all this so that he can implement a series of reforms that are eerily prophetic. He talks about stuff like repealing prohibition and nationalizing the business, forcing the nation’s unemployed back to work, and subsidizing farmers — all things that would happen in the following decades if not sooner (much of what he talks about prefigures the New Deal). Indeed, the film is surprisingly relevant even today, as he suggests things like putting a freeze on home foreclosures and injecting money into banks. Because this is a movie, we get some wonderful conflicts with a fictional gangster who, unhappy with the lift of prohibition, orders a drive-by shooting of the white house! The President’s response to the attack is equally crazy. And there’s lots of even nuttier stuff in the movie that I’m barely touching on…

For a film released in 1933, it’s surprisingly well made. The acting is great, particularly Walter Huston’s turn as the President. The movie rests on his shoulders as he spends most of the movie essentially speechifying and engaging in “straight talk.” There are a few unexpected visual effects that were actually convincing (something of a rarity for that era) as well.

I’m honestly kinda flabbergasted by this movie. It’s this unbelievable liberal authoritarian fantasy, apparently the brainchild of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who basically took the opportunity to go off on an insane political rant against political corruption and red tape. And as near as I can tell, the film is not a satire… it seems to actually take itself seriously. It’s tacky, arrogant, obnoxious and utterly riveting. I suppose I could have spent some time deconstructing the film, but I’m so dumbfounded by it that I don’t really know where to start. It clearly resonates with current events, but it just doesn’t compute. Really, it has to be seen to be believed. Despite its notoriety, it wasn’t very popular at the time of it’s release, and it hasn’t played much on TV since then. It experienced a brief resurgence on video, but quickly went out of print and isn’t even available on DVD. However, some enterprising film nerd has placed the entire film on YouTube, in a series of 9 parts (strangely, it’s subtitled in Spanish). If you don’t feel like sitting through the whole film, it’s definitely worth listening to the FilmCouch episode, as the guys spend a good amount of time humorously discussing the film and how it relates to history and current events (they also talk about W. and in a completely unrelated topic, there’s some discussion of the Watchmen movie too).

2 thoughts on “Gabriel Over The White House”

  1. Oh definitely. The movie was made during the limbo between the establishment of the Hays Code and the enforcement. It would be interesting to see what the Hays Code censors would have objected to. Everything the President does in the movie is technically “legal,” so it wouldn’t be seen as encouraging lawbreakers (indeed, the major lawbreaker in the film, Nick Diamond, is hunted down and shot before a firing squad (I guess this punishment, in itself, would have been subject to the Hays Code)). Another problem problem might have been the President’s relationship with his secretary, which is really only hinted at… and she eventually gets married to someone else anyway.

    This movie just floored me though. Some of the stories surrounding it are just as amazing… For instance, apparently Hearst sent the script to FDR before the election, and FDR made some notes which ended up making it into the film (which is perhaps why the film predicts the New Deal so well). It should be released on DVD or something. Seems like ideal Criterion Collection material…

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