Friday, January 20, 2017

REVIEW: Gabriel Over the White House - One Bizarre Film!

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) is a movie I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time, and the transition of presidential power we are seeing today brought it back to mind and seemed a perfect time to finally do so.

I caught this film on the Turner Classic Movies channel many years ago. A website overview accurately describes it as a "you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it movie” and I have to say it’s probably one of the most bizarre, batsh*t craziest films I’ve ever seen. This is a film that I pretty much watched with my jaw dropped virtually the whole time.

It’s been many years since I saw the film so I did some research to refresh my memory about its storyline, and, giving credit where credit is due, I quote extensively from those plot summaries below.

Set in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, Walter Huston plays newly elected President Judson Hammond, a corrupt slacker and product of cronyism,

who is involved in a serious car accident and, while recovering, receives a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. Forced to acknowledge the desperate state of the country due to his poor leadership, the President vows to set the nation right, fires the crooked cabinet members who got him elected and transforms himself into an all-powerful dictator who wages war against organized crime, all in a determined bid to restore social order in America. [The film is a] political allegory that was one of the openly address the problems resulting from the Great Depression such as unemployment, homeless people and the rising crime rate. [from TCM] 
He becomes a champion of the working man, redirecting the angry unemployed toward rebuilding the country on the government’s nickel. Hammond becomes an enemy to crooked men of all stripes, having them removed from positions of power, and in some cases, tried and executed by makeshift military tribunals. Meanwhile, on the global stage the president uses the United States’ military might to persuade the nations of the world to pay off their war debts and sign disarmament agreements. Hammond accomplishes all this by declaring a state of national emergency that allows him to bypass Congress and the courts.... [from A.V. Club]

The clip below from the film features one of the film’s most crazy, surreal scenes, where a bunch of gangsters are tried by a military tribunal and immediately executed!

The film was released by MGM and co-produced by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day (and perhaps most notoriously, the model for Charles Foster Kane, the titular character of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) and released just as Franklin Roosevelt was entering his first year in office.

At its core, the film is essentially a call to the new president to assume full totalitarian powers in order to restore prosperity, security and ensure world peace. In case you think I’m exaggerating, the film includes the President dissolving Congress when they try to impeach him for overreaching, deputizing the army to act on his orders, and utilizing star chambers not only to prosecute criminals but to also immediately execute them (as seen above)!

As noted by Noel Murray at the A.V. Club website, the film
seems like it should be a cautionary tale, warning American moviegoers of what’ll happen if they’re not more diligent about the leaders they elect. But that’s not what Hearst had in mind at all; rather, he wanted this movie to show how great America could be if, to quote one of Hammond’s lackeys, we could “cut through the red tape of legal procedures and get back to first principles.” Throughout the film, the story keeps seeming like it’s about to take a turn that never comes, to show how Hammond’s un-democratic defense of our democracy is misguided.
I should add that the film ends on as bizarre a note as any random scene you'll find in the film (but no spoilers here!)

Ironically, once Roosevelt got into office and began pursuing a policy at odds with Hearst's values and interests (Hearst was particularly opposed to the New Deal, though this film is full of the president enacting such policies), Hearst turned on Roosevelt. (It’s been noted, that Hearst had a predilection for fascism, as this film amply demonstrates.)

Typical for this day and age, I came across message boards about this film where some posters tried to paint it as the product and fantasy of left- or right-wing propaganda/fantasy. In fact, as Murray notes, the movie is a “curious mix of left-wing piety and right-wing law-and-order rhetoric.” Regardless, it's good to know that both sides think the movie's premise went a little too far!

People can read into it what they like, but the film essentially presents the case for enacting totalitarian rule in the United States—a message that this film ultimately fails miserably at since every act by Hammond and endorsed by Hearst and the film's makers, are all clearcut violations of the Constitution and due process, let alone American tradition, values and democracy. (I should add that the filmmakers further unwittingly undercut Hammond by making his transformation the result of a visit from an angel, which in my mind calls into question his very sanity and fitness for office. A friend also reminded me that it's subtly implied in the film that Hammond has been actually "possessed" by the angel, which still isn't very comforting given the outcome.)

Fortunately, as reaction to the film even in its day demonstrates, people were troubled and appalled with the film's message. At the same time, though unintended, the film exposes the dark side of populism. As history has continued to show (and as we still see today), in times of fear and uncertainty, people the world over—even people of influence like Hearst—are often willing to give up some freedoms and allow a strongman to rule—until, of course, that dictator's promises do not pan out or make things worse. By then, however, it's often too late.

NOTE: The TCM website notes that the film will be aired next on April 6, 2017 at 7:45 a.m.

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