Gabriel (and Bagel) Over the White House (1933)

Welcome, my Avocados, to the fourth installment of Bagel Over the White House, my ongoing series focused on American politics on film and behind the scenes. Today, I finally get to the movie whose name inspired the title of this column, a bizarre aberration from the Hollywood liberal consensus known as Gabriel Over the White House. Any resemblance to actual presidents, living or dead, or actual populist dictatorships is purely coincidental.

The year is 1933. America is at the height of the Great Depression, as outgoing President Hoover has failed to do anything substantial to stop skyrocketing poverty and unemployment. Veterans of the Great War, desperate for jobs and the bonus they were promised was coming in 1945, have marched on Washington in the hopes that they will be given these checks right now to save their starving families. This Bonus Army, as the press has dubbed it, may very well push the country to the brink of revolt. But a new president with a familiar name has just entered office, and he brings with him the possibility of hope for the American people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt will eventually guide the nation through this dark time and even more dark times to come, but his presidency will not be without its critics.

Fascism is on the rise all over Europe in response to this massive economic crisis. Wary of its potential to take root at home under this charismatic and popular new leader, opposing politicians skeptical of FDR are quick to sound the alarm when any of his New Deal demands are pushed through with less-than-total respect for the idea of government by the people, for the people. Perhaps the reason these skeptics are so concerned about a dictator president is because they saw Gabriel Over the White House, an unapologetically pro-FDR, pro-fascist film released shortly after he took office.

Our film today is the story of fictional US President Judd Hammond, who has just taken office at the beginning of the movie. He appears to be a typical party crony, heavily modeled after the corrupt Warren G. Harding. He has no clear plan for curing the Depression which is afflicting his country, he describes unemployment and rising gang activity as local problems which local leaders are responsible for, and he sees himself as nothing more than a servant to the party elites who elected him and who now populate his cabinet. Hammond is played by Walter Huston, fresh off the title role in D.W. Griffith’s hagiographic Abraham Lincoln and surely cast to draw parallels to that great president of yore. His indifference to the plight of the impoverished veterans preparing to march on Washington is emphasized by an early scene in which he ignores a radio address from their leader in favor of playing with his nephew and picking out his outfit for tomorrow. In a word, he sucks.

Hammond, overgrown child that he is, celebrates his election with what appears to be a joyride in which he gleefully outruns the press by driving almost 100 miles an hour in a period-appropriate car which looks like it would burst into flame at about 35. Of course, this ends with him going off-road and falling into a coma from the ensuing accident. His doctors are certain that he will never wake up, so the rest of the White House staff, including his personal secretary, Beekman, and his Secretary of Sexy, Ms. Molloy, prepare themselves for the presidency to change hands. But with a bit of divine intervention, melodramatically represented by a mysterious breeze through the window, Hammond wakes up.

Huston as Hammond and soon-to-be blacklist victim Karen Morley as Ms. Molloy

But the Judd Hammond who emerges from that coma is not the Judd Hammond who fell into it. The angel Gabriel has visited the man and filled him with the Holy Spirit (and a bit of Lincoln for good measure) in what is perhaps the most literal example of deus ex machina ever filmed. He immediately renounces the crony politics that got him into the White House and begins making changes to his policies and his cabinet that will truly help the American people. At first, many of these changes must have seemed unequivocally good to movie goers of the time. He fires several of his cabinet members, removing some of the corrupt party elites who Americans at the time would likely have blamed for having caused the Depression in the first place. Had the words “Drain the swamp!” flashed across the screen during this scene, it would not have felt out of place. Hammond also goes about setting up some programs which echo those of the New Deal; his proposed “Army of Construction,” meant to employ, feed, and house all of those angry vets and their families, is reminiscent of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. All great stuff which will surely help cure the Depression.

Soon enough though, we begin to see the dark side of Hammond’s reformed self, even if the movie seems content to ignore these upsetting implications entirely. Congress is not behind all this sudden change Hammond wishes to enact. For some reason, they have doubts that the reckless behavior of a concussed man who just almost killed himself for no reason and is now acting like a completely different person will be the best way to fix America. Hammond prepares to address them with a speech he does not remember writing, the movie evidently implying that God Himself has taken up part-time speechwriting on behalf of the humble American public. The scene in which he finds this speech ends on a lingering shot of a bust of Lincoln for good measure. Undeterred by their objections, Hammond declares a national emergency and effectively dissolves Congress so that he can push through his agenda unfettered.

Despite their very reasonable wariness about Hammond, Congress is painted as the villain here, a collection of obstructionist old fogeys who wouldn’t know a good president if he smacked them over the head. Gabriel Over the White House is wholly unconcerned with respecting the bounds of the Constitution so long as somebody does something about the unemployment rate. The real FDR, as much as he did push those bounds from time to time, certainly never got anywhere near this far, and the movie ends up doing him a disservice in assuming that he would.

A historic moment: the nation’s first brain damaged president addresses Congress

Having dissolved Congress with overwhelming popular support, Hammond prepares to tackle the second major problem facing 1930s America: mobsters. The mob fills the role of the easily-blamed evil force which fascists so often rely on to drum up populist support (see also: immigrants, Muslims, Jews). Seeing as this is a Hollywood film and an unabashed piece of propaganda, Gabriel Over the White House makes this enemy even more cartoonishly evil by having mob leader Nick Diamond pull off drive-by shootings on the leader of the veterans’ march and the White House itself. Presumably, the White House did have less security in those days, but an unmarked car driving directly up to the building and raining bullets through the glass front door feels a tad improbable. Ms. Molloy, her evil feminine wiles having been rejected by the reformed Hammond, is now shacking up with Beekman instead, because I guess that’s all the movie’s only female character is good for. She is injured in the attack, and so Beekman is promoted from administrative assistant to head of the secret police and tasked with hunting down Diamond. He does this so quickly and with such ease that one wonders why it took so long to catch this guy before convicting him through an obvious show trial and executing him by firing squad. It’s just that easy, folks.

With America basically completely fixed in what seems to be a matter of days, Hammond now takes his ambitions global. He assembles a group of world leaders, demonstrates American military might to them by blowing up two battleships, and unsubtly hints that they should disarm and pay back all of their war debts if they don’t want that shit to happen to them. World peace too can be just that easy when you elect the right man to the presidency. As the leaders of all the world’s countries gather at the White House to sign a historic global disarmament treaty which will usher in a millennium of peace and prosperity and give everyone a million dollars and free blowjobs for life, Hammond collapses. This movie being extremely predictable, it must end by making a martyr of Hammond right at his moment of triumph, just as Lincoln before him. He dies, and the world mourns its savior. In the end, all it took to solve all the world’s problems was tossing the entire Constitution in the garbage.

“My only regret… is that I didn’t force anyone to quarter a soldier”

The unmistakable fascism of this film is no mistake. It received a large portion of its financial backing, along with some creative input, from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the populist egomaniac and part-time castle architect who inspired the titular Citizen Kane. MGM was wary of even releasing the film, though studio head Louis B. Mayer apparently only learned of how pro-dictatorship it really was when he attended a preview screening just prior to its release. The America of 1933 was flirting with fascism as a solution to its economic woes just as many other countries were at the time. After years of hands-off leaders allowing corrupt business to do as it pleased, a leader who took charge and got things done without all that silly politicking and Constitution-following might have seemed very attractive. If any of this is sounding familiar, you’re probably a person living in the year 2019.

Hammond’s savior narrative and fascist tendencies echo Trump and many of the similarly far-right leaders who have taken power in the Western world recently, right down to declaring a national emergency to get legislation passed. As much as a film with these leanings seems like an impossible relic of a time long ago, the atmosphere in which it was made is not unlike the one we find ourselves in now. It’s hard to say exactly what saved us from ourselves back then. Perhaps America’s dedication to the principles of Jeffersonian democracy was too strong to allow a fascist into power, but maybe it was just because the economy turned around and we figured we didn’t need one anymore. Debate amongst yourselves whether there was an easy solution to defeating fascism back then which we can call back into play now, but let one thing be agreed on by all: Gabriel Over the White House is a piece of far-right trash.