Gabriel over the White House
Cast & Crew
Shortly after he is elected President of the United States, bachelor Judson C. Hammond hires Harley Beekman as his general secretary and longtime friend Pendola "Pendie" Molloy as his confidential secretary, and holds a press conference in the White House. When asked by reporters about the problems of unemployment, racketeering, foreign debt and hunger, Judson responds only with vague, optimistic platitudes, then announces that his answers are "not quotable." Disturbed by Judson's cavalier attitudes, Pendie gently tells her boss that he should take his duties more to heart and "do important things." Instead, Judson, under the influence of Jasper Brooks, his Secretary of State, continues his course of indifference and ignores the protests of John Bronson and his growing "army of the unemployed." Judson's attitudes change, however, when he is involved in a high-speed car accident and is plunged into a life-threatening coma. Although his doctors predict that he will die, Judson suddenly regains complete consciousness and spends two weeks in bed "thinking." When he finally emerges from his rooms, a thoughtful but energetic Judson orders Pendie to make contact with Bronson. To the surprise of his Cabinet officers, Judson defends Bronson and his right to march on Washington and fires Brooks when he challenges this new stand. Judson also changes his press policy, answering reporters' questions at length and allowing them to quote him for the first time. While the rejunevated Judson is busy implementing his new ideas, Antone Brilawksi, a notorious New York bootlegger and racketeer known as Nick Diamond, tries to bribe Bronson to halt his protest march to Washington because the presence of Bronson's camped "army" in the city distracts the local police from Diamond's illegal activities. When Bronson bravely refuses Diamond's bribe, he is shot and killed by Diamond's henchmen as he is leading his protest marchers out of the city. Against the wishes of his Secretary of War, who wants to send in troops to stop the march, Judson allows the protest to continue and even visits the marchers' camp to announce the creation of a federal "army of construction," which will employ thousands to build new roads and buildings. After Pendie confides in Beekman, with whom she has fallen in love, her belief that Judson has been inspired by the spirit of God's messenger, Archangel Gabriel, Judson demands the resignation of all his Cabinet members. Judson then addresses the Congress and, after requesting that a national state of emergency be declared, asks that Congress relinquish its power voluntarily to him. When various Congressmen accuse him of creating a dictatorship, Judson responds that his dictatorship is based on Thomas Jefferson's definition of democracy--"a government for the greatest good of the greatest number." Fed up with bureaucratic resistance, Judson declares martial law and uses his presidential powers to dismiss the Congress. As his first act under martial law, Judson undertakes to have the prohibition amendment repealed and calls Diamond to the White House. After Judson informs the gangster that the government is going to "muscle in" on the liquor selling "racket," Diamond orders a bomb attack on a government liquor store and tries to assassinate Judson. Outraged by Diamond's attack, in which Pendie is seriously wounded, the president assigns Beekman to oversee a task force that will eliminate the country's racketeers. Using tanks and machine guns, Beekman and his men force Diamond's gang out of their hideout and, after a military trial, execute them. Judson then deals with the problem of foreign debts by calling a conference on his presidential yacht and threatening various world leaders with American military build-up if they refuse to stop their own excessive military spending. By blowing up two American battleships in front of his peers, Judson demonstrates his commitment to disarmament and encourages his allies to sign a peace covenant and repay their foreign debts. After all of the world leaders sign the historic covenant, a weak and weary Judson puts his own name on the document, then, with his life's work done, dies.
C. Henry Gordon
Dr. William Axt
Gabriel Over the White House
Imagine this scenario if you can. The President of the United States 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. What sounds like a right-wing paranoid fantasy is actually the plot of Gabriel Over the White House, a political allegory that was one of the first films to openly address the problems resulting from the Great Depression such as unemployment, homeless people and the rising crime rate. You also won't see another Hollywood film in which our fearless leader is viewed by his constituents as either a madman or a messiah.
Filmed before Roosevelt took office as President of the United States, Gabriel Over the White House was a collaboration between producer Walter Wanger and publisher William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Studios, whose films were distributed by MGM. Hearst's political views were well known through the editorials he published in his own papers and when he read Rinehard, a novel by British novelist Thomas F. Tweed, Hearst knew he had found the perfect vehicle to express his views on the state of the nation. President Judson Hammond (played by Walter Huston in the film) is the total autocrat: he storms into the House of Representatives and declares a state of national emergency, convincing the lawmakers to grant him absolute power. Freely adapting Jefferson's concept of democracy, which was based on "the greatest good for the greatest number," President Hammond is able to smash through bureaucratic roadblocks, gun down gangsters without a trial, and bully the world into meeting his demands. By the end, he has solved the unemployment problem and enforced a worldwide disarmament but dies a martyr for his efforts. It's easy to see the appeal President Hammond had for an all-powerful newspaper tycoon like Hearst.
Louis B. Mayer, on the other hand, was a staunch Republican and was appalled by Gabriel Over the White House. "Put that picture in its can. Take it back and lock it up!" was the directive he reportedly gave Eddie Mannix, his top executive, after screening it for the first time. Mayer considered it an attack on President Hoover and demanded extensive retakes on the film before he would release it; the theory being that Hoover would be out of the White House by the time Mayer allowed the film to open theatrically.
Ironically, Gabriel Over the White House turned out to be one of the biggest box office hits of 1933; its topical subject matter obviously spoke to audiences who felt the need for strong leadership after the economic chaos of the Great Depression. It also sparked some lively debates among film critics in its day. The New York Times wrote "It is a curious, somewhat fantastic and often melodramatic story, but nevertheless one which at this time is very interesting." The reviewer for The Nation said "Gabriel Over the White House is probably the most important bad film of the year. It is important because it marks the first attempt by Hollywood producers to exploit the current popular interest in social and economic ideas...Its all-too-evident purpose is to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country." He also added that it "has about as much reality as a diagram on a blackboard."
One thing almost every critic agreed on, however, was Walter Huston's mesmerizing performance as President Hammond; his metamorphosis from a party stooge who enjoys detective magazines to a messianic leader is completely credible, despite its outlandish conception. At this point in his career, however, Huston felt that he was wasting his talent on inferior films and that MGM undervalued him since they often lent him out to other studios like RKO. Gabriel Over the White House offered Huston a meaty role for a change and proved to be a turning point for the actor. Within three years, he would be named Best Actor of the year by the New York Film Critics for Dodsworth (1936) and go on to win Oscar nominations for his work in Dodsworth, All That Money Can Buy (1941), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Still, Huston was always partial to Gabriel Over the White House since it ended up securing him an invitation to the White House for drinks with President Roosevelt, who was a big fan of the film.
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: Carey Wilson, Bertram Bloch, based on the novel Rinehard by T.F. Tweed
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Basil Wrangell
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Walter Huston (President Judson C. Hammond), Karen Morley (Pendola 'Pendie' Molloy), Franchot Tone (Hartley 'Beek' Beekman), Arthur Byron (Secretary of State Jasper Brooks), Dickie Moore (Jimmy Vetter), C. Henry Gordon (Nick Diamond), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. H. L. Eastman).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford
Gabriel Over the White House
The onscreen credit for the author of the novel was "Anonymous," but Thomas Frederick Tweed is listed in the movie's copyright entry.
The protest march of the "army of the unemployed" in the story was no doubt a reference to the protest march of the "Bonus Army" in 1932, where veterans of WWI marched on Congress to demand payment of promised bonuses. They were attacked with tanks and tear gas by the U.S. Army led by General Douglas MacArthur on orders of President Herbert Hoover. William Randolph Hearst, who railed against that action in his newpapers, saw to it that the President in this film helped the people. Meanwhile, Louis B. Mayer, a staunch Republican, delayed the movie until Hoover was out of office.
A scene for the movie depicting bullets fired at the President's car was deleted following the attempted assassination of President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Although onscreen credits list the author of the film's source as "anonymous," Thomas Tweed is mentioned in the copyright entry and other sources as the novel's author. According to New York Times, because Tweed was British, the American edition of his novel was partly rewritten by John Billings, an American. It is not known on which edition the film was based. The title of the British edition of Tweed's book was Rinehard. Although he is not credited on the film, Gabriel over the White House was producer Walter Wanger's first assignment for M-G-M. Daily Variety's preview running time of 102 minutes suggests that the picture was cut significantly before its general release.
The film's protest march of the "army of the unemployed" was no doubt inspired by the "Bonus March" of 1932. In the summer of 1932, a group of 12,000-14,000 impoverished World War I veterans, known as the "Bonus Army," marched on Washington, D.C. to induce the United States Congress to appropriate funds for the immediate payment of bonuses that had been promised to them as a reward for their military service. When Congress refused to pay, half of the marchers went home, while the other half was driven out of Washington by the U.S. Army, who, under orders from President Herbert Hoover and led by Douglas MacArthur, used tear gas and tanks. In February 1933, while this film was being shot, Prohibition was repealed through the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.
In a letter dated January 29, 1933 contained in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Dr. James Wingate, Director of Studio Relations of the AMPP, suggested to M-G-M production executive Irving G. Thalberg that in the script "every effort be made to stress the constructive elements." He continues: "Even the preliminary portrayal of distressing conditions should be treated in such a way as not to over-emphasize organized discontent. We of course feel nobody...would want to do anything that might foment violence against the better elements of established government...." Wingate also wrote to Will H. Hays, president of the MPDDA, in January and February 1933 to complain that the script contained "dangerous material," in particular its depiction of the "dismissal of Congress and assumption of dictatorship by the President, [and] the institution of court martials in peace time." Wingate felt that the "portrayal of a Congress so ineffective that it has to be dismissed by a president, might possibly lead toward the enactment of legislation adversely affecting the motion picture industry." Although Wingate later assured Hays that changes had been made in the script, he wrote to M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer on February 16, 1933 and expressed concern that because of the attempted assassination of President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt the day before by Giuseppe Zangara, a scene in the script in which the President is shot at while riding in his automobile should be rewritten. That scene was eventually altered, and after several other minor changes were made by the studio, Wingate complimented Thalberg on his "excellent picture."
Modern sources add the following information about the production: William Randolph Hearst, whose money backed M-G-M's Cosmopolitan brand, wrote some of Huston's presidential speeches in the film. Some modern sources claim that Hearst was responsible for the premise of the picture and used his influence to have his political views presented on screen. Louis B. Mayer, a staunch Republican, did not read the script prior to production and was dismayed when he became aware of its content, as he believed it was an indictment of Hoover and an endorsement of recently elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. By demanding retakes, Mayer delayed the film's release until after Hoover's exit from the White House. Modern sources also note that the British release print contained a different ending from American prints. In the British version, according to modern sources, Huston's character is shown as a dangerous schizophrenic, capable of doing good deeds only in certain phases of his illness.