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Gabriel Over the White House

Posted on the 02 March 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Gabriel Over the White HouseWhat happens when you blend anger at the Great Depression, New Deal idealism and William Randolph Hearst's politics? You get Gabriel Over the White House (1933), which unequivocally endorses fascism. Too bad Gregory La Cava's film offers little beyond its curious message.
President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) is a glad-handed conservative with no interest in governing. Things change after a car accident; upon awakening, Hammond is reborn an idealist. He cracks down on gangsters, reaches out to the poor and dissolves the government to revive America. His assistant Beekman (Franchot Tone) and mistress Pendola (Karen Morley) suspect Godly inspiration.
No modern viewer can watch Gabriel Over the White House without cringing. Hammond, invoking God and Thomas Jefferson, fires his cabinet and purges Congress before unleashing the Army on bootleggers. Not content with internal oppression, Hammond bullies other countries into paying war debts through a show of military force. He confronts an ersatz Bonus Army not with troops, but conscripting them into government service. The film's a madman's vision of America, perfected through divine dictatorship.
Gabriel seems insane today, but it's certainly representative of its time. Herbert Hoover's dithering during the Depression, universal poverty and bootlegging inspired fear of failed capitalism and democratic decadence. Franklin Roosevelt (who endorsed the movie) certainly wasn't above authoritarian measures, from Supreme Court packing to interning Japanese-Americans. Many Americans, despairing of democracy, longed for a homegrown Mussolini or Lenin to right things.
Which doesn't make Gabriel Over the White House palatable. The film's so banal, from the bland acting to uninspired set pieces and stilted speechmaking, that it can't be conventionally enjoyed. Rather, it captures a moment when American newspapers proclaimed themselves "For Dictatorship if Necessary," and Winston Churchill could call Adolf Hitler "a man who restored honor and peace of mind to the Great Germanic nation."

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