Film Review: Gabriel Over The White House (dir. by Gregory La Cava)

This is a strange one.

Released in 1933, Gabriel Over The White House is an unapologetic work of propaganda.  It tells the story of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston), a likable but unimpressive political hack who seems to be blissfully unconcerned with the fact that, as the film begins, the country is mired in an economic depression, crime is out of control (largely as the result of the prohibition of alcohol), and the world is teetering on the edge of another world war. 

As the result of a suspicious car crash, Hammond spends several days in a coma.  When Hammond finally wakes up, he is a changed man.  Not only is he personally more aggressive but he now sometimes seems to be listening to a voice that only he can hear.  His secretaries even catch Hammond apparently talking to himself.  A lot of people would probably suggest that this indicates that Hammond may be going crazy but, in this film, they instead speculate that perhaps he’s talking to (and taking his orders from) the angel who is responsible for bringing him out his coma.  “Gabriel over the White House,” as one of them puts it.

Whether as a result of divine guidance or his own personal psychosis, Hammond quickly sets out to solve the country’s problems by setting himself up as a dictator.  He declares martial law, dissolves Congress, and announces that, from now on, all laws will be made by him.  Instead of legalizing alcohol, he announces that only the government will be allowed to sell it and he deals with poverty by redistributing everyone else’s money.  He also starts a new national police force  that arrests any and all dissenters.  These dissenters are charged with treason and tried by a military tribunal.  Those found guilty are immediately executed.  While delivering one guilty verdict, Judge Franchot Tone takes the time to praise President Hammond for suspending all legal rights.

Here’s the thing that makes this film so different and disturbing.  The movie is totally and completely on the side of President Hammond.  Walter Huston plays the role with a Lincolnesque sort of gravity and the film’s supporting cast spends most of their time assuring us that things have never been better than they are under Judson Hammond’s dictatorship.  In short, this is an American film that says that what the country needs is a dictator who will unite the country by blaming every problem on one group of scapegoats and execute anyone who shows the slightest hint of dissent.

(Even more interestingly, Gabriel Over The White House premiered the same year that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.)

This being an election year, it’s tempting to try to draw some sort of parallel between Gabriel Over The White House’s pro-dictatorship message and our own current political situation.  That’s especially true for someone, like me, who naturally distrusts any type of authority.  And I have to admit that, as I watched the film, I did find myself comparing the fictional President Hammond to both a certain real-life president and a certain presidential candidate who, like their cinematic counterpart, often seems to be rather smug in their belief in their own moral superiority. 

But, to be honest, it’s difficult for me to compare Gabriel Over The White House to our current situation because Gabriel Over The White House is so heavy-handed and just so weird that it’s difficult to take seriously.  It’s not so much the idea that a President would become a dictator as much as it’s the fact that, with the exception of a few millionaires and a few bootleggers, nobody else in the film seems to be too concerned about this.  This is a propaganda film.  There’s no room for ambiguity and that lack of ambiguity makes it difficult to take the film seriously as anything other than just wish-fulfillment on that part of elitists who are sick of having to deal with the opinions of those outside of their social circle.

Even while advocating the type dictatorship that would soon be epitomized by the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, Gabriel Over The White House was one of the many pacifist-themed films that were released between the two world wars.  We’ve grown so used to the idea of the world being perpetually at war that it’s easy to forget that, long ago, the world was actually so horrified by the first World War that a lot of very serious, powerful, and intelligent people dedicated themselves to trying to figure out a way to ensure that there would never be another one.  Just as films today are obsessed with environmentalism, the films of this earlier period were obsessed with world peace.  While some films advocated world government and many attempted to recreate the horrors of World War I as the ultimate deterrent, Gabriel Over The White House might be unique as one of the only American films to suggest that world peace could best be achieved by dictatorship.

(It’s interesting to compare these old pacifist films — even vaguely disturbing ones like Gabriel Over The White House — to the current political climate in the United States, where our leaders brag about personally choosing who to kill from week to week.) 

As I stated at the start of this review, Gabriel Over The White House is a strange film.  In fact, it’s one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.  It’s also an invaluable resource for anyone who is fascinated with history.  It’s a true look into the psyche of a proud nation that’s confidence had been shaken by the twin calamities of war and economic depression.  Watching a film like this, which seems so desperate to try to convince us that not only can the world’s problems be solved but that they can be solved by following a set of very specific steps, it’s a little easier to understand how desperate and shaken people can give up their freedom to a dictator who seems to say all the right things.

Gabriel Over The White House is not the easiest film to see put it pops up on TCM occasionally.  (That’s how I saw it.)  It’s a film so strange that it simply has to be seen.

Which Way Forward For The “Batman” Movie Franchise? Take Eight : Finally, The Story Begins!

So here we are, after seven posts setting up background, detail, etc., and we’re finally ready to begin exploring the (admittedly skeletal) plot structure I have in place for our new Detroit-filmed, more-emphasis-on-the-detective-and-heroic-aspects-of-the-character Bat-trilogy, which we’re (tentatively, at any rate) simply titling, in succession, Batman IBatman II, and Batman III.

But first a word about that classic “Legend Of The Batman” panel “by” Bob Kane reproduced above. Like all the classic early Bat-stories, it was drawn by Kane, but the story and all the concepts behind it are the work of comics writer Bill Finger, who Kane conspired with DC management with to completely screw out of his co-creator’s claim to the Batman character. If you want to know how complete and thorough-going was finger’s contribution to the Caped Crusader, consider not only that by most reputable accounts he created Gotham City, The Joker, and Robin, but that when Kane first approached Finger with his idea for a new comics character, he called him — I shit you not — “Birdman,” and wanted him to dress as, no surprise, a bird of some sort. That whole bat idea? It was all Finger’s. And for all his troubles he died dead broke, buried in an unmarked grave, while Kane went on to make millions, and DC billions, off his ideas. So it’s to the immortal, yet criminally unsung, memory of Bill Finger that I dedicate my own admittedly completely unsolicited and sure-to-be-unread-by-anyone-who-could-ever-do-anything-about-them ideas here. Unlike Warners, DC, and Bob Kane himself, at least I have the decency to admit from the outset that none of the work I’m doing here would be possible without the truly mighty imaginings of the late, great Bill Finger. He is the giant the rest of us stand on the shoulders of.

All that aside, fear not, as we’ve already established we’re still talking about a “soft” reboot here that doesn’t concentrate itself terribly heavily on Batman’s origins, although the story does take place early in his career. I just thought for a visual accompaniment to the text here we may as well begin at the character’s beginnings — but fear not, the overall “plan,” such as it is, to “play down” the origin aspects of the story remains in place. And so, without any further ado, here’s how I think I’d begin the initial pre-credits sequence of our hypothetical Batman I 

We’re on the set of a daytime news/chat-type show called “Gotham City Today” or somesuch, with two presenters, one male and one female. The female presenter launches into the top news stories from overnight, the first being that the so-called “Bat vigilante” has stuck again, this time delivering the sixth of seven of Gotham’s most notorious reputed “crime lords” into police custody, along with incriminating computer files that should , in theory, give new district attorney Harvey dent more than enough ammunition to prosecute the guy. Speculation is rampant as to the identity of the “Bat-vigilante,” with most wondering whether or not he’s either a surce within the police department itself or a member of some computer-hacking collective a la “Anonymous,” so complete and thorough are the dossiers he’s been handing over along with the crooks themselves.

The anchorwoman’s male counterpart then cuts in with something along the lines of “but one menace he’s been unable to deliver over to the law is the notorious cat-burglar who’s been prowling Gotham’s rooftops at night, cleaning out the safes of one penthouse apartment after another. She apparently struck again last evening, looting the residence of our own station owner of well over one million dollars in cash, jewelry, and other valuables, leaving only her trademark claw-scratch on one of the paintings in his home.”

Back to the female anchor who assures audiences that both the bat-vigilante and the cat-burglar are priorities two and three of new police commissioner Jim Gordon and the aforementioned DA Harvey Dent, right behind the city’s sole remaining crime kingpin, one Vincent Lucchesi (apologies to any and all Italian readers for making the head mobster in town of Italain origin, I’m just not creative enough to come up with anything better, I honestly mean no offense), before segueing into something along the lines of ” — and on a lighter note, all of Gotham is abuzz with the imminent return home on Friday of our city’s most fortunate son, and certain to be most eligible bachelor, Bruce Wane, after twelve years spent abroad. Where all has he been and what’s he been doing? Why is he coming home now? And what are his plans for the future? We’re pleased to say that all that and more will be discussed when yours truly sits down with Mr. Wayne for an exclusive interview here on Gotham City Today next Monday morning.”

And with that little “teaser” in place, we roll our opening credits —

Hopefully that should whet your appetites to keep reading every bit as much as it will whet the audience’s to find out exactly what’s going on here, so I’ll leave it at that for now, but rest assured, I’ll be back tomorrow with more, and all should hopefully become apparent!

Scenes That I Love: Good Time Music!

For the past few days, I’ve been sharing some of my favorite scenes from two of my favorite movies from the 90s — The Brady Bunch Sequel (1995) and A Very Brady Sequel (1996).  I’m sure that some people would say that devoting that much time to two films that spoof a terrible show is a bit excessive.

But you know what?

Excess is underrated.

Before I close the book on this celebration of the Brady Bunch films, I wanted to share one more scene that I love.  In this scene from A Very Brady Sequel, the Bradys remind us that flying should be fun!

Enjoy some good time music!

The Daily Grindhouse: Chappaqua (dir. by Conrad Rooks)

At the risk of sounding like every other girl who has ever sat in a corner of Starbucks and spent a few hours writing emo poetry in her Hello Kitty notebook, I love the Beat Generation.  I’ve read all of Jack Kerouac’s novels, Allen Ginsberg’s poems, and William S. Burroughs’ cut-ups.  I’ve even tried to listen to the music of the Fugs and I just recently finished reading the very first Beat novel, John Clellon Holmes’ Go.  It was my interest in the Beats that led to me discovering Chappaqua.

Originally filmed in 1966 and released a year later, Chappaqua was produced, written, and directed by Conrad Rooks.  The son of the president of Avon, Rooks had a lot of money and a lot of addictions.  In 1962, Rooks checked into a European clinic where he detoxed and claimed to have been cured of his drug dependency through something called “sleep therapy.”  Chappaqua is based on his experiences both as a drug addict and a patient and, since Rooks was something of a hanger-on in the American underground art scene, the final film featured cameos from such counterculture figures as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

In the film, Rooks plays himself, a young man who is usually seen wandering aimlessly from one location to another.  The film is edited in such a way that you’re never quite sure where Rooks is going to be from one scene to another.  Most famously, the film’s opening features Rooks wandering across the countryside of Nebraska while images (and sounds) of New York’s 42nd Street are superimposed over his face.  Later on in the film, Rooks will just as abruptly turn up walking through the streets of India and meditating with a random guru.  Rooks, it quickly becomes apparent, is a man with no true home, a wanderer who seems to randomly alternate between being lost and being on a mission.

For most of the film, however, Rooks is in a small clinic outside of France.  Along with telling his doctor (played by Jean-Louis Barrault) about how he came to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, Rooks goes through withdrawal and has the surreal hallucinations that dominate the majority of the film.  During one hallucination, Rooks sees himself as a gangster gunning down a midget in a parking garage.  Then, suddenly, Rooks is no longer a gangster and instead, he’s a vampire speaking in an over-pronounced Transylvanian accent.   A druid appears and does a jig in the middle of the Stonehenge and a witch doctor shows up and starts to dance through the halls of the clinic.  Throughout it all, Rooks is haunted by the image of a stunningly beautiful woman (Paula Pritchett) in a white dress, kneeling by a placid lake.  Observing all of this is the menacing figure of Opium Jones (played by William S. Burroughs), who continually encourages Rooks to stay on drugs and who may, or may not, be a figment of Rooks’ imagination.

How to explain the odd (and occasionally frustrating) charm of Chappaqua.  This is truly a pretentious mess of a movie, full of symbolism that is both obvious and willfully obscure.  However, there’s a strange charm to the film’s pretension.  The film may not make much sense but it’s never incoherent.  Largely thanks to cinematographer Robert Frank, the visuals of the film are so strong and striking that they often provide the narrative drive that the film would otherwise lack.  Chappaqua is, ultimately, just a fascinating film to watch.

My main reason for enjoying and recommending Chappaqua, is that the film truly is a time capsule.  Both the film’s strengths and its flaws can be linked back to the fact that it was made in 1966.  It’s a true cultural artifact and, therefore, it is a must-see for anyone who is interested in either the Beats or the counter-culture that was indirectly descended from them.

VGM Entry 56: Snatcher (part 1)

VGM Entry 56: Snatcher (part 1)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

At this point I think it’s safe to talk about Snatcher. Snatcher has quite a long history. Konami first released it on the PC-8801 in November 1988, following this up with an MSX2 port the following month. In 1992 it found its way to the PC-Engine, and in 1994 it got its first English translation via the Sega Mega-CD. It would go on to appear on the Playstation in February 1996 and the Sega Saturn in March before all was said and done.

Snatcher was a cyberpunk visual novel, which isn’t the sort of thing North American and European gamers are particularly familiar with. It also featured some graphic violence, partial nudity, and cultural references, which didn’t jive well with North America’s outrageous censorship and copyright laws. All of these factors contributed to the long delay of an English port, and it’s quite remarkable that Konami ended up making one at all. The market was not in fact ready for it, and Jeremy Blaustein, who oversaw the localization, admitted that the game “only sold a couple thousand units”. He provided the legitimate argument that this resulted from Konami’s decision to release a game on the rapidly tanking Sega CD, not any shortcomings of the game itself. Snatcher remained popular in Japan however, and by the sixth and final release in March 1996 it also boasted six different variations on the main soundtrack.

What’s great for our purposes is that liquidpolicenaut on youtube already did all the legwork for comparing them. In some cases, such as “Decadence Beat (Joy Division)”, the original PC-8801 and MSX2 versions survive every port on into the Sega Saturn, but more often the songs get replaced for the Sega CD or Playstation and retain their new forms the rest of the way.

It’s by no means immediately obvious which take on this song is best. As songs by themselves, displaced from any game, the MSX2 version stands out the most to me, but the comments by actual fans of the game seem to denounce the MSX2 version as out of touch with the atmosphere of the scene. “Joy Division” (censored to “Plato’s Cavern” for the US Sega CD port) was Snatcher‘s general store chain. As a cyberpunk game, it naturally ought to be a little bit sleazy, but since I never played it personally I can’t say just how far that should go. The Sega CD version sounds like a porn shop, and the PSX version sounds like the score to what the Sega CD store is selling. The Sega Saturn take, despite being practically identical to the PSX take in construction, comes off quite tasteful due to better quality instrument samples. The potential complaint, of course, is that it’s too tasteful to be wholly appropriate.

If the PC-8801 take is a bit too funky and the PC-Engine a bit too weird, I’m left with the MSX2 take. It has a very technological feel to it. This is music for the sort of store I’d go to to buy my cybernetic crack injection kits for sure. The visual helps it out too; the store clerk looks a lot more seedy and a lot less evil on the MSX2 and PC-8801 than in the other takes, and the emphasis on grey (the PC-8801 has a brown floor) makes the whole place seem a little metalic–a little more futuristic. Oh the MSX2 take wins for me hands-down. But I’m listening to this with nothing but a song, a single image, and a general idea of cyberpunk to go on. I never played the game. Maybe the MSX2’s atmosphere, while consistent in audio and imagery, is totally out of place in it. One of the great benefits of Snatcher and liquidpolicenaut’s comparison videos is to bring these finer aesthetic considerations to mind.

I mentioned that “Joy Division” was renamed “Plato’s Cavern” on the Sega CD. It’s one of many censorship issues that forced minor changes in detail as new ports were made. The left-hand mask on the wall behind the store clerk on the MSX2 and PC-8801 was Predator, and it vanishes starting with the PC Engine. Amazing what petty things billionaires will file lawsuits over…

The censorship on “Pursuer Part 4 (Endless Pursue)” is a little more obvious. (Supposedly the dog was twitching, still alive on the original versions, and this was removed before they took out the image altogether.) Musically, this is another instance where the same song was maintained for all six versions of the game. Here the differences aren’t nearly as extreme, either. Again the Playstation take comes off the worst to my ears, and this time the Saturn’s improved sound does not sufficiently redeem it–at least if this is meant to be the fairly tense, down to the wire scene that the track title and early versions imply.

I can’t think of any context in which the PSX and Saturn versions might sound appropriate to be quite honest. The PSX take kicks off like some progy jazz piece that completely fails to acknowledge any sort of distress, or anything remotely unsettling (we’re still staring at a dog with its guts spilled out mind you, even if it’s censored). The bass drum beat is made no less obnoxious in the Saturn version by actually sounding like a bass drum, and its pace is totally out of touch with the melody. No, the PSX and Saturn versions are bad–no getting around that.

If you go back to the MSX2 take, you’ll find that it’s far more imaginative anyway. Variations in the intensity of the drum beats give it a dimension lacking in the last two versions. The higher-pitched notes behind the main melody in the PC-8801 introduction carry the song much more effectively than their MSX2 equivalent, emphasizing the pace of events, and the variations in percussion intensity are retained, but the main melody is just a bit too clean. The MSX2 take has a more hollow, raspy sound. I suppose I would characterize the MSX2 and PC Engine versions as prioritizing an element of danger, while urgency dominates the PC-8801 and Sega CD takes.

I could go on like this for every track, but I fancy it’s already gotten old. Tomorrow I’ll tackle who exactly wrote it all.