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.