Pre Code Confidential #22: GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (MGM 1933)

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One of the most bizarre films of any era is GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, a political fantasy extolling the joys of a totalitarian dictatorship in America! Produced by the independent Walter Wanger , a staunch anti-Fascist(1) , and financed by William Randolph Hearst, the left-leaning newspaper magnate(2) who served as the inspiration for CITIZEN KANE, the film shows what would happen if all the political power in Washington were consolidated in one man – and shows it to be a good thing!

Newsreel footage is interspersed with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston ), newly elected at the height of the Depression. Hammond is a typically phony, glad-handing politician, more concerned in towing the party line and maintaining the status quo than helping the people that elected him. Though he promises peace and prosperity, Hammond tells the press he regards the problems of unemployment, homelessness, and rampant crime…

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A Movie A Day #155: Out of the Fog (1941, directed by Anatole Litvak)

When two aging fishermen (Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen) attempt to buy a new boat, they run into a problem with local mobster, Harold Goff (John Garfield).  As Goff explains, if they do not pay him $5.00 a week, something bad could happen to their boat.  When one of the fisherman’s daughter (Ida Lupino) falls in love with Goff, she makes the mistake of letting him know that her father is planning on giving her $190 so that she can take a trip to Cuba.  When Goff demands the money for himself, the fishermen attempt to go to the police, just to be told that there is nothing that the authorities can do.  Goff tricked them into signing an “insurance” contract that allows him to demand whatever he wants.  The two fishermen are forced to consider taking drastic measures on their own.  Out of the Fog is an effective, early film noir, distinguished mostly be John Garfield’s sinister performance as Harold Goff.

Out of the Fog is also memorable as an example of how Hollywood dealt with adapting work with political content during the production code era.  Out of the Fog was based on The Gentle People, a play by Irwin Shaw.  In the play, which was staged by The Group Theater in 1939, Harold Goff was obviously meant to be a symbol of both European fascism and American capitalism.  In the play, the two fisherman had Jewish names and were meant to symbolize those being persecuted by the Third Reich and its allies.  In the transition for stage to film, Jonah Goodman became Jonah Goodwin and he was played by the very talented but definitely not Jewish Thomas Mitchell.   The play ended with Harold triumphant and apparently unstoppable.  Under the production code, all criminals had to be punished, which meant the ending had to be changed.  Out of the Fog is an effective 1940s crime thriller but, without any political subtext, it lacks the play’s bight.

One final note: while Out of the Fog had a good cast, with up and comer John Garfield squaring against old vets Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen, the original Broadway play’s cast was also distinguished.  Along with contemporary film stars Sylvia Sidney and Franchot Tone, the play’s cast was a who’s who of actors and directors who would go on to be prominent in the 1950 and 60s: Lee J. Cobb, Sam Jaffe, Karl Malden, Martin Ritt, and Elia Kazan all had roles.


Outside the (Hat) Box: PHANTOM LADY (Universal 1944)

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Interested in a Hitchcockian 40’s thriller full of suspense and noir style? Then PHANTOM LADY is the film for you, a small gem based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and  directed by the talented Robert Siodmak. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film noir like many do, but it certainly contains many of the stylistic elements of the genre in its gripping murder mystery story. Pretty damn close, though!

The Hitchcock influence clearly comes from Joan Harrison , former secretary and screenwriter for The Master of Suspense, who became one of only three female producers working during Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s Hitchcock’s famed McGuffin to be found in the form of a “crazy hat” worn by the mysterious woman of the title that’s crucial to the film’s plot. Add the tension ratcheted up by screenwriter Bernard Schoenfeld and you’ve got a Hitchcock movie without Hitchcock.


The noir elements…

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Shattered Politics #17: Advise & Consent (dir by Otto Preminger)


In case you hadn’t heard, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer has recently announced that she’s retiring in 2016.  For the first time in decades, there’s going to be an open senate seat in California.  There’s been a lot of speculation about who might run for the seat and, for the most part, it’s all been the usual political suspects.  The state’s attorney general is running.  A few congresspeople might run.  Token billionaire Tom Steyer is thinking of getting into the race.

What disappoints me is that, as of right now, it doesn’t look like any celebrities are planning on running.  You know what would have made the Golden Globes perfect?  If George Clooney had announced his candidacy while accepting his Cecil B. DeMille award.  (At the very least, it might have given Amal something to smile about, as opposed to just sitting there with a condescending smirk on her face.  Seriously, what’s up with that?)  But even beyond George Clooney, there’s all sorts of celebrities who could run.  Charlie Sheen lives in California, after all.  Jeff Bridges might not be able to run in Montana but what about California?

I was discussing this with a friend of mine who suggested that Betty White should run because who could vote against Betty White?  Speaking for myself, I could easily vote against Betty White but I do think there would be something appropriate about Betty White serving in the U.S. Senate.  After all, in 1962, she played a senator in Otto Preminger’s political epic, Advice & Consent.

White played Sen. Bessie Adams of Kansas and was only given a few minutes of screen time.  She’s one of many performers to show up in Advise & Consent‘s version of the U.S. Senate.

For instance, Walter Pidgeon plays Sen. Bob Munson, who is the Senate majority leader and, as a result, the closest thing that this sprawling film has to a central character.  His job is to make sure the President’s agenda is pushed through Congress.

And then there’s Peter Lawford, as Sen. Lafe Smith, who always has a different girl leaving his hotel room.  When Advise & Consent was made, Lawford was President Kennedy’s brother-in-law.  Interestingly enough, one of Kennedy’s former girlfriends — actress Gene Tierney — shows up in the film as well, playing Bob Munson’s lover.

George Grizzard plays Sen. Fred Van Ackerman, who is about as evil as you would expect someone named Fred Van Ackerman to be.  Grizzard gives one of the better performances in the film, which just goes to prove that it’s more fun to play an evil character than a good one.

Don Murray is Sen. Brigham Anderson, a senator who is being blackmailed by Van Ackerman’s lackeys.  Despite being happily married to Mabel (Inga Swenson), Anderson is leading a secret life as a gay man.  The scene where Anderson steps into a gay bar may seem incredibly tame today but it was reportedly very controversial back in 1962.

And finally, there’s Sen. Seabright Cooley.  You may be able to guess, just from his overly prosaic name, that Cooley is meant to be a southerner.  That, of course, means that he wears a white suit, is constantly fanning himself, and speaks in lengthy metaphors.  Sen. Cooley is played by Charles Laughton, who overacts to such a degree that I’m surprised that there was any oxygen left over for anyone else.

All of these senators have been tasked with deciding whether or not Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) will be the next secretary of state.  Fonda, not surprisingly, is the epitome of urbane liberalness in the role of Leffingwell.  However, Leffingwell has a secret.  Back in the 1930s, Leffingwell was a communist.  When Sen. Cooley introduces a witness (Burgess Meredith) who can confirm this fact, Leffingwell offers to withdraw as the nominee.  However, the President (Franchot Tone) refuses to allow Leffingwell to do so.  Instead, with the help of Van Ackerman, he tries to pressure Anderson into supporting Leffingwell’s nomination.

This, of course, leads to melodrama and tragedy.

As far as literary adaptations directed by Otto Preminger are concerned, Advise & Consent is better than Hurry Sundown while being nowhere to close to being as good as Anatomy of a Murder.  It’s a film that is occasionally entertaining, often draggy, and, if just because of all the different acting styles to be found in the cast, always interesting to watch.

And, for what it’s worth, Betty White makes for a convincing senator.  So, perhaps the people of California should watch Advise & Consent before voting for Tom Steyer…

Lisa Marie Reviews The Oscar Winners: Mutiny on the Bounty (dir by Frank Lloyd)

Charles Laughton

It’s been a strange Oscar season and it could get even stranger.  Several critics and industry insiders are speculating that, on February 24th, Argo might win the Oscar for best picture without winning in any other category.  As strange as that may sound, Argo would not be alone in achieving this distinction.  In the past, 3 films have won best picture without winning anything else.

Mutiny on the Bounty, the best picture of 1935, is one of those films.

Based (rather loosely, according to many historians) on a true story, Mutiny on the Bounty tells the story of one of the most controversial events in maritime history.  The HMS Bounty leaves England in 1787 on a two-year voyage to Tahiti.  The Bounty is manned by a disgruntled crew (many of whom have been forced into Naval service) and is captained by a tyrant named William Bligh (Charles Laughton).  Bligh has little use for the majority of his crew and thinks nothing of having a man whipped until he is dead for even the pettiest of infractions.

Blight’s lieutenant is Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), a compassionate man who disapproves of Bligh’s methods.  As the voyage continues, Christian grows more and more vocal with his disgust towards Bligh.  When the ship finally reaches Tahiti, Christian falls in love with a local Tahitian girl and defies Bligh’s direct orders so that he can spend time with her.

It’s only after the ship leaves Tahiti and Bligh’s tyranny leads to the death of an alcoholic crew member that Christian finally leads the mutiny of the film’s title. The rest of the film is divided between Bligh’s surprisingly heroic efforts to survive after being set adrift in a lifeboat and Christian’s attempts to avoid being captured by British authorities.  Caught up in the middle of all of this is Christian’s friend (and audience surrogate), Roger Byam (Franchot Tone).

Mutiny on the Bounty was one of the biggest box office hits of 1935 and it received 8 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and a record-setting 3 nods for Best Actor with Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone all receiving nominations.  However, out of those 8 nominations, Mutiny only won the award for Best Picture while John Ford’s The Informer took home the Oscars for Best Director and Actor.  Mutiny on the Bounty was the third (and, as of this writing, the last) best picture winner to fail to win any other categories.

For a film that lost dramatically more awards than it won, Mutiny on the Bounty still holds up pretty well.  Director Frank Lloyd keeps the film moving at a quick pace and perfectly captures not only the misery of the Bounty but the joyful paradise of Tahiti as well.  Lloyd is at his best during the short sequence of scenes that depict Bligh’s efforts to reach safety after being forced off of the Bounty.  During this sequence, the audience is forced to reconsider both Captain Bligh and everything that we’ve seen before.  It introduces an intriguing hint of ambiguity that is not often associated with films released in either the 1930s or today.

Of the three nominated actors, Clark Gable and Charles Laughton both give  performances that remain impressive today.  In the role of Fletcher Christian, Gable is the literal personification of masculinity and virility.  Meanwhile, in the role of Bligh, Laughton is hardly subtle but he is perfectly cast.  If Gable’s performance is epitomized by his charming smile than Laughton’s is epitomized by his constant glower.  Wisely, neither the film nor Laughton ever make Bligh out to be an incompetent captain.  As is shown after the mutiny, the film’s Bligh truly is as capable a navigator and leader as everyone initially believes him to be.  Unlike many cinematic tyrants, Blight’s tyranny is not the result of insecurity.  Instead, Bligh is simply a tyrant because he can be.  Laughton and Gable are both so charismatic and memorable that Franchot Tone suffers by comparison.  However, even Tone’s bland performance works to the film’s advantage.  By being so normal and boring, Roger Byam is established as truly being the sensible middle between Gable’s revolutionary and Laughton’s tyrant.

Mutiny on the Bounty remains an exciting adventure film and it certainly holds up better than some of the other films that were named best picture during the Academy’s early years.  If Argo only wins one Academy Award next Sunday, it’ll be in good company.

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.