Directed by: Gregory La Cava
Starring: Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, C. Henry Gordon, Arthur Byron
Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel Over the White House (1933) isn’t a particularly good movie, but as one of a handful of peculiarly pro-fascist movies floating around from that time, it takes the prize for the most alarming of the lot. Walter Huston stars as a shallow party-man politico (which party is never specified) who has been elected president. He has a near-death experience and comes back a changed man—apparently under the influence of some kind of divine intervention. This influence causes him to essentially set himself up as a dictator—complete with brown-shirted minions, firing squads for gangsters and an imperialistic stance. Such a man could, the film puports, fix the Depression and bring back prosperity and world peace—all in 85 demented minutes.
Looked at in its era, the film makes a certain amount of sense. It was made during the worst of the Depression and the height of prohibition-spawned gangsterism. Desperation that led to the ideas of radical solutions were not uncommon—and the idea of a “benevolent dictatorship” probably sounded pretty good, especially if it worked out the way the film puts forth. Still, the message of the movie wasn’t lost on those living in the era it was made. It pretty much seems to have horrified the reviewers, one of whom called it Fascism Over the Whitehouse.
For that matter, it appalled none other than MGM head man Louis B. Mayer—as staunch a right-winger as you could hope to find—though his objections stemmed from the perception that the film was an attack on Herbert Hoover. Oddly enough, he was probably right, especially since the first voice of reason to come up in the film against this party politics president come from an unbilled Mischa Auer as an obvious left-wing radical newspaper reporter. At bottom, what we have here is a fascist tract unwittingly crafted by people who appear to have thought they were liberals.
The most notable film of this brief wave of pro-fascist filmmaking is probably Cecil B. DeMille’s rarely seen This Day and Age (1933)—with its memorable sequence where a confession is obtained from gangster Charles Bickford through torture by lowering him into a pit of rats. But DeMille’s film boasts a few differences (along with being better made). In the first place, DeMille was just as much a right-winger as Louis B. Mayer, but more, even he stopped short of advocating military tribunals and firing squads taking the place of due legal process. Gabriel Over the White House doesn’t.
Interestingly, the film is also a perfect example of the American knack for confusing politics with religion and espousing the notion that God is on our side above all others. It’s hard not to note that nearly all of the countries that are ridiculously browbeaten into submitting to the “peace proposal” (esssentially as a case of “sign this or we’ll bomb you back to the Stone Age”)—leaving the U.S. in charge—are what would loosely be termed Christian nations. Exactly why divine intervention should seek out the U.S. is never addressed—it’s merely accepted as a given.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Gabriel Over the Whitehouse at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.