2019 Film Essays

A Divine Madness: Gregory La Cava’s ‘Gabriel Over the White House’

Cinema was seen as the ultimate weapon of conditioning by the Nazi regime; the Third Reich exerted considerable energy in creating an industry which would inculcate the German population with the values of national socialism. Rüdiger Suchsland’s 2017 documentary Hitler’s Hollywood details how German cinema became inseparable from propaganda under the control of propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. Goebbels’ vision was of “an artificially perfect world” exhibiting “a total lack of irony.” Goebbels became the auteur of Nazi cinema; stating that “propaganda is an art form” whose objective is “to conquer the masses.”

On the surface, Gabriel Over the White House is one of the strangest and darkest artefacts of pre-code Hollywood; but viewed in the context of what was happening in Germany during this period, it becomes a fascinating articulation of the impulse towards totalitarianism that gripped the public consciousness in the 1930s. One must bear in mind that Hitler was voted Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1938, the KKK grew rapidly throughout the 30s and public figures like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh lauded the Nazi regime — Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wrote a booklet in 1940 called The Wave of the Future which saw some form of despotism as the inevitable model for all future government. 

Another member of America’s elite, William Randolph Hearst, was instrumental in bringing Gabriel Over the White House to the screen. Hearst, who had been a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt but became one of the sternest critics of the New Deal, provided financial support and creative direction for the film. Hearst’s involvement points towards the true anxiety which lies beneath its story of U.S. president Judson C. Hammond’s (Walter Huston) transformation following a car crash from partisan hack to autocratic man of action. The film was released less than a month after the election of FDR, and feels like a panicked reaction to the possibilities of Roosevelt’s redistributive agenda — a year after its release, the American Liberty League was formed, an organisation of wealthy interests virulently opposed to the New Deal.

Gabriel Over the White House is a fascinating and perplexing document of this “terrible moment of crisis,” speaking to a general ambivalence towards Roosevelt’s attempts to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Its overall tone is difficult to pinpoint, lurching from exultation to presentiment; but what comes through clearly is a distaste for democracy and a fear of revolution. This is made clear in the first act, in which a newly inaugurated Hammond is presented as a bloodless pragmatist who recognises the power of the executive branch but chooses not to wield it to solve the “starvation and want from coast to coast.” Hammond uses the pen with which Lincoln freed the slaves to attend to the clerical minutiae of his office, and plays with his nephew in the Oval Office while John Bronson (David Landau), the “leader of the unemployed,” delivers an impassioned radio address from one of the “270 camps in public parks.” Bronson’s speech plays in the background, semi-audible and ignored. 

The film’s distaste for the status quo is symbolised in the crash which puts Hammond into a coma; Hammond is at the wheel of the car, driving recklessly. There is nothing more contemptible in Gabriel Over the White House than “The Party”; they personify everything that is self-serving and sclerotic about the Washington consensus. Hammond had been a staunch party man, but he comes out of his coma reborn, filled with a divine sense of purpose. He orders his cabinet to resign, suspends congress and declares martial law. The response to Hammond’s actions is telling; far from turning him into a villain, he is lauded as the antidote to “old fashioned politicians”; with his “fine straight talk” and healthy contempt for the “legal red tape” that stands in the way of putting the country back on the right track. Hammond is the “bachelor president,” focused on nothing but national regeneration.

In many ways, Hammond is the inverse of Frank Capra’s lone man fighting powerful institutions. At one point, Hammond’s assistant (Karen Morley) states that “a simple, honest man can solve everything.” Like Capra’s unassuming heroes, Hammond upends the power structure, but towards an altogether less conciliatory end; he is an alluring, galvanic figure who is capable of moulding the “army of the unemployed” into his own Freikorps. The only character to express reservations about Hammond’s actions is his secretary, Beekman (Franchot Tone), who speculates whether Hammond is so “simple and honest that he turns a little crazy,” possessed of “a divine madness.” Beekman’s reservations are allayed when he is appointed head of the Federal Police, which is empowered to conduct “military court-martials” which resemble show trials and have a dystopian tinge to their production design. 

The subject of these trials is a gang of racketeers led by Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon). Diamond is a long way from Paul Muni’s suave take on Al Capone the previous year in Scarface; he is explicitly coded as alien, a symbol of the putrescence at America’s core, a predatory outsider abusing the codes of American opportunity, using his wealth to grease the levers of power. Diamond comments that he and Hammond are “the only Americans who have any business left,” and they become engaged in an odd kind of turf war over Hammond’s repeal of prohibition — the film’s most startling scene involves Diamond’s gang conducting a drive-by shooting outside the White House. Hammond becomes the country’s gangster, his strength is the only bulwark against disruption, and all must embrace the logic of strength.

This culminates in a delirious denouement in which Hammond strong-arms the world’s leaders into signing the “Washington Covenant,” a global disarmament treaty. In another arresting scene, Hammond bombs two of his own battleships to illustrate that they are “antiquated pieces of scrap-iron,” then lays out an apocalyptic vision of the next world war. The signing of the Washington Covenant establishes Hammond as “one of the greatest men who ever lived.” Upon providing his signature, Hammond collapses and dies, cementing his status as an emissary of the Angel Gabriel, chosen to deliver an “American Revelation.” Gabriel Over the White House enacts a foundational myth in the creation of a personality cult: the fearless leader’s sacrifice for “the greatest good of the greatest number.

There is little doubt that Gabriel Over the White House was a test balloon of sorts, priming the audience for a discussion on the merits of the strongman leader, asking them what they would be willing to sacrifice in order to ameliorate the national plight. As tiresome as the trend has become, it is difficult to avoid drawing parallels with the current occupant of the White House when Hammond speaks of “evil forces” which must be “eliminated,” rails against “red tape” and avers that “America is through with conferences in rooms.” Ultimately, Gabriel Over the White House lacks the simplicity of vision which one sees from a propagandist on the level of Goebbels; its world is not one of soothing simplicity. For all the bravura of La Cava’s crowd scenes and Huston’s voluble central performance, there are notes of unease which throw its message off balance, a conflict in its construction which is never resolved; it can never entirely cross the rhetorical threshold, and thus resides in historical oddity.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.