GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (director: Gregory LaCava; screenwriters: Carey Wilson/Bertram Bloch/based on the novel Rinehard by T.F. Tweed; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: Basil Wrangell; music: William Axt; cast: Walter Huston (President Judson C. Hammond), Karen Morley (Pendola ‘Pendie’ Molloy), Franchot Tone (Hartley ‘Beek’ Beekman), Arthur Byron (Secretary of State Jasper Brooks), Dickie Moore (Jimmy Vetter), C. Henry Gordon (Nick Diamond), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. H. L. Eastman), William Pawley (Borell), Mischa Auer (Theesen, Reporter), Claire Du Brey (Jimmy’s Nurse), David Landau (John Bronson), Jean Parker (Alice Bronson); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Walter Wanger; MGM; 1933)
“A unique and somewhat daffy Depression-era comedy New Deal fantasy film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A unique and somewhat daffy Depression-era comedy New Deal fantasy film directed by Gregory La Cava (“Stage Door”/”Primrose Path”/”Laugh and Get Rich”), that’s based on a British science-fiction novel called Rinehard by T.F. Tweed and written by Carey Wilson and Bertram Bloch. It was a collaboration between producer Walter Wanger and publisher William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Studios, whose films MGM distributed. Newspaper tycoon Hearst liked the film’s message about absolute power to solve an emergency and its belief in Jeffersonian democracy, which was based on “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The rarely seen film, a flawed must-see curio, which was one of the biggest box office hits of 1933, is kind of creepy in its smug acceptance of a dictatorship as the best way to get things done and in its knuckle-headed simplicity into thinking its messianic radicalism could just shake off the Constitution and America’s democracy would still exist.
Hack politician Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) takes office as the newly elected bachelor President of the United States during the Depression and faces major problems such as unemployment, homelessness, starvation and rampant racketeering, but is insensitive to all the needs of the people and is in collusion with all the special interests groups that bought his presidency. The charmer stooge hires Harley Beekman (Franchot Tone) as his press secretary and longtime friend Pendola “Pendie” Molloy (Karen Morley) as his confidential secretary. The president acts aloof from the problems of the common man and instead eagerly tries to please his party big shots. But when he gets into a car crash during a motorcade where he took the wheel and went at 98 mph past his police motorcycle escort, he gets a concussion and goes into a coma. When he awakens a few weeks later, he’s a different man. We are led to believe he received a visit from the angel Gabriel, who acted as the Angel of Revelation. He now discards his Hoover patter of let’s do nothing “prosperity is around the corner” and becomes a rabid New Deal idealist who strives to help prole leader John Bronson (David Landau) and his million man “March of the Unemployed.” To do this Judd must fire his two-faced do nothing cabinet and declare a state of emergency to allow him to rule as a virtual dictator under martial law. He thereby establishes an ‘Army of Construction’ to give the unemployed government jobs, pits the military against the mob to get top bootlegger Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon) convicted and executed by a firing squad through a military court, and instigates World Disarmament by threatening war and threatening to collect the huge war debts the European nations owe the U.S.A. unless they destroy their military.
This is no Frank Capra populist film, as everything about it is pitched at a self-righteous flag-waving fever of urgency to appeal to the common man and to let him believe a benign dictatorship inspired by the God of the Old Testament is fine for a democracy if it uses its powers wisely to help the underprivileged. However the film’s ‘divine intentions’ reminds one of fascism, even if some good comes out of it. La Cava tried to sell this dangerous hokum by using Plato and Lincoln to support his case for such a power play. Despite this horrible film blowing its own horn in vain, it makes for an unusual populist political fable and Huston’s blowhard performance is catchy. Incidentally, the newly inaugurated FDR was a big fan of the film.
REVIEWED ON 12/19/2008 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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