This is the first piece in Patrice Bowman’s newly-revamped WEEKEND blog column: “The 21st Century through a Monochrome Lens: Re-examining Older Films.”
Ever wonder what would happen if Barack Obama did away with democracy and became a dictator? He could finally achieve his dream of socialism (or fascism or whatever!) Alas, there are unlikely to be any troops goose-stepping under Obama banners any time soon. But for those who are curious about that alternative reality, I’d recommend the political fantasy film “Gabriel Over the White House,” a 1930s oddity in which the president transforms into a benevolent robber of personal liberties.
In this blog, I’ll discuss films like “Gabriel”: older, more obscure, but unnervingly relevant to our times. I chose this picture as my first film because, despite the insanity of the whole affair, it addresses our obsession with the far-reaching powers of the Executive Office, which, circa October 2012, may or may soon have a new occupant.
Directed by Gregory La Cava and funded by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, in a sign of his cinematic support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a projection of his own presidential fantasies, this crackpot film entertains for a short 86 minutes. All laughs at its unlikely premise aside, it’s a childishly simple piece of pro-totalitarian propaganda grown from Depression-era want.
Our FDR-to-be, Judson “Judd” Hammond (Walter Huston), doesn’t begin his presidential term on the brightest note. Minutes after he kisses the Bible at his Inauguration, he tells his Cabinet that he won’t keep any of his campaign promises. And if that wasn’t enough to underscore his dubiousness, he proceeds to bring Pendola “Pendie” Molloy (Karen Morley) into his administration as a “personal secretary.” When the actual Secretary to the President, Hartley “Beek” Beekman (Franchot Tone), looks Pendie up and down, the camera follows suit in lingering detail. We understand how personal she — and their relationship — must be.
But I didn’t watch this film to see FDR meet Bill Clinton. I wanted to see a Presidency run amok. On that front, “Gabriel” doesn’t let me down: The film rushes into the dictatorial fantasy with wicked aplomb by having Judd crash his car. When he wakes up in his hospital room, he finds himself in a scene that summons crawling sensations up the spine. A ghostly wind flutters though the curtains. Judd’s hollow eyes snap open and he rings a bell. When a nurse enters, he enunciates, “Judd Hammond isn’t dead,” as if some unnatural being was using him like a vapid ventriloquist dummy. At this point, Huston shifts to the better portion of his two-note performance. He becomes cold and fierce as he gives clipped commands to his Cabinet.
Morley and Tone are competent, but they can’t do much; Huston’s steely gaze and ruthless actions gobble up all of the creators’ energies. If a Cabinet member disagrees with him, he fires them; but that’s all right, because they were selfish old codgers anyway. He openly supports the disgruntled unemployed, giving them work and, ultimately, becoming their new leader and savior to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In short, he becomes the best thing ever. (If you have a Fascist FDR fetish).
Of course, the film’s ridiculousness can’t keep it from aging poorly at times. The use of screen wipe-edits, of noticeable stock footage and of a barren soundtrack are jarring today. Even more dated is the film’s approach to characters who aren’t white, male and All-American. The female characters provide nothing substantial; the black servant Sebastian (John Larkin) provides some humor at the expense of his race; and the script drips with xenophobia. The token gangster, Antone Brilawski (C. Henry Gordon), is an immigrant who distances himself from his new home. The transformed president only compliments Brilawski’s crimes by saying: “You’ve at least rid the country of some of your own kind.” I doubt that he only means gangsters. Even foreign diplomats don’t escape poor treatment; Judd chastises the leaders for not paying debts and bullies them into world peace with his super-destructive weapon. Happy ending, right?
Wrong. The film’s ideology is a confused mishmash of ideas. Judd is supposed to be the mouthpiece of the Founding Fathers, but he’s still ripping to shreds the document upon which those men agreed — a little thing called the Constitution. Justice no longer means court procedures but vigilantism; Beekman applauds his boss for “cut[ting] the red tape of legal procedures and get[ting] back to first principles.” But what are these principles? They are secret police forces driving in tanks and performing court martials in a minimalist star chamber. It would have been neat if the film used more of these icy visuals and explored the ramifications of the American dictatorship. Why not? 1933 was the same year in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler began terms in their respective countries’ most important public offices. What a contrast in what people demanded in their despair.
With the presidential election right around the corner, “Gabriel” reminds us that we should ask ourselves how much would we pay for economic prosperity and international peace. As much as we make fun of the inefficiencies of the presidency and democracy as a whole, would we really want a Chairman Obama or Romney if they would make our problems go away?