Gabriel Over the White House is not a great film. In many ways, it's not even a good film. It is, though, an astonishing document; even if you've read about it, you still have to see it to believe it exists. Based on a fantasy novel which takes place in the future year 1950, it's a no-holds-barred argument for American totalitarian fascism, as subversive and incendiary a movie as could have been created by Goebbels.
Financed and produced by William Randolph Hearst, Gabriel argues that the response to the Great Depression needed to be an president who would trample the Constitution and the democratic system, sieze power and declare martial law in order to "get things done". Hitler and Mussolini might have loved this movie and the fact that it was created and released indicates the desperate measures which did then need to be taken. It also captures a small time period (it was released after F.D.R. had won the presidential election, but before he'd taken office) in which it seems possible that America could have gone the way of Italy or Germany. A temporary dictatorship in America was an option some were arguing for and critics rightly saw Gabriel Over the White House as a piece of propaganda that could prepare mass audiences for acceptance of the idea. In this sense, the film is an invaluable document of the public mood.
Walter Huston plays the bachelor President. At first he's a do-nothing, party-loyal sleazebag, having an affair in the White House with Karen Morley and determined to do nothing for the country that departs from his (unspecified), commerce and industry-loyal party.
After crashing while recklessly driving at nearly 100 MPH, Huston comes to near death and it's here that the movie reaches another layer of misguided looniness. The movie implies that Huston becomes driven by Godly direction to use his powers for "good". The film's mixture of weird spirituality and dictatorship is startlingly reminiscent of Nazi ideology. At first, Huston implements F.D.R.-like New Deal work programs, rallying the unemployed former WWI soldiers on the White House lawn (instead of shooting at them, as President Hoover shamelessly directed the U.S. Army to do). But then...
I leave the rest of the plot for those who haven't seen the film. In fact, Gabriel becomes increasingly plotless as the film goes on (I'm not the only one who thinks this film similar to H.G. Wells' Things To Come in this respect). Instead of dramatizing plot twists, Gabriel merely shows them, one after another, like a pageantry. For a better film of the period, also starring Walter Huston, which deals with some of the same issues, see Frank Capra's American Madness (Columbia, 1932).
MGM head Louis B. Mayer was furious at the completion of the picture and made many cuts of scenes which were even stronger than the final result. He also had Karen Morley fall in love with Vice President Franchot Tone to draw attention away from her tawdry actions earlier in the picture.
Gabriel Over the White House stars an array of character actors including Dickie Moore, Samuel S. Hinds and an uncredited Mischa Auer.
Gabriel Over the White House has served as ruckmaking fodder for political strategists and commentators for decades, with figures from both sides claiming this movies reveals the true goals of the other side. Yawn.
Gabriel Over the White House is available on Warner Archives DVD-R.