“Gabriel Over the White House” is one of the most unique, disturbing and thought-provoking American movies ever made about politics. It raises interesting questions that are still relevant today in the era of Donald Trump, the alt.right, and a seemingly widespread general distrust of the government. “Gabriel Over the White House” is not a well-known film. But it is unforgettable in its theme and content.
“Gabriel Over the White House” – Background
“Gabriel Over the White House ” was made in 1933. After eight years of Republican laissez-faire presidents, America had plunged into the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt was desperately trying radical social and political experiments to save the country. Some of his programs were successful, others were not. It is significant that “Gabriel Over the White House ” was made in the middle of these profound events. The movie is not a political allegory looking back and offering an alternative history. Instead, it is a bizarre and fascinating film made as the nation was deep in despair.
“Gabriel Over the White House” – Prologue
The film opens with a dim witted, handsome, empty suit Republican president being inaugurated. He is a womanizer and a man of limited intellect. Clearly he is based on President Warren Harding. When a reporter asks how he will attack the question of unemployment, the president (Walter Huston) replies:
“The American people have risen before and they will rise again. Gentlemen, remember, our party promises a return to prosperity.”
A perfect politician answer. It sounds wonderful but says nothing. We see him meeting with his Cabinet and just agreeing to do whatever the party bosses want.
The President has no interest in actually solving problems. His only goal in politics is to keep his party in power. The seemingly straightforward plot turns in an eerie direction when the president is involved in a terrible car crash. He enters a coma that seems to be permanent. The country prepares for his death. However, a mysterious, unseen force (the angel Gabriel?) enters the room and awakens him from the coma. President Hammond emerges a completely changed man. Those changes lead to the bizarre political philosophy of “Gabriel Over the White House.”
“Gabriel Over the White House” – Story
Pres. Hammond awakens from the coma with a determination to actually solve the problems of America. His actions shock his conservative party. Hammond fires his cabinet and tells the country that immediate and drastic action is needed. He decides on a course of action that makes him an inexplicable combination of Benito Mussolini and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President becomes a totalitarian populist! First, he decides to throw America’s vast economic resources into immediate direct recovery for the destitute, the farmers, and the homeless. Supporters of Bernie Sanders would applaud many of these proposals!
But he also decides that American democracy is inefficient and we need a politically incorrect strongman as president. Hammond lambastes Congress and the media for not focusing on the real problems of America. He taps into an outrage that would resonate with many supporters of Donald Trump. Just as Donald Trump has suggested building a gigantic wall on our Southern border, banning all Muslims from immigrating to America and forcibly removing 11 million illegal immigrants, Pres. Hammond announces that the Congress and the Constitution are inadequate for dealing with the serious problems of crime, terrorism, and war. He demands Congress adjourn so he can take upon himself dictatorial powers! As an example, he mobilizes a federal police squad comprised of a military unit to rid the big cities of gang problems.
With no Congress to oppose him and the citizens desperate for a strong president to take action and solve the problems, federal tanks rolled into the streets. They round up urban gang members who are not subject to civil trials but rather to military court-marshals. These military tribunals end in summary executions.
Turning his attention to foreign affairs, he threatens the world with war unless the destitute European nations scrap their battleships and repay their World War I debts to America. Again, he eerily presages Donald Trump’s call to scrap existing treaties, ignore our traditional alliances, create a foreign policy that is at the same time isolationist and aggressive, and force other nations to help solve America’s financial problems!
“Gabriel Over the White House” – Why You Should See It
Obviously, this little seen, very strange and decidedly disturbing film from almost 85 years ago is not for the casual viewer. Nor is “Gabriel Over the White House” for the old movie buff looking for a feel-good TCM classic.
Nonetheless, it is unforgettably unique and very well produced. Lovers of history, politics or tremendously unusual old films will find this a frightening, fascinating and weirdly contemporary classic movie.