Saturday, July 07, 2018

Gabriel Over the White House

A few days ago, I posted the link to When Patriotic Movies Go Awry. The movie that sparked the most discussion, probably because few of us have seen it, was Gabriel Over the White House. The movie is available to watch free online. I just finished watching the whole thing.
In 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House, President Judson Hammond (played by Walter Huston), having been possessed by the Angel Gabriel, brings the Depression to an end by dissolving the Legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, concentrating all political power within himself. He then declares martial law, single-handedly battles the mob, puts the Army of the Unemployed to work on a public works project, and uses the threat of military force to strong arm the other nations of the world into signing a peace treaty. Made in the depths of the Great Depression and confronting many of the problems facing Americans at the time, it’s all portrayed as a very good thing.

Upon seeing it, an historian I know noted that it was the only film he could think of in which fascism, was presented not only as a cure for America’s troubles, but as a force of goodness and light working to protect the common man.

The film’s message was a popular one upon its initial release, but then that damn Hitler had to come along and ruin everybody’s dream. Warner Brothers pulled the film out of circulation for the next 70 years.
True, while Americans watched Gabriel Over the White House for a little while in 1933, Hitler was rising to power in Germany by promising the people to save them from their troubles. There's more information about the movie here. 
Ironically, Gabriel Over the White House turned out to be one of the biggest box office hits of 1933; its topical subject matter obviously spoke to audiences who felt the need for strong leadership after the economic chaos of the Great Depression. It also sparked some lively debates among film critics in its day. The New York Times wrote "It is a curious, somewhat fantastic and often melodramatic story, but nevertheless one which at this time is very interesting." The reviewer for The Nation said "Gabriel Over the White House is probably the most important bad film of the year. It is important because it marks the first attempt by Hollywood producers to exploit the current popular interest in social and economic ideas...Its all-too-evident purpose is to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country." He also added that it "has about as much reality as a diagram on a blackboard."
It is a deeply weird film. On the one hand, the president of the United States has an epiphany and decides he needs to do good things to help the people of his nation. On the other hand, he uses fascist tactics to dismantle our system of democracy. If you recall, Mussolini made the trains run on time. But it's so comforting to fantasize about a benevolent leader who will fight for the good of the citizens. The problem is that once those powers are concentrated, there is no guarantee that a benevolent dictator will remain benevolent, or whether his successor will be anything at all like him. Remember, power corrupts. We are thankful that FDR managed to hire unemployed Americans and help the impoverished at government expense without dissolving the Congress and our system of checks and balances. (via TYWKIWDBI)

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