GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (Gregory LaCava, 1933)

An early 1933 release, Gregory LaCava’s nervy Gabriel Over the White House, about a freshly inaugurated U.S. president, was applauded by reality’s freshly inaugurated U.S. president: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. No Hollywood film of the 1930s better reflects the capacity for militaristic oppression to erupt in the U.S., given the agitation caused by economic suffering during the Great Depression. LaCava’s film reflected on the Bonus Army (calling it the Army of the Unemployed—this, prior to the army of “forgotten men” in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933)—veterans whose nine months-earlier march on Washington, seeking early payment of cash bonuses for their war service, faced tanks, armed soldiers, even a mounted machine gun troop.
     At a celebration on the evening of his inauguration, Judson Hammond (Walter Huston, who played Lincoln three years earlier for D.W. Griffith, terrific) amidst superficial banter notes that he “made a lot of promises [to voters] to get elected,” eliciting this lighthearted response: “By the time they realize that you’re not going to keep [those promises], your term will be over.” Indeed, Hammond begins as a Party stooge; but the times creep into even the White House, correlative to which is the comatose state Hammond is in following a road accident, from which he emerges engaged, committed, his “own person.” He rejects Cabinet counsel to suppress the march on Washington; instead, he launches a massive public works project to put people back to work, dissolves his Cabinet, is impeached, and extracts from Congress near-dictatorial powers. His is now an activist government-of-one. His popular support surges with his declaration of various policies including the elimination of bank foreclosures and the guaranteed protection of bank depositors’ savings. His repeal of Prohibition incurs a gangster’s attempt on his life; he sabre-rattles to extract debt payments, along with a peace agreement, from other nations. He collapses and dies.
     In anticipation of the New Deal, scenarist Carey Wilson perhaps intends a stern warning to Roosevelt, while LaCava pulls against this by creating an incendiary vision of the currents and cross-currents of economic and political malcontent in America. Uncredited, William Random Hearst produced this remarkable film, nothing about which so encapsulates the mood of national desperation as the intrusion of possible divine intervention into the working-out of the plot. Frank Capra never made any film as trenchant as this one, and it offers further belated proof that LaCava—My Man Godfrey, 1936; 5th Ave Girl, 1940; Primrose Path, 1940—was a major film artist.
     Based on Thomas Frederic Tweed’s British novel Rinehard. Tweed himself politically advised former prime minister David Lloyd George.

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