Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Previously published in 50 Plus, 11/02
Whenever William Randolph Hearst’s name is discussed in relation to Hollywood, Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane comes to mind. Welles’ 1941 classic about the triumphs and failures of a powerful newspaper tycoon obviously based on Hearst’s life is often listed among the greatest cinema ever made. But Hearst himself was deeply involved in making movies for over twenty years to foster the career of his mistress, actress Marion Davis, and to use film as a forum to voice his political, social, and economic philosophies as he did through his syndicate of newspapers. Of all of Hearst’s motion pictures, the forgotten gem, Gabriel Over the White House (1933) starring Walter Huston, is certainly the most interesting.
Movie historian Leonard Maltin described the film as a “Depression fantasy of crooked Huston elected President, experiencing mysterious change that turns him into Super-president, determined to eliminate racketeers, find world peace. Bizarre, fascinating.” It certainly is bizarre and fascinating. Basically, Hearst and his writers endorsed an American dictatorship.
Throughout its first half, the film is quite successful in making its points. The country’s domestic problems such as unemployment, political corruption, and disregard for the law are depicted vividly, and many of the President’s actions and solutions appear to be, at first, practical and reasonable. But after the government declares war on racketeers, tries them immediately after their capture by military tribunal, and then executes them by firing squad, one gets nervous.
Gabriel Over the White House was directed by Gregory LaCava, photographed by Bert Glennon, and produced for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions by Walter Wanger with a script by Carey Wilson and Bertram Bloch based on the play Rinehard by T.F. Tweed.
Considering the film offended liberals for its attacks on civil rights and conservatives for its attacks on Big Business, it was surprising that the film was even made. MGM was responsible for Cosmopolitan’s distribution and publicity, and after viewing an early screening of the film, studio head Louis B. Mayer, refused to have anything to do with it. Only after Hearst threatened MGM productions with negative reviews by Hearst columnist Louella Parsons did Mayer give in.
Gabriel Over the White House is a fascinating film to watch today. Walter Huston is perfect as the corrupt politician before his transformation, and his towering presence and voice nails the role of the driven zealot attempting to save mankind from itself. This eighty year old picture reminds us that many contemporary problems and issues have been around for years. In addition to demonstrating that superior acting and production values can make a ludicrous story credible – there is an unbelievable scene when gangsters machine-gun the White House – this movie offers us an excellent example of how clever, manipulative propaganda can be used in film to sway minds. It also demonstrates that the simplistic belief that an honest man could solve everything has its dangers. Gabriel is certainly not a Citizen Kane, but it is one forgotten gem which should not be forgotten. With all its flaws, it is food for serious thought.