Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Walter Huston played Abe Lincoln D.W. Griffith’s film biography barely three years later, and here was was back in the White House — this time in what has to be hands-down the most outrageous Presidential drama ever to come out of Hollywood.
Huston plays Judson Hammond, a playboy ne’er-do-well who gets elected President thanks to his commanding presence and cynical ability to tell people exactly what they want to hear. But he nearly dies in a car crash, and when he comes out of his coma he’s a changed man — literally touched by an angel. What’s more, he’s determined to help America emerge from the Great Depression.
How does he do it? Well, first he dissolves Congress. Then he starts rounding up all the criminals and subjects them to kangaroo military courts. Finally, he summarily executes them by firing squad — in sight of the Statue of Liberty.
Talk about a law-and-order President.
And yes, he’s the hero here. Clearly, MGM., which released this dark fantasy in the depths of the nation’s deepest financial and social crisis, felt Dictator Hammond was just the kind of benevolent despot America needed in Washington. Some film historians even suggest the film was made specifically to prepare Americans for the possibility — or perhaps likelihood — of a coming fascist state.
As a film, it’s ludicrous. As an historical document, it’s a testament to just how desperate the nation was as its economy collapsed in the 1930s — and how willing people can be to trade freedom for security.
Even scarier than the movie itself: Franklin D. Roosevelt, struggling to get his New Deal passed by Congress, had a private screening of Gabriel in the White House.
“It would do a lot of good,” FDR told the filmmakers.
Happily (sort of), the rise of Hitler and Mussolini soon soured Americans on the notion of fascist dictators. Although it had turned a tidy profit, MGM quietly slid Gabriel Over The White House onto a dusty shelf and never released it again, even for TV.