“The soldiers threw tear gas at them and vomiting gas. It was one assignment they reluctantly took on. They were younger than the marchers. It was like sons attacking their fathers. . . MacArthur was looked upon as a hero. And so the bonus marchers straggled back to the various places they came from. And without their bonus.” -Jim Sheridan in Hard Times, by Studs Terkel
Less than a month after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration on March 4, 1933, MGM released one of the first films to directly confront the Great Depression: Gabriel Over the White House. A fictional president named Judd Hammond, played by Walter Huston, is revealed to be a self-absorbed, party-loyal moron who ignores the protests of impoverished WWI veterans marching on Baltimore demanding fair compensation for their service, a direct reference to the historic Bonus March of 1932.
Spoiler alert: the film gets weirder. Hammond races his car, crashes, and is temporarily comatose. When he wakes up, he becomes possessed by the Angel Gabriel. Now under spiritual control, Hammond confronts the marchers, promising to create for them an “army of construction” to guarantee employment.
Facing impeachment from congress, he declares martial law and embraces accusations of dictatorship, proclaiming that he believes “in democracy as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy,” that his will be “a dictatorship based on Jefferson’s definition of democracy: a government of the greatest good for the greatest number.” Hammond then creates a Federal Police to round up and publicly execute Prohibition-era bootleggers, many of whom are portrayed as immigrants. The film’s climax is an international summit held at sea, where Hammond annihilates empty warships using an ultra-powerful Naval Air Force bomb, to force the international community into a permanent peace, warning that “the next war will depopulate the Earth [with] invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, [and] annihilating death-rays.” Terrified, the international community agrees to their universal disarmament.
Gabriel Over the White House portrays a Washington insider who abolishes the law to solve several national crises, the logical antithesis of a later Depression-era film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a Washington outsider masters the law to solve a small local problem. Ideologically, these films are worlds apart, but they both praise the same three American leaders: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
The film’s backstory is worth revisiting. After being fired from Paramount, producer Walter Wanger began working for MGM to make ends meet. When Wanger secured the rights to the story of Gabriel Over the White House, he pushed the film into production as quickly as possible on a budget of just over $200,000, “to avoid the scrutiny of [MGM manager] Louis B. Mayor, a dedicated Republican” (Carmichael 164). By February of that year, a month before FDR’s inauguration, the newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst began aggressively micromanaging the script’s content.
Hearst and Wanger had ties dating to 1917, and after he began working for MGM, Hearst offered him financial support. Hearst, who disliked FDR but supported his running mate John Garner, was unusually interested in the film. He “ordered his own production company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, to take over production,” and it is “believed that Hearst himself wrote some of the speeches for President Hammond” (Shindler 112).
Several MGM managers took issue with the script’s political nature. Some worried that its portrayal of Congress as incompetent would motivate Congress to censor Hollywood in retaliation, while others decried its positive portrayal of dictatorship. The film seemed to communicate directly to FDR that he should solve the Depression by becoming a fascist: Hearst was a casual admirer of both Mussolini and Hitler, but in early 1933, such admiration was quite common. Both dictators would eventually be Time‘s Person of the Year.
By March, 1933, Mussolini had been in power eleven years, Stalin roughly eight, and Hitler barely a month. There were not yet wars, purges, or camps. Totalitarianism to many looked like a safe, if drastic, solution, and many Americans wanted a similarly authoritative leader to take charge and solve the economic crisis, regardless of ideology. The film is more a response to Hoover’s failings than FDR’s potential, and arguably its most important scene is its version of the Bonus March.
In the film, the president hears the pleas of protestors marching on Baltimore and responds by creating a federal jobs program. In 1932, the real Bonus Army marched on Washington and were met with a brigade of cavalry and tanks led by Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. At least one marcher died as a result. What little action Hoover took was one injustice on top of a dozen other injustices during the early years of the Depression. Ironically, Hoover’s response would become a defining tactic of totalitarian regimes: military action against civilian protest.
The most compelling scene is the one that corrects this recent injustice by presenting a fantasy of what Hoover should have done, which accounts for the film’s success and FDR’s own warm reception to it. We know that FDR planned to take critical economic action long before taking office. He stated in his inaugural address that Americans should treat the Depression “as we would treat the emergency of a war.” But FDR also took the time to write Hearst to say that he thought the film was “an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help” (Carmichael 174).
FDR admired Hammond’s decisive rhetoric, though it’s impossible to discern how much Gabriel Over the White House, and by extension Hearst, influenced his policies. Maybe it inspired his Works Progress Administration or his later war policies, or maybe it had no influence whatsoever.
There is at least one key difference between FDR and Hammond. While declaring martial law, Hammond cites Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln; in his inaugural address, FDR makes no reference to any of these presidents. Hammond’s dictatorship is self-consciously all-American.
As president, Washington led the militias of several states to stop a tax protest in rural Pennsylvania called the Whiskey Rebellion, making him the only sitting president to lead troops into battle (against tax protestors, no less). Jefferson attempted to use the navy to force peace with Barbary Coast pirates, and later invoked executive privilege when he refused to hand over subpoenaed documents to the Supreme Court during the investigation of his own Vice President for treason. During the Civil War, Lincoln pushed a de facto martial law through congress and suspended Habeas corpus for Confederate soldiers. The difference with Hammond is that he does all of these things simultaneously.
The underlying assertion of Gabriel Over the White House is that an American totalitarian does not need to import an ideological foundation from abroad. The seeds are already sown in a long chain of temporary American totalitarianisms in which presidents responded to crises with extralegal overreach. Hammond’s presidency is a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled together, home-grown authoritarianism. An American totalitarian will not look like Mussolini, Stalin, or Hitler, but will instead look just like Hammond: very American, and very familiar.
Carmichael, Deborah. “Gabriel Over the White House (1933).” Hollywood’s White House, ed. Peter C. Rollins & John E. O’Connor. University of Kentucky Press, 2003, pp. 159-179.
Gabriel Over the White House. Directed by Gregory La Cava, MGM, 1933.
Shindler, Colin. Hollywood in Crisis. Routledge, 1996.
Terkel, Studs. Hard Times. Pantheon Books, 1986.