Gabriel Over the White House
Film critics like to say that every film is susceptible to criticism. Perhaps, but I wonder if film criticism in the usual sense could tell us anything insightful about a piece of work like Gabriel Over the White House. Gregory LaCava’s 1933 political film is more like an ideological fever dream, more yielding to the questions of a psychoanalyst than the eyes of the trained critic. Its characters are Jungian-scale archetypes of American political memory, fossilized giants from the Great Man History resurrected and given free reign over the land. That description might imply that this picture is a propaganda piece, and it did serve a role in pushing financier William Randolph Hearst’s agendas. Despite this, the film is bizarrely nonpartisan despite making American political and economic problems its whole subject. In that sense, it’s more of a superhero movie dragged into the Oval Office, a story of a divinely-inspired Superman burdened with a mission from God. Compared to the Blues Brothers, his task is far more Herculean: the salvation of America.
The president has a name, and it’s Judd Hammond (Walter Huston). Initially elected through machine politics and willing to follow a strict party line while in office, he dismisses an army of angry veterans and the problem of organized crime with the wave of a hand. He’s chummy with his staff, plays with his nephew in the Oval Office, and goes on high-speed joyrides on the highway with his motorcycle entourage. Like Tsar Nicholas II, he’s an unenthusiastic ruler, preferring to let his cabinet of machine cronies decide policy for him. When he suffers traumatic injury in a car collision, he seems near death. Not only is he alive, however, but he’s been reinvigorated by a mandate from the angel Gabriel, represented in the film by blowing curtains. Having undergone his Transfiguration, he assumes a heavenly glow and sets to work solving America’s problems through force of will.
Hammond’s reborn incarnation suggests numerous historical figures. His office is stuffed with neoclassical busts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln keeping silent vigil over him. Just as the American Revolution and the French Revolution cloaked themselves in the senatorial togas of the Roman Republic, Hammond conjures the past as a cover for his own patriotic coup d’état. Marx describes French bourgeois society before the 1848 revolutions as “Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle,” so that it “no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.” Similarly, Hammond’s America is in the midst of a Depression, the hangover following the speculative bingeing of the 1920s. This dream president is no socialist, but a savior of capitalism. What needs to go, in his eyes, is not the market but the laxity of the state. He applies the iron vice to the bootleggers, crime lords, and bourgeois politicians because they’re too blind to realize that their wealth depends on the repressive hand of the state. Foppish European politicians likewise, as Hammond blackmails the world into accepting a peace accord entirely on American terms.
In the film we hear echoes of the rise of Mussolini’s rise to power, of Hitler and, more precisely, in the ascent of FDR. These three persons might seem incongruous but each, in their own way, used the power of the capitalist state to subdue the excesses of capitalist liberality. Gabriel Over the White House has a certain chilling resemblance to fascist propaganda, but that reading is inadequate. It is somehow unable to account for the contradictory balance of camp and horror you feel when you watch a scene of a firing squad gunning down criminals while the Statue of Liberty looms in the background. Statues are imbued with a peculiar quality of life in this film, as I alluded to when discussing the busts. They’re symbols of a patriotic American purity, which is the real subject of this film’s adulation. Its combination of God, country, and state, purified of petty partisanship and wielded as a weapon on behalf of the oppressed, is a peculiarly American one. It’s a Kirk Cameron film for American civic religion, propaganda but not only that.
The film attempts to muddle its fascistic overtones, which were just as apparent at the time as now, with an ending in which the Good President dies of a mysterious illness just as he ensures world peace. Passing away peacefully in the chair, apparently awakened from Gabriel’s possession, he dies a modest American citizen. This is the loophole the film exploits to cover itself: dictatorship, but not a Third Reich. Authority must give way to democracy, the state to private enterprise, the firm hand to the invisible one. At the same time, it marks itself decisively as an escapist fantasy. It therefore fails to even keep the courage of its convictions all the way through, averting its eyes to the consequences of its own logic. Deeply fractured, the dreamscape of the film cannot make up its mind as to what ideology it prefers, opting for a pragmatic mix of fascism and “normal” American republicanism. Racism, sexism, the mythology of the free settler taming the land and bringing God’s order to the world––all the classic subconscious touchstones of American politics––surface here in a clear yet inchoate way.
At the end, Gabriel Over the White House’s excesses can be safely laughed off in these postwar days. Simultaneously, for a communist like me, it speaks candidly about the way American liberty and American military and police force commingle. It is the perfect encapsulation of the liberal ideal in its true form: freedom for the few to exploit the many. We should laugh at this bleached demigod and the ridiculous tanks he has his Federal Police ride around in––then stop. Once we leave the dream, we find ourselves in reality, in which the cops ride in tanks and train their weapons not at warehouses full of liquor but protestors and children in the streets. Gawk at the show trial scene in the film only as long as you can bear the fact that such military tribunals actually function in the real world. Empire is our nightmare all the time, and Gabriel Over the White House only seems strange because it is so candid, almost shorn of euphemisms. The problems it reveals are not the domain of interpreters but militants and organizers, those willing to strike at the rulers watched over by the silent statues.