Pre Code Confidential #22: GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (MGM 1933)

One of the most bizarre films of any era is GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, a political fantasy extolling the joys of a totalitarian dictatorship in America! Produced by the independent Walter Wanger , a staunch anti-Fascist(1) , and financed by William Randolph Hearst, the left-leaning newspaper magnate(2) who served as the inspiration for CITIZEN KANE, the film shows what would happen if all the political power in Washington were consolidated in one man – and shows it to be a good thing!

Newsreel footage is interspersed with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston ), newly elected at the height of the Depression. Hammond is a typically phony, glad-handing politician, more concerned in towing the party line and maintaining the status quo than helping the people that elected him. Though he promises peace and prosperity, Hammond tells the press he regards the problems of unemployment, homelessness, and rampant crime as “a local problem”. He’s more interested in playing with his little nephew (Dickie Moore ) in the Oval Office than listening to a radio appeal from John Bronson (David Landau), leader of the “army of the unemployed”, to meet and discuss the Nation’s troubles. Hammond, like most politicians, just doesn’t care – the bachelor president’s idea of job creation is giving his ‘side piece’ Pendie Malloy (Karen Morley ) the position of personal secretary.

The bubbleheaded Hammond also gets his kicks driving at high speeds, which results in a car crash that puts the president in a coma. Doctors say in private he’s “beyond any human help” – and that’s when a breeze wafts through an open window, and Hammond is bathed in a white light, the implication being a visitation from a Higher Power. Hammond comes out of the coma a changed man, no longer just another party hack, but a man determined to serve the people. He fires his entire Deep State Cabinet and meets with the unemployed “forgotten men”, taking his message directly to the people, calling for the creation of a Construction Army that puts everyone to work on infrastructure. An outraged Congress screams for his impeachment, leading him to disband that cesspool of do-nothings and use the power of the Presidency to declare martial law, making himself Supreme Leader of the country!

Hammond goes into action, putting a moratorium on housing foreclosures, changing the nation’s banking laws, giving direct aid to agriculture, and repealing the 18th Amendment, opening government liquor stores throughout the land. This doesn’t sit well with the criminal element, putting their bootlegging operations out of business, and the crime lord Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon ) retaliates by not only bombing the stores, but a drive-by at the White House that injures Pendie! Hammond creates a Federal Police Force, led by his Press Secretary Beek Beekman (Franchot Tone ), who use armored tanks and machine guns to obliterate the gangsters, then sentences them to death at a military tribunal, executing the enemies of the state by firing squad!

In his last master stroke, Hammond decides to pull America out of her financial doldrums by making Europe and the rest of the world pay their war debts by threat of force, gathering the heads of state on his yacht for a grand showing of America’s military might, and calling for worldwide disarmament. The nations of the world agree to his terms, and they all sign Hammond’s “Washington Covenant”, fulfilling his earlier promise of peace and prosperity. The president collapses during the signing, and once again that eerie wind blows through the window as Judson Hammond expires, his job complete.

Gregory LaCava (l) with Walter Huston, Franchot Tone, and Karen Morley

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE was directed by Gregory LaCava , who headed Hearst’s animation studio Independent Film Services from 1915-18 before moving to live-action two-reelers and eventually full features. Most of LaCava’s films are comedies with social commentary thrown in, like FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, STAGE DOOR, and his most famous movie, MY MAN GODFREY. Here, his direction takes things seriously, though I can’t help but believe, knowing LaCava’s own political views, that there’s more than a touch of satire involved.

William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

This excursion into fascist fantasy was written by Carey Wilson, who would later produce and narrate propaganda films for the war effort and the Department of Defense. Hearst himself is rumored to have penned some of Hammond’s speeches (3), inputting his own political philosophies into the narrative. The real newly elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, watched and enjoyed the film, stating “it would do a lot of good” (4), and actually incorporated some of Hammond’s political ideas into his New Deal. Hearst was a steadfast Roosevelt supporter until disagreements regarding FDR’s vetoing of the Bonus Bill (which would’ve supplied extra aid to WWI vets) and support for joining the World Court (5), coupled with Hearst’s continued fawning over Adolf Hitler, caused a political rift that never healed.

MGM boss Louis B. Mayer hated GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, and wanted to lock it up and throw away the key after sitting through a preview (6). But all the fuss and furor some critics have over this film is meaningless; after all, this is America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, right? A political dictatorship? It could never happen here… or could it? COULD IT?

Sources 

(1) Hollywood Renegade Archives (website)

(2) William Randolph Hearst: His Role in American Progressivism (Ray Everett Littlefield III, University Press 1980)

(3) The Hollywood Movie Made For FDR’s Inauguration (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)

(4) The Hollywood Hit Movie That Urged FDR to Become a Fascist (Jeff Greenfield, Politico, 3/25/18)

(5) The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst (David Nasaw, Houghton Mifflin 2000)

(6) The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code (Leonard J. Leff and Jerald Simmons, University Press of Kentucky 2001) 

Pre-Code Confidential #13: Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH (MGM 1932)

Long before his John Wayne collaborations, John Ford had worked to perfect his own style as a filmmaker. Even though the cranky, idiosyncratic Ford, who directed his first film way back in 1917,  had his directing credit removed from 1932’s FLESH, it is credited as “A John Ford Production”, and one can tell this is definitely a “John Ford Picture”.  The man himself thought the film was lousy, and most critics agreed, but I’m in the minority opinion. I think it’s worthy of reappraisal for film lovers to get a glimpse of some vintage Ford, with solid performances by Wallace Beery, Karen Morley, and Ricardo Cortez. Plus, as a long-time pro wrestling buff, the grappling game setting appeals to me, as do the many Pre-Code themes and moments.

Beery once again is a good-natured lug, a German wrestler named Polakai who doubles as a waiter in a rowdy beer garden, toting a keg on his massive shoulders. Morley is  Laura, an American just released from prison with no visible means of support. She runs up a hefty tab and is unable to pay, so Polakai takes care of it. Later, Laura is walking the streets and spotted by a local polizeibeamte. The smitten Polakai takes her in, giving this stranger in a strange land a place to stay, much to the shock of his neighbors.

What Polakai doesn’t know is Laura is carrying a torch for her lover, the still incarcerated Nicky (Cortez), as well as carrying Nicky’s baby! Polakai catches her trying to lift his stash of cash, and she gives him a sob story about helping spring her “brother” from jail, so the naïve rassler insists on helping her once again. When Nicky is released, and finds out Laura’s pregnant, the rat drops her like a hot weinerschnitzel and skedaddles back to the states. This leaves Laura with little choice: convincing Polakai she’s carrying his child, the dumb brute does the honorable thing and marries her.

Polakai wins the championship of Germany while she gives birth to a son, then  takes his new family in tow and comes to America to compete for the World’s Championship. Now the roles are reversed, with Polakai the “stranger in a strange land”.  Slimy Nicky worms his way back into the picture and becomes Polakai’s manager, but when the big lug learns the American rasslin’ racket is fixed, he refuses to play ball and decides to return to Germany. Nicky, not wanting to lose his new meal ticket, smacks Laura around to force her to convince him otherwise. She achieves this by leaving him, backing Polakai into a corner, and the hulking grappler agrees to “wrestle crooked”. He discovers the effects of American bootleg whiskey and hits the bottle hard, unable to function on the night of his big championship bout. Nicky is steamed when the brute is unable to get out of bed and shoves Laura to the floor, angering the giant. She confesses everything to Polakai, who rises from his sickbed and strangles Nicky. Polakai is arrested shortly after winning the title, and Laura visits him in prison, stating she’s leaving town, but Polakai begs her to stay. Despite all that’s occurred, he’s still in love with his American liebchin.

Appropriately, since half the film is set in Germany, Ford utilizes an Expressionistic style in FLESH. The director had worked alongside F.W. Murnau on the Fox lot, and Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) was an eye-opener for Ford. He considered it a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it heavily influenced Ford’s silents FOUR SONS (1928) and HANGMAN’S HOUSE (1928), as well as his later, more “arty” films like THE INFORMER, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, and (to a certain extent) THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Ford’s signature doorway motif shows up, as do some marvelous overhead shots, and the use of shadows give FLESH even more of an “Ufa” feel.  Though everybody knows Ford called the shot selections on his films, DP Arthur Edeson was no slouch; Edeson was the man behind the camera for such classics as FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, THE MALTESE FALCON, SERGEANT YORK, and CASABLANCA , and surely must’ve had some input into the look of the film.

A whole host of writers worked on the screenplay for FLESH, both credited and uncredited. Film director Edmund Goulding is credited with the story, adapted by writers Leonard Praskins and Edgar Allan Woolf. Moss Hart wrote the dialog, while William Faulkner, John W. Considine Jr. and Hanns Kraly made uncredited contributions. Faulkner’s participation inspired the Coen Brothers to parody him “writing a Wallace Beery wrestling story” in their 1991 film BARTON FINK.

Beery goes for pathos as the dim-witted but kind-hearted bear Polakai, although even John Ford himself couldn’t restrain the actor completely from mugging for the camera (this would be their only film together). Karen Morley (Laura) is superb in a difficult role, as she was in the Pre-Codes SCARFACE, THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, DINNER AT EIGHT, and King Vidor’s excellent 1934 OUR DAILY BREAD. Morley was a fine actress whose career, along with husband Lloyd Gough, was ruined by HUAC in 1947. Ricardo Cortez is vile as ever in the part of Nicky; the former “competitor” to Valentino’s Latin Lover crown made a career out of playing low-down snakes in 30’s films before turning to directing. Familiar Faces rounding out the cast are Vince Barnett , Herman Bing, Ed Brophy , Jean Hersholt, Wilbur Mack, John Miljan, and Frank Reicher . Ford favorite Ward Bond   plays one of Beery’s early sparring partners, and ex-wrestler Nat Pendleton  is cast as (what else?) a wrestler. The film also features an appearance by real life heavyweight champ Wladek Zbyszko, who fought such greats of the era as “Strangler” Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher.

I’m unsure why Ford chose to pull his name from the director’s credit. FLESH isn’t a bad movie by any means, and in fact is quite entertaining. It’s been said he felt constricted working at MGM, and didn’t work at the studio again until 1945’s THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. By that time, John Ford had already won three of his record four directing Oscars, and was a force to be reckoned with in cinema. FLESH offers viewers a chance to see the master in an early, experimental stage, and for that reason alone deserves to be seen.

 

Pre Code Confidential #4: Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (MGM 1932)

“Rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe, the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994)

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First, a brief history lesson: The Yellow Peril was a particular brand of xenophobia that spread in the late 19th/early 20th century. Named by (of all people) Kaiser Wilhelm II of  Germany, and given credibility during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this “fear of the unknown” basically said those “inscrutable” Chinese were going to come over and slaughter all the good white Christians and rape their women. Popular culture of the times played on these fears by depicting villainous Oriental characters as barbaric, opium-smoking deviants who lusted for nothing less than racial miscegenation and total world dominance! Comic strips featured evil adversaries like The Dragon Lady (Terry and the Pirates) and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon) and the pulps were filled with Eastern devils such as Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin.  But the granddaddy of them all was Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, who terrorized Western Civilization in a series of novels from 1913 to 1959. Fu first came to the screen in two silent British serials with Harry Agar Lyons as the megalomaniacal doctor.  Paramount Pictures brought Fu Manchu to Hollywood in 1929 in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, starring Warner Oland (the future Charlie Chan). Oland returned to the role in the aptly titled THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU, and later had what was pretty much a cameo in DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, with Fu’s fiendish spawn (played by the sexy and tragic Anna May Wong) handling most of the villainy.

All of which brings us to THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. And boy, if you thought MGM laid the perversion on thick with KONGO , wait’ll you get a load of this one! Never mind the rampant racism, this movie’s chock full of  blatant sexual lust, drug use, gruesome tortures, and possibly even incest. Wow! Don’t get me wrong now, I enjoy all this stuff, I just don’t expect to see it in a film from 1932. It’s part of what makes rediscovering these Pre-Codes so much fun.

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The plot’s fairly simple: A British expedition is sent to Asia to find the tomb of Genghis Khan before Dr. Fu Manchu gets his hands on the treasures there, including Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, which Fu will use to claim he’s the rightful heir of Khan and kick off a race war. Sir Lionel Barton is sent by British Intelligence, led by Sir Nayland Smith, to lead the dig, but he’s kidnapped by Fu’s minions in the British Museum disguised as mummies! He’s strapped under a bell and tortured while Fu toys with him, eventually killing the old boy. Sheila, Barton’s daughter, and her oversized boyfriend Terry go with Sir Nayland and his crew to search for Sir Lionel, where they’re captured by Fu, along with his “ugly and insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See, and placed in various torture devices. Sheila is set to be sacrificed to Fu’s gods, as he implores his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women!” Of course, our stalwart heroes foil the “hideous yellow menace” and the British Empire makes the world safe for Caucasians everywhere. (See, fairly simple!)

The movie’s serial-like pacing keeps things zipping along. Director Charles Brabin, husband of silent screen vamp Theda Bara, was an old pro, having been in pictures since 1911. His career was mainly in the silent era, though he did do a few Pre-Codes before retiring, including the gangster flick THE BEAST OF THE CITY with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow. MGM gave this one a pretty big budget, with Cedric Gibbons providing some stunning art direction, and famed electrical wizard Kenneth Strickfaden designing Fu’s weird scientific machinery, as he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

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Speaking of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff is sensational as Fu Manchu. He exaggerates his natural lisp, making Fu sound like a slithering serpent. Cecil Holland’s makeup has Karloff looking like a grotesque characture of a Chinaman, with his drooping moustache and long claws. Boris delights in punishing his enemies, gleefully torturing them by dangling Smith over a crocodile pit, shooting up Terry with spider venom, reptile organs, and dragon blood to control his will, and placing another in the old “walls closing in” device, only these walls are full of sharp silver spikes! Dear Boris has a field day as he wickedly attempts to “dispatch (them) to (their) cold, saintly Christian paradise”, and conquer the world. He’s obviously having a blast in the role, and is a depraved delight.

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That “ugly and insignificant daughter” is none other than Myrna Loy, and she’s great as the lascivious Fah Lo See. From the moment she first appears on camera, her braless headlights beaming, we know Fah Lo See’s a wanton woman. The scene where Terry’s being whipped while Fah Lo See watches, practically drooling, commanding her slaves to go “Faster, faster!” is a highlight of Pre-Code excess. Nora Charles was never this horny! The two romantic leads, Karen Morley (SCARFACE, OUR DAILY BREAD) and Charles Starrett (better known as The Durango Kid), aren’t nearly as interesting as Fu and his daughter. Lewis Stone (Andy’s dad Judge Hardy) plays Nayland Smith as a staunch, macho defender of the Crown and all things Anglo-Saxon. Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, and David Torrence round out the cast, but all eyes will be on Karloff and Loy at their deranged, pain-inflicting best.

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The Yellow Peril fervor switched from Chinese madmen to Japanese war mongers in the 1940’s, and there’s plenty of filmic evidence of racist sentiments in the ultra-patriotic movies of that era. But the Chinese supervillain stereotype continued well into the 60’s, influencing everything from James Bond’s DR. NO to Marvel Comics villain The Yellow Claw to a new series of Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, despite its racist elements, is one of the most devilishly fun Pre-Codes around, and features yet another star turn for the great Boris Karloff. Definitely worth watching for the sheer madness of it all!