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) 

Happy Birthday, Jean Harlow: THE BEAST OF THE CITY (MGM 1932)

beastof1

In honor of Jean Harlow’s birthday (born March 3, 1911), TCM ran a Harlow marathon today. Since I was at work, I recorded a few of them. I couldn’t wait to get home and view THE BEAST OF THE CITY for three reasons: 1) Harlow, of course, 2) it’s a Pre-Code film I’ve never seen, and 3) it was directed by Charles Brabin, who gave us the devilishly decadent THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. I’d heard a lot about this movie and its violent ending, and though not nearly as gruesome as today’s films, it’s vigilante justice packs a punch that must’ve been pretty shocking in 1932.

The movie starts off with a forward from President Hoover (that’s Herbert, kids, not J. Edgar) decrying the glorification of gangsters in films, and saying we should be glorifying the police instead. We then get into the story, as we find Captain Jim Fitzgerald (aka “Fighting Fitz”) on the scene of a quadruple murder, where the Dopey gang members are found hung, clutching nickles in their dead fists. This is the calling card of the city’s top mobster, Sam Belmonte, who controls all the rackets. Fitz has Belmonte and his top torpedo Chollo picked up, but once again they’re released on a writ of habeas  corpus. The cops can never pin anything on the well-connected Belmonte, and public outcry from citizens and the newspapers demand a shakeup in the department. Fighting Fitz is part of the shakeup, and he gets transferred to a quieter precinct.

beastof5

Fitz’s younger brother Ed, a vice cop, hasn’t quite made his mark on the force. Ed’s an easygoing type, until he meets Belmonte’s moll, the platinum blonde Daisy Stevens, in a lineup. Daisy seduces the young cop (“I know what every young girl oughta know”), plying him with booze and sex. Daisy thinks Ed’s her new meal ticket, one she can use to her advantage. She persuades Ed to do some dirty work for Belmonte, and he winds up on the gangster’s payroll.

Meanwhile, Fitz gets a visit from old pals Tom and Mac, who chide him about his new gig. Just then, a call comes in about a bank robbery, and the three take off in hot pursuit. Fitz shoots one down, taking a slug himself in the process, and they capture the second. He’s hailed as a hero, and named the new Police Chief. He immediately gets to work cracking down on crime, raiding the local speakeasies and rounding up a mass of reprobates into a huge cell. Fitz gives the underworld an earful (“Take away your guns and your hop and you’re nothing but  bunch of dirty, yellow maggots”), and puts them on notice that things are going to change.

beastof2

Ed, drinking hard and living it up with Daisy, asks for a promotion, but Fitz denies him until he proves his worth. Fitz gives Ed an assignment to guard a shipment of money being sent by a bank. Daisy, ever the schemer, tells him she’s going to leave town with a rich boyfriend unless he can come up with some dough. She uses her wiles to get Ed to set up a heist, and has Chollo hire some boys to do the job. What Ed doesn’t realize is Fitz has Tom and Mac stake out the scene, and they stumble onto the fake robbery. The men chase the truck down, bullets flying, and a little girl ends up dead, as does Mac.

The two robbers are brought into Fitz’s office, and while Tom I.D.’s them, Ed says he can’t remember due to the conk on the head he received. The crooks put the finger on Ed, causing Fitz to almost choke his brother out. A trial ensues, and Belmonte hires a grandstanding mouthpiece to defend the trio. He gets them off in a travesty of justice, and remorseful Ed begs Fitz for forgiveness. Fitz develops a plan for revenge, and rounds up Tom and about a dozen od his best men. They have Ed burst in to Belmonte’s celebration party. Belmonte welcomes him, but Ed greets the boss with a smack in the face. He tells the gang he’s going to spill his guts to the papers. Fitz and his men come in and ask Belmonte if he wants to go quietly. The gangster refuses, as Fitz had guessed, and the cops brutally gun down the entire mob. The two brothers die as well, joining hands in a last gesture of solidarity, their work complete.

beastof3

Jean Harlow had been in movies about four years, notably in Howard Hughes’ aviation drama HELL’S ANGELS, before making THE BEAST OF THE CITY. The role of Daisy opened some eyes at MGM, and led to her being cast in RED DUST with Clark Gable, and from there a string of classic hits (DINNER AT EIGHT, RECKLESS, CHINA SEAS, RIFFRAFF, LIBELED LADY) until her untimely death from uremic poisoning in 1937 at age 26. Harlow was Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, and Daisy was a showcase part for her. Whether she’s giving a cop the raspberry, dancing seductively for Ed in her apartment, or cooing lines like “Ya drink beer to make ya cool, and it just makes ya hot”,  Jean Harlow lets everyone know she’s not just another pretty face, but a talented actress.

I’ll go over the rest of the cast briefly, as I know I’m getting a bit long-winded here for an 86 minute movie. Walter Huston stars as Fitz, the no-nonsense crimefighter, a role far removed from his other 1932 starrer, KONGO . Dependable Wallace Ford plays brother Ed. The mild-mannered Dr. Christian, Jean Hersholt, sinks his teeth into the villainous Belmonte, and J. Carrol Naish is good as his slimy second-in-command. The Familiar Face Brigade is represented by actors Ed Brophy, George Chandler, Dorothy Granger, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Emmett O’Connor, and Nat Pendleton. And Fitz’s son is none other than little Mickey Rooney, who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Harlow

THE BEAST OF THE CITY isn’t quite in the same class as SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (both of which also featured Harlow in smaller roles), but it’s still entertaining, if a bit creaky in spots. There’s plenty of cool Pre-Code moments to be on the lookout for, and that ending of vigilante justice makes one wonder just who the true BEAST OF THE CITY was, Belmonte or Fitz. It’s a great chance to watch Jean Harlow sizzle in an early role, one that grabbed Hollywood’s attention and brought her to stardom, and for that, film fans can all be grateful.

Pre Code Confidential #2: KONGO (MGM 1932)

kongo1

Torture! Prostitution! Nymphomania! Drug Addiction! Ritual Sacrifice! What is this, some forgotten 70s Grindhouse flick? No, it’s KONGO, a 1932 release from prestigious MGM studios. This twisted little tale stars an over the top Walter Huston as ‘Legless’ Flint, a sadistic cripple who rules over a native tribe in deepest, darkest Africa with his “ju-ju” magic tricks. Flint has a bone to pick with Gregg, the man who kicked his spine in and stole his wife, so he has Gregg’s daughter Ann kidnapped from a convent. After selling her to a whorehouse for two years, he fetches her to his jungle lair, plying her with alcohol while he degrades and humiliates her. His plan is to lure her father into his encampment to have the final laugh before killing him. Things take a turn for the worst when it’s discovered Ann is not Gregg’s daughter after all, but Flint’s! Now he has to scramble to save her before the tribe burns her alive in their voodoo ritual pyre.

kongo2

Huston has a field day as the nasty Flint. He dominates the film, whether he’s  getting  off on torturing Ann, berating his comrades, or performing cheap magic tricks for the superstitious natives. Huston was more than familiar with the role, having originated it on Broadway. KONGO was first filmed in 1927 as WEST OF ZANZIBAR, with Lon Chaney Sr. in the Huston role as Phroso. Tod Browning (Dracula) directed it. I haven’t seen the silent version, but it’d be hard to top this one for sheer perversion.

kongo3

Beautiful Virginia Bruce (The Invisible Woman) plays Ann, and it’s a far cry from her more glamorous roles. She’s bruised, battered and hopeless, her only solace in the shots of booze Flint sparingly gives her. It’s a remarkable acting job, and Miss Bruce pulls it off with just the right amounts of pathos and fear.

kongo4

“Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez is on hand as Flint’s nympho girlfriend Tula, who’ll fuck just about anything that moves. Lupe spends the movie half-naked, which is a treat for all you voyeurs out there! Silent star Conrad Nagel plays a doctor who wanders into the camp, drug-addled on byang root, who falls in love with the pathetic Ann. The scene where he saves Tula from having her tongue ripped out by Flint, only to be buried in a swamp so leeches will suck the drugs out of him, is alone worth the price of admission.

kongo5

KONGO is one of the most bizarre Pre-Codes you’ll ever see, a sick and demented trip into the heart of the jungle. You won’t find Tarzan here (though Lupe Velez was once married to Johnny Weismuller), just plenty of shocks and grotesqueries guaranteed to keep you glued to the action. Just don’t watch it while chewing byang root!