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) 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.

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