Hollywood's Totalitarian Blueprint
I only became aware of the Pre-Code film Gabriel Over the White House (1933) very recently. Based on the book Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed (a British political adviser), it was directed by native Pennsylvanian Gregory La Cava who also made one of my favorite films, the Carole Lombard-William Powell classic My Man Godfrey (1936). Gabriel stars Walter Huston as a serving U.S. President, a lame-duck, who after an automobile accident and subsequent coma, awakens a changed man.
He decides to make certain adjustments in the way his cabinet, and the Country do business. He starts by firing all the greedy corporate lackeys. Congress responds to his abrupt termination of the crooked money-men by impeaching him. The President responds by declaring martial law, dissolving the legislative branch, revoking the Constitution and assuming absolute power for himself. Now a dictator, he begins to impose his own will over the people. Backed by his own militia of brown-shirted goons, he simply removes anyone that opposes him or stands in his way.
The up side to all this is, his radical policies have a positive effect on the economy, the cost of which is the dissolution of certain freedoms and civil rights. He lifts the Country from a state of depression, people have jobs again and all those self-serving politicians on Capital Hill (the same as organized gangsters) have been extracted. He even manages to fool the rest of the world into thinking he possesses a doomsday weapon of mass destruction, instilling fear abroad, thus bringing about world peace.
So, it's a fascist propaganda film with a happy ending. It's a warning of what could happen if we let someone like Hitler or Mussolini come to power in our own back yard, right? In a way, we did allow someone to assume totalitarian control over us, benevolent or otherwise, that same year. That someone was the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who held office from 1933 to 1945. In fact, Gabriel was sponsored by none other than media magnate William Randolph Hearst (whom Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was based on) who was one of FDR's staunchest supporters.
above left: Walter Huston in Gabriel Over the White House (1933); above right: Adolph Hitler
below: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
To invoke a line from a completely unrelated film (Waiting for Guffman, 1996): "What does this mean, Corky?" In 1933, Americans wanted a President with dictator-like powers, to set things right from the inside out, and that's exactly what they got. FDR was so much more than his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, that history tends to lionize nearly everything the father of the New Deal had ever done. FDR saw Gabriel and reportedly loved it. MGM head Louis B. Mayer (a Jew born in Minsk) felt quite the opposite.
It would seem some of the same men responsible for getting FDR elected were also directly responsible for making this film. It's no wonder FDR supported America's secret development and construction of nuclear weapons (not unlike Huston's character in Gabriel). I suppose it's unknown whether or not he ever intended to use them, unlike his successor, Harry Truman.
Perhaps FDR really was guiding the Country (and the World) by the model put forth in the film. In his controversial Harvard University Press book, The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, historian Ben Urwand suggests that Hollywood was in financial and political bed with Adolph Hitler, a film buff whose top brass also screened Gabriel and applauded it's message and political agenda.
It's really not shocking given the known connections between the Nazi Party and America's banks and corporations at the time. Some would argue that the totalitarian ideology is alive and well today, only hidden in plain sight. Like Ned Beatty's character professes in the uber-prescient Network (1976):
"The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that... perfect world... in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused."
There's no denying that a dictatorship in the wrong hands (Hitler) is bad; in the right hands (FDR) it can be good. Gabriel Over the White House was viewed as naive fantasy at the time of its release and was quickly forgotten. The American way of life was facing terminal illness and people had more important things on their mind like basic survival. The angle of Huston's character being divinely inspired was played up in favor of him just being totally insane. But, to quote another completely unrelated film (This Is Spinal Tap, 1984): "It's such a fine line between stupid, and uh..."