Thursday, October 22, 2009

Any way you want it

As part of its look at movies dealing with the Great Depression, TCM is showing Gabriel Over the White House overnight tonight at 2:00 AM ET. It's a very interesting historical curiosity, but one that ultimately doesn't succeed.

Walter Huston stars as political careerist Jud Hammond who gets elected President during the Great Depression. At first, he doesn't do much about the economic situation -- until one day, while driving his car, he gets in a serious accident that leaves him in a coma. He eventually wakes up from the coma, but only after he believes he's seen the angel Gabriel, telling him to be a radically different President. Indeed, he does become quite different, believing that he needs to be much more assertive about involking Presidential power, to the point that he'd be willing to adjourn Congress and personally shoot gangsters. All of this, needless to say, causes consternation for the party bosses....

Gabriel Over the White House was filmed in 1932 and funded by William Randolph Hearst for distribution by MGM; but was only released after the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt as President. Hearst and the bosses at MGM were generally strongly opposed to the domestic policies of Roosevelt and the other Democrats (remember, it was Warner Bros. that made the movies with a "social" message). In that light, the question needs to be asked whether this movie was meant to be a warning of what Roosevelt was going to do, or a prescription. And even today, a movie like Gabriel Over the White House can be used to bash either side of the political aisle. I've seen people argue that the movie has parallels to George W. Bush (on the grounds that Huston's President is a "simpleton" who thinks he's on a messianic mission) -- but there are just as many people on the other side who would claim Obama seems to think he's on a mission, and would use things like the recent kerfuffle over whether Fox News is a "legitimate" news operation as evidence that Obama, like Huston's President Hammond, is willing to bully anybody who won't go along with him. If anything, President Hammond comes across more like a big city "machine" politician, along the lines of Spencer Tracy in The Last Hurrah.

All of this makes Gabriel Over the White House a fascinating look at what people were thinking about the political situation in 1932 and 1933. However, as a movie, it's much more problematic. The thing is, whichever way you think it's politicking it's unbelievably blunt and heavy-handed in that propagandizing, much like Things to Come (the politics of which I generally wouldn't agree with) or I Want to Live! (which has an anti-capital punishment view that I generally agree with). It makes the movie tough to watch.

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