The Scary Relevance of William Randolph Hearst's "Gabriel Over the White House"





Ms. Carmichael is Associate Editor of Film & History and a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University where she serves as an Assistant Director of the Freshman Composition.

After the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush quickly declared"war on terrorism," as news writers and historians searched for comparisons to these events in the national past. On this website Thomas Spencer looked to the Alien and Sedition Acts during the"Quasi War" with France in the 1790s to locate an historical connection. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria looked further, drawing parallels with Abraham Lincoln's executive powers during the Civil War, Japanese internments during World War II, and the McCarthy"Red Scare" hearings in the 1950s. John Dean offered both a survey of military tribunals in American history and links between the Bush and Nixon presidencies.

Because this current"war" is more unconventional than any conflict recorded in our military history, there is perhaps a better era to explore--The Great Depression--and a very different"leader" to examine--William Randolph Hearst.

Although not under armed attack, Americans felt the anxiety of a nation under siege during the Great Depression, a time when the traditional values of self-reliance, individualism, and Puritan work ethic seemed inadequate. Stock market declines resound as a crisis today, but after 1929, the ability of the government to solve economic problems was called into question by rank and file citizens facing foreclosures and job losses. The dream had died and confidence in government plummeted.

In both John Steinbeck's and John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, one poignant scene reveals the frustration of a farmer with no one to blame for the economic devastation created by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. He cannot shoot the bulldozer operator, a friend and neighbor, and he cannot determine the corporate entity that actually owns his land--it is not his local banker.

The Great Depression caused farmers, mothers, scholars, and politicians to question the ability of national leaders to solve the problems of the era, often calling for radical change. Doubts that the United States government could solve national problems crossed class lines. Many Americans were willing to sacrifice constitutionally guaranteed rights and were ready to support a radically changed national government. Americans wanted to feel secure, no matter the cost to personal freedoms.

Both fascism and socialism were seen as solutions to the Depression. William Dudley Pelley organized his Silver Shirts as a fascist alternative. The Mothers' Movements, shifting from anti-war campaigns to anti-Communist crusades called for fascist reform and, in an attempt to identify the"enemy," often targeted Jews as the cause of the national woes. The fascist rhetoric of these groups reached radio audiences with the help of Father Charles E. Coughlin and gained additional national attention through the efforts of the outspoken Huey Long, who declared his readiness to confiscate funds from the wealthiest Americans to provide the middle-class with economic security. He called it the"Share Our Wealth" plan. The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), aligned with movements such as the Farmer-Labor Federation, fought equally hard for significant change. Economist Lawrence Dennis, in his The Coming American Fascism, wrote that"terms like communism and fascism, just as terms like Christianity, Americanism, or due process of the law, must mean different and often mutually exclusive things to different people." Many Americans felt that any means by any name were justified in order to bring the Great Depression to an end.

William Randolph Hearst, one of those Americans seeking radical change (and a man who changed party affiliations regularly), brought his political message to millions of moviegoers in 1933 with his Cosmopolitan Films' production of"Gabriel Over the White House." Collaborating with scriptwriter Carey Wilson, Hearst himself wrote some of the politically charged oratory of President Hammond (Walter Houston).

Opening archival footage lends a documentary character to the film, introducing the new president on inauguration day. It is quickly revealed that President Hammond, a pleasure-loving and pliable politician, has gained the presidency through the support of party leaders. These leaders remind him regularly of the many favors he owes them. He answers to political shysters and not the American people suffering through the Great Depression.

After a life-changing event--a nearly fatal auto accident caused by his own reckless driving--this fictional president experiences a spiritual and political epiphany guided by the archangel Gabriel (present in the form of a soft musical leit motif). A transformed President Hammond, who now resembles Abraham Lincoln physically and spiritually, acts rapidly to rid the nation of an unseen enemy--rum-running gangsters. Invoking his position as commander in chief, he adjourns Congress, disbands his Cabinet, institutes martial law, and after conviction by a military tribunal, orders death by firing squad in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty for the bootleggers who have threatened the stability of the country. Hammond further eliminates domestic problems by forming a CCC-like program. He gets foreign debts repaid by bullying world leaders with a display of military might. The problem of returning to a constitutional government is neatly solved as Gabriel, an angel of both vengeance and mercy, kills off President Hammond, who returns to his former self after completing the rescue of his country.

As during the Great Depression, the enemy today is invisible and therefore more sinister than an adversary with known state borders. Now as then, some Americans advocate radical change. Fear has led to important concessions. Since 9-11 Americans have willingly accepted increased security screenings as they travel, the institution of military tribunals, and a massive reorganization of government. The president even advocates a plan to encourage Americans to spy on one another--the"national neighborhood watch" or TIPS plan.

Both the United States Congress and American allies around the globe seem to have little choice but to agree to commander in chief Bush's requests. Loud disagreement would appear to be anti-American. Unlike the fade-out of a Hollywood film, the threats our nation faces cannot be so easily resolved. George W. Bush faces far-reaching decisions and may feel like President Taft who wrote,"the whole government is so identified in the minds of the people with [the president's] personality, that they make him responsible for all the sins of omission and of commission of society at large." We can hope that Gabriel continues to hover over the White House.


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jodie barth - 11/22/2002

I HTINK THAT IS IS ALL TOO MUCH FOR ME I AM A 16 YEAT OLD FRMALE AND I THINK THAT THIS IS TOO MUCH FOR ME !! I JUST TRY TO BLOCK IT BUT IT WONT HAPPEN!!!!


Seymour Butts - 10/21/2002

THIS PAGE SUCKS!!!!


Ben Alpers - 8/15/2002

Apparently Netscape eliminates the first paragraph of any comment, so I thought my first two comments had somehow lost their first paragraphs. Checking on Internet Explorer, I realize that they are there. Sorry about the multiple posts. If the system allowed me to delete the repetitions, I would.


Ben Alpers - 8/15/2002

My second comment above was actually intended to be the first paragraph of my first comment...oh well!


Ben Alpers - 8/15/2002

Somehow the first paragraph of my last comment got eliminated...here it is:

Gabriel Over the White House is indeed an interesting film. It was actually based on a novel by an Englishman, Thomas F. Tweed. While the film openly calls for dictatorship, I think it's quite wrong to read the film as either communist or fascist in orientation. Novelist Tweed, screenwriters Hearst and Wilson, producer Walter Wanger (who had a justified reputation as one of the few real liberals among Hollywood producers), and others involved in the film clearly intended it as a message to FDR, who had been elected, but not yet inaugurated as the film was in production. The period between November 1932 and March 1933 saw an unusual profusion of calls for dictatorship from Americans who were not on the political fringes. Barron's, the business journal, for example, editorialized in favor of "Semi-Dictatorship" in February 1932. Columbia Pictures released a documentary called Mussolini Speaks about the Italian dictator; newspaper ads for the film proclaimed "A lot of us have been asking for a dictator. His name is not Mussolini or Stalin or Hitler. It is Roosevelt." For his part, FDR played off of this moment by calling for extraordinary executive powers in his first inaugural address if Congress failed to pass his suggested legislation. "FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY" quite supportive newspaper headlines read the next day. Shortly after the inaugural, however, this moment passed. Since then, it really has been only among the political fringes of America -- the Pelleys, Dennises, and so forth -- that one finds calls for dictatorship.


Ben Alpers - 8/15/2002

Gabriel Over the White House is indeed an interesting film. It was actually based on a novel by an Englishman, Thomas F. Tweed. While the film openly calls for dictatorship, I think it's quite wrong to read the film as either communist or fascist in orientation. Novelist Tweed, screenwriters Hearst and Wilson, producer Walter Wanger (who had a justified reputation as one of the few real liberals among Hollywood producers), and others involved in the film clearly intended it as a message to FDR, who had been elected, but not yet inaugurated as the film was in production. The period between November 1932 and March 1933 saw an unusual profusion of calls for dictatorship from Americans who were not on the political fringes. Barron's, the business journal, for example, editorialized in favor of "Semi-Dictatorship" in February 1932. Columbia Pictures released a documentary called Mussolini Speaks about the Italian dictator; newspaper ads for the film proclaimed "A lot of us have been asking for a dictator. His name is not Mussolini or Stalin or Hitler. It is Roosevelt." For his part, FDR played off of this moment by calling for extraordinary executive powers in his first inaugural address if Congress failed to pass his suggested legislation. "FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY" quite supportive newspaper headlines read the next day. Shortly after the inaugural, however, this moment passed. Since then, it really has been only among the political fringes of America -- the Pelleys, Dennises, and so forth -- that one finds calls for dictatorship.

As for the comparison to today...I share what I take to be Ms. Carmichael's concern about the direction taken by this administration and the extraordinary powers that it wants to claim for the president (or those who think and act in his name). But I think we're living in a quite different moment today from the early years of the Great Depression. First, for better or for worse, nobody is openly calling for dictatorship. Whether this difference reflects more moderation in America today, or simply greater duplicity on the part of would-be dictators only time will tell. As for calls for radical change in America today, frankly, I just don't see it. Both major parties have distinguished themselves over the last year by their refusal to face the supposedly new, post-9/11 world with bold, new schemes. The Bush administration has stuck to its pre-9/11 program of massive defense increases, a foreign policy obsessed with Iraq, and an economic policy of large tax cuts for the rich. The Democrats have yet to offer a clear alternative. And though I don't think the American people are satisfied with these choices, they also don't seem to be rushing to join third party alternatives, or pushing the major parties to be more bold. The world may have changed on 9/11/02, but, other than the President's popularity ratings, American politics didn't change much.

Finally, it's worth noting that Gabriel Over the White House was essentially remade in the 1990s as Dave, which neatly eliminates the embarrassing detail of dictatorship.


Dale Hinote - 8/15/2002

Turner Classic Movies aired this film recently, without mentioning the Hearst connection. they did mention, though, that Hitler's seizure power caused the film to be quickly yanked from distribution. The film is alternately scary and hilarious, and, as Ms Carmihael suggests, quite relevant to present events. Perhaps TCM could be persuaded to air it again. I taped it and may use it in teaching.


Deborah Carmichael - 8/13/2002

Title should read Hearst's rather than Hearts's

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