Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 # 44 Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the ferociously sexy, intimidatingly brilliant Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for each additional choice.
Today’s entry, 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House is the oldest film that I’ve written about for the column yet it feels ripped from today’s headlines. The pre-code shocker would make for an eerily perfect, prescient double-feature with yesterday’s My World of Flops Case File, The Trump Prophecy even if both films did not uncannily involve lead characters whose speaking voice changes dramatically, growing deeper and more authoritative, after they undergo trauma and emerge from the other side men overcome with a Messianic sense of purpose.
That’s right: in the weird fantasy worlds of The Trump Prophecy and Gabriel Over the White House when God chooses you to carry out his divine mission to, respectively, get Donald Trump elected president and solve all of our country’s problems and by extension, fix the world he literally changes the timbre of your voice, making it more manly and badass.
God knows that when you start confidently announcing your plans to save the world by getting Donald Trump elected to the highest office in the land and/or angrily sieze complete control of the United States government you’re going to want to communicate your ideas with the authority of Keith David or James Earl Jones, not squeak them to an adoring public in an Eddie Deezenesque nasal whine.
In the weird glow of Trump’s surreal march to power and military strongman aspirations Gabriel Over the White House plays like a fantasy of power, authority and domination shared by Trump’s followers and Trump himself.
In Gabriel Over the White House the post-conversion Commander-in-Chief, Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) strides boldly through the halls of Congress and the White House, indignantly and correctly telling everyone to do what he says or go fuck themselves, including members of his own party, his cabinet and all of our European allies. Instead of being hated for his arrogance, megalomania and furious conviction that he knows better than anyone else what’s best for humanity Judson is elevated to the level of a man-God.
At the height of the Great Depression, Gabriel Over the White House scandalously and transgressively suggested that dictatorships where democratically elected politicians declare martial law and assume complete control of the government are only wrong if those dictators don’t have the right ideas. In Gabriel Over the White House, the problem is not that dictatorships are inherently immoral and fascism is always wrong, it’s that we don’t have the right dictator.
With his furious convictions, mad prophet intensity and contempt for compromise and weakness, Judson Hammond turns out to be the right kind of dictator, a brutal tyrant everyone can get behind, but he initially cuts a much meeker, less manly figure.
When Hammond is elected he sees himself as nothing more than a party functionary, a do-nothing machine politician whose less than inspirational message is “Not my problem.” Unemployment? The President, who very annoyingly refers to himself in the third person, not unlike the Donald, insists that’s a “local problem.” Murderous racketeers making the streets run red with the blood of the innocents? Also something the President thinks city and states should be able to handle on their own.
The President ends a press conference by promising “a return to prosperity” but won’t let the press quote such incendiary rhetoric. Judson is content to lazily go through the motions as a bought and paid for career politician until he gets into a near-fatal car crash.
When Judson awakens from a coma he is not the same man. The milquetoast pragmatist who seemingly owes everyone everything is replaced by a fiery man of action who doesn’t think twice about telling people to go fuck themselves if they’re not interested in doing exactly what he says, when he says, like he says.
Judson comes to resemble the Ben Garrison fantasy of Trump, a dashing, muscle-bound man of action in a toxic and obscene world, slashing his way through hacks and hypocrites who are craven and powerless before a man emboldened by a truth seemingly given to him personally by the God of all things so that he can save humanity from itself.
The career politicians, racketeers and foreign diplomats who once looked down on President Hammond with an expression of barely concealed contempt now gaze adoringly at him with a look of open-mouthed awe and appreciation that implicitly but powerfully conveys, “What a man!”
When Congress tries to impeach him, the President reminds Congress, “Read the Constitution. You’ll find the president has some power.” What kind of power? Well, according to Gabriel Over the White House, the President has the power to declare a national emergency any time he sees fit (sound familiar?), to break up Congress when it dares to go against his wishes and autocratic brand of governing and also to declare martial law, suspend the right of a trial by jury and have gangsters and mobsters and other enemies of the American people executed en masse for the public good.
Like its protagonist, Gabriel Over the White House has no time for doubt or debate or uncertainty. It similarly has no time for niceties like “freedom” and “democracy” and “checks and balances.” It’s in a furious hurry to hammer out its bizarre, surreal, anti-Democratic, pro-Fascist message that it cannot abide even the idea that Hudson might not be right.
President Hammond doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a dictator. But he insists that he is a paradox the film astonishingly does not seem to recognize as a paradox: a Democratic dictator. Hammond thunders passionately, to the apparent approval of an American public that cannot possibly grant him enough power, “If what I plan to do in the name of the people makes me a dictator, then it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson’s definition of democracy: a government of the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Hudson is who Donald Trump desperately wants to be. He’s who Donald Trump is in his feverish, deluded, painfully myopic imagination: a man who acts boldly, decisively and consistently on instincts that are always right and a sense of the world and its problems so far beyond anyone else’s imagining that he truly is playing three dimensional chess while his flummoxed opponents are left knocking over their checker board in frustration.
An admirer says of President Hammond and his truth train: “The way he talks and thinks is so simple and honest it comes off as crazy”, leading another admirer, who understands that the President’s astonishing new gifts come directly from God, possibly through his messenger Gabriel, to reflect, “Let it be read as a divine madness. Look at the chaos and catastrophe the sane men of this world have brought about.”
In Gabriel Over the White House, honesty, simplicity and correctness are superpowers that transform an ordinary, sub-par President, a real Calvin Coolidge type into a political superhero who, in the film’s estimation at least, can confidently assume his place as one of the greatest and most important human beings that ever lived.
Gabriel Over the White House was made pre-code. It’s jarring to see an early Hollywood film so lurid and violent but it’s even more shocking seeing an American movie portray Fascism, dictatorships and declaring martial law in such a positive, uncomplicated light.
Who needs freedom or Civil Rights or the checks and balances written into the constitution when you have a leader who does everything right?
Like Trump at his most combative, Hammond doesn’t just go after his opponents with the ferocity of a junkyard dog. He goes after his own party and our nation’s closest, most important allies with the same angry conviction that everything he thinks and does is right and everything they think and do is wrong.
The President brings together the mustachioed, be-hatted leaders for a macho display of American naval strength with a strong message for the sum of Europe: you assholes better pay us your war debts over the Great War or you snooty so and sos might end up on the receiving end of our incredible military power, allies or not.
When Europe collectively protests that they cannot afford to pay back what they owe God’s own United States, the President tells them they should break up their armies and then use the money they’ve saved by changing swords into plowshares into paying the United States.
This has two positive effects: those shitty loser asshole Frenchy garbage countries pay us the money they owe us and stop being sub-human deadbeats AND world peace follows after a complete disarmament.
Not unlike the current inhabitant of the White House, Gabriel Over the White House has so little regard for the rest of the world that it seems to regard world peace and France repaying its war debts to the United States as matters of equal importance. After all, God wants the United States to succeed, so it send Hammond to act as a hammer of righteousness beating down on his enemies with great fury and vengeance.
Like the films based on Ayn Rand’s novels and Neil Breen’s homemade manifestos, Gabriel Over the White House is unsubtle to the point of feeling like a fever dream we can’t awake from, a madness we cannot shake until the film ends. With the exception of the movie I saw yesterday, The Trump Prophecy, I can’t say I’ve seen a movie like it because American films, understandably, tend to take a dim view of tyrants, dictators and Fascism. Not Gabriel Over the White House, however. It feels like a singular time capsule from an alternate universe, one where American democracy and European-style Fascism happily coexist instead of standing in fierce opposition to one another.
Watching this Fascist political porn I found myself thinking very strongly that Gabriel Over the White House is a deeply, deeply, unconscionably un-American movie, a movie whose message is antithetical to the principles upon which this, admittedly often very shitty nation was founded. The one-two punch of The Trump Prophecy and Gabriel Over the White House, in addition to Trump’s election and popularity among his base led me to fear, however, that maybe these movies aren’t so unAmerican after all.
If that is the case, then Gabriel Over the White House is ultimately less a fascinating and disturbing political power fantasy than a horror movie about a nation lustily embracing, in Fascism and a strongman dictator, the very scourge it would end up fighting and triumphing over in World War II.
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