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Film / Gabriel Over the White House

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"[I]f what I plan to do for 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 of people!!"
President Judd Hammond

Gabriel Over the White House is a 1933 American Pre-Code film starring Walter Huston, directed by Gregory La Cava, adapted from a novel by British writer Thomas F. Tweed.

Newly-elected U.S. President Judson Hammond (Huston) is a political hack who's far more interested in cavorting with his mistress Pendola Molloy (Karen Morley) than tackling the crime problem, or ending The Great Depression, or doing anything else to fix the terrible problems plaguing America in the early 1930s. Then one day he is injured in an auto accident and goes into a coma. When he wakes up, Hammond is a completely different person, a crusader who has a whole slew of radical new ideas to get America back on its feet. Radical new ideas that mostly involve a populist dictatorship.

One of the most unintentionally scary films ever, and likely more influential at the time than we realize...


Compare It Can't Happen Here, for a much more skeptical take on the same theme. Also Mission to Moscow, another very odd political movie starring Walter Huston.


  • Angelic Possession: The Archangel Gabriel, to President Hammond. Maybe.
  • Archangel Gabriel: The only hint of his presence is a breath of wind at the curtains, and then a light which illuminates Hammond's sickbed. Hammond then wakes up a changed man. Later another bright light and breath of wind accompanies the typed copy of the speech which apparently came straight from Gabriel's typewriter.
  • Asshole Victim: The gangsters. Their rights to due process and a fair trial are blatantly violated, but considering all the evil acts they commit during the course of the film, the audience is supposed to accept this as them getting Laser-Guided Karma for all the times they violated other people's rights.
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  • Artistic License – Politics: Some dude standing in the well of the House of Representatives demands that the House remove the President. That isn't how it works—the House brings charges ("impeachment") but the Senate tries the President and votes on whether or not to remove him.
  • Author Filibuster: The whole movie is basically a plea for a fascist strong man to do something about the myriad problems America faced in 1933. It's worth noting that the film was bankrolled by none other than William Randolph Hearst, who reportedly wrote all of Hammond's speeches.
  • Call-Back: Early in the film, when he is still a corrupt stooge, Hammond uses the quill that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with to sign some penny-ante measure about garbage disposal in Puerto Rico. At the end of the film, a transformed Hammond signs his great world disarmament treaty with that same quill.
  • Came Back Wrong: Hammond is different after he wakes up. Previously a shallow back-slapper who canoodled with his mistress and kept marshmallows in his desk in the Oval Office, the new Hammond is an icily formal, passionately driven man who sets about his work with a will. Significantly, he starts calling his former mistress "Miss Malloy" instead of "Pendy." After he has his fatal stroke and the spirit of Gabriel leaves him, he calls Miss Malloy "Pendy" again right before he dies. Unfortunately, during that time he creates a dictatorship.
  • Character Filibuster: Hammond gives out a few speeches, like his speech to the army of the unemployed about how he's going to put them to work, and his address to Congress about how they have to give him dictatorial powers because they haven't solved America's problems. Towards the end of the film he gives another speech to the world's dignitaries about the need for immediate disarmament.
  • Dark Messiah: Things are bad in America, with the country mired in the Great Depression and organized crime running rampant. Hammond has some ideas about how to fix things. Ideas like dissolving Congress, taking dictatorial control, establishing a secret police, and standing mobsters up against the wall for summary execution.
  • Day of the Jackboot: A good thing from the movie's perspective, and some people at the time including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said it "would do much to help." The fascist themes and iconography are impossible to miss by the point where Beekman, formerly the President's civilian aid, is dressed in the military uniform of the Federal Police and executing gangsters.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: John Bronson, the leader of the army of unemployed, dies in his daughter's arms after he's gunned down by Nick Diamond's goons.
  • Dirty Cop: An inspector is shown taking a wad of cash from gangster Nick Diamond and handing over incriminating photos in return.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Hammond gets behind the wheel of his own car on a drive to the Naval Academy, and gets it up to 98 mph, on a 1930s dirt road. This is what leads to the accident.
  • Emergency Authority: The President cites the Depression and the organized crime epidemic as reasons to take emergency dictatorial powers.
  • Government Procedural: Sort of, if a movie about the American government being replaced by fascism counts.
  • High-Class Glass: Appropriately enough, the Belgian ambassador who arrogantly refuses to pay his country's war debts wears one of these.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: Hammond institutes "A dictatorship based on Jefferson's definition of democracy". This of course is an oxymoron, and would completely horrify Thomas Jefferson, who wholly opposed the kind of oppressive central government Hammond sets up.
  • Kangaroo Court: Hammond resorts to drumhead military tribunals to condemn and execute gangsters.
  • The Lancer: Beekman (Franchot Tone), executive secretary to the President. Beekman starts out as a Hypercompetent Sidekick who is embarrassed when Hammond brings his mistress into the administration. Later Beekman is the enthusiastic aide to a transformed Hammond, and his chief enforcer as head of the Federal Police.
  • The Mafia: They're violently suppressed by the government and shot with the Statue of Liberty in the background after show trials in military courts.
  • Mind Screw: If it weren't for the title and some speculation of Malloy, we'd have very little idea what happened to Judd...
  • The Mistress: Pendola Molloy (Karen Morley) is this for Hammond prior to his accident.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Nick Diamond is blatantly just Al Capone.
  • No Party Given: Hammond's party is never named in the film. It's called "the Party" or "my Party".
  • Our Presidents Are Different: President Hammond runs the gamut of presidential archetypes. He starts off as a Strawman Buffoonesque Scheming Corrupt Playboy Personable President until he suffers a car accident, becomes possessed by Archangel Gabriel and transforms into the Iron President and also Evil.
  • The Purge: Mafia members, suspected mafia members, and presumably everyone else the President doesn't like are executed en masse.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The "army of the unemployed" led by John Bronson, and Hammond's refusal to take the advice of his Secretary of War and send the U.S. Army against them, is inspired by the biggest mistake of Herbert Hoover's ill-starred presidency. Hoover's decision to use force against the "Bonus Army" of unemployed World War I veterans, which happened just before this movie was filmed, played no small part in his disastrous defeat in the 1932 election.
  • State Sec: The "Federal Police". Apparently the archangel Gabriel favors summary executions.
  • Title Drop: Beekman says "Gabriel over the White House..." after Pendy speculates that the Archangel Gabriel has visited Jud Hammond and is responsible for changing him.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Nick Diamond and his thugs first shoot up the White House but then idiotically fire at armored cars outside their headquarters, rather than simply surrender. This is right after Diamond claimed that his lawyer would swiftly have them all released too. Even without a show trial, that's suicidal.
  • Totalitarian Utilitarian: As noted in the page quote, Hammond's goals are "the greatest good for the greatest number," even if it means he has to subvert the democratic system to bring them about, or have criminals summarily shot after short "trials".
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Not only the message of the film, but supported by many people in Real Life at the time, including politicians such as Louisiana governor Huey Long and public figures such as Father Charles Coughlin. When FDR was elected, the headline from The New York Times read "To Dictatorship if Necessary".
  • Vice President Who?: On inauguration day Hammond bids farewell to his vice president by saying "Goodnight Mr. Vice President, hope you sleep well," to which the VP parries "When did a vice president do anything else?" True to this trope the Vice President is never mentioned for the rest of the movie, not even when Hammond is in a coma or when he dies at the end.
  • Vocal Dissonance: The gangster Nick Diamond has an Eastern/Southern European accent that doesn't fit with his outward Al Capone-style tough guy air. Another character subtly lampshades this, noting how far Diamond has traveled from his roots (Truth in Television, as quite a few Prohibition-era gangsters were European-born).
  • What's Up, King Dude?: This is the case with Hammond, leading to a Narmtastic scene where the Mafia does a drive-by shooting at the White House steps. This was slightly more plausible at the time, but not by much.