This is the first in what I hope will be a useful series that recommends films available for streaming on the web. Some of my recommendations will be behind paywalls, e.g. Netflix or vudu, but my goal is to suggest free streams whenever possible.
“Gentlemen, I suggest you read the Constitution of the United States. You’ll find the President has some power.”
he country is in the middle of possibly the worst economic crisis in our history. The income gap has created two distinct classes, with nothing in the middle. The government is run by gladhanding old white men who have no one’s interests at heart except their own and those of the businessmen who put them in power. The President of the United States is just another party hack: a grinning boob with no other function than to put a vaguely presidential face on the conservative party.
This is the setup at the outset of Gabriel Over the White House, a Depression-era fantasy of political extremes. We are introduced to newly elected President Judd Hammond (the legendary Walter Huston) during his swearing in ceremony. Thus he comes into existence for us at the very moment he becomes the president. We have no other concept of him. Once president, he happily, and cynically, maintains the status quo. What is to be done about the army of unemployed workers? “That’s a local problem.” What about the rampant gangsterism and racketeering? “Local problem.” May we quote the president? “The president may not be quoted.”
Hammond’s amoral irresponsibility extends beyond his political life, even into his driving habits. After insisting he drive himself, he leads a convoy of black limousines on a merry chase with speeds over 100mph, which ends in a rolling smashup and presidential coma. The doctors pronounce him pretty much dead (“It’s only a matter of hours. He’s beyond human help.”). But then a strange thing happens: the lace curtains flutter, the lighting ticks up a couple notches, and we hear the same tinkling musical cue that announced the presence of Pixies in director Gregory LaCava’s other masterpiece of social commentary of two years later, My Man Godfrey.[ref]My Man Godfrey is in the public domain and is legally available to download or stream.[/ref] And Hammond awakens.
He remains secluded, bedridden, speaking to no one but his doctor, who’s been sworn to secrecy, for two weeks. [ref]This struck me as odd; in this kind of story the temporary death which leaves the hero with a new awareness and trajectory traditionally lasts three days. Cf. everything from the Bible to Jane Eyre to Giles Goat-Boy.[/ref] When he emerges, a profound change is immediately apparent. He stands taller; Huston’s natural resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is more pronounced; he is serious, stalwart, strong—even forceful. And he’s a liberal.
Seeing the world through his newfound activist lens, Hammond sets to work cleaning up the mess the country has found itself in. He pronounces to his cabinet—liberal Hammond pretty much only speaks in pronouncements—“Every citizen of the United States should be ensured the elementary necessities for keeping life within his body. This cabinet, every member of Congress, each office holder, is answerable directly to the public conscience.” And then he fires them all, declares martial law, creates an Army of Construction from the Army of Unemployed,[ref]Yes, they actually call themselves that, capital letters and everything.[/ref] installs himself as dictator, and repeals the 18th Amendment.[ref]Hammond lays at Prohibition”s door the vast criminal culture of bootlegging and racketeering that has flourished best online casino in its wake, and in a move familiar to fellow Washingtonians establishes Government Liquor Stores as part of a plan to undermine the all-t00-powerful gangsters. Another example of the film”s eerie prescience in what might just as well be an explicit reference to today”s “War on Drugs” and the debate about legalization.[/ref]
Now, as a liberal myself, I found myself inwardly fist pumping[ref]Maybe I should rephrase that.[/ref] as I watched a president who prioritized people over profiteers swinging an Alexandrian sword at the knot that Washington had become. There are obvious, if eerie, parallels with today’s situation, and I imagined what things would be like if Obama grew a pair of Judd Hammond-sized balls. As George Bush once said, “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of a lot easier.”
But this is a fantasy, backed and produced by William Randolph Hearst, an oligarch with real fascist sympathies.[ref]See multiple sources.[/ref] Granted, it was made seven years before Hitler invaded Poland, at which point our concept of “dictator” would be recalibrated. It was filmed during Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign, and seemed to offer clearcut, practical solutions to the very real problems of daily life at the nadir of the Great Depression. But even within its own premise, cracks appear. When the worst of the gangsters are rounded up by a domestic army—tanks firing into a bootleg liquor warehouse,[ref]Shades of Waco and Ruby Ridge sixty years before the fact?[/ref] and executed by firing squad with the Statue of Liberty in the background of the shot, I’m not sure the image was meant ironically. I suspect, based on the earnestness and propagandist tone of the rest of the film, that it was entirely sincere, and intended to show that Lady Liberty is pro death penalty.
Despite Gabriel Over the White House’s failure to suggest practical solutions to difficult but very real problems, it succeeds as a political fantasy and thought experiment. And it’s an important example of a couple different genres: Socialist propaganda produced by Hollywood (The North Star, Our Daily Bread, Christ in Concrete), and films that justify controversial political content by attributing it to divine intervention (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Devil and Daniel Webster[ref]Huston fills in as the Devil in this one.[/ref]) or drugs (Bigger Than Life).
In telling a story that begins with a president who embodies the Left’s darkest dreams of George Bush and ends with the Obama of the Tea Party”s nightmares, Gabriel Over the White House has something for everybody to hate.[ref]One of the youtube streams appears to have been uploaded by Glenn Beck. It won”t shock you to hear that the far right is using a 1933 movie as evidence of Obama”s nefarious shenanigans.[/ref] I can’t recommend it enough.
(Gabriel Over the White House is currently available in its entirety on youtube, but since I”m not sure if that”s strictly above board copyrightwise, I”ll let you search for it yourself.)