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Movie Mom

‘Gabriel Over the White House’ — The President Finds God

posted by Nell Minow

A little-seen 1933 film called “Gabriel Over the White House” has some themes that are particularly resonant in this time of unprecedented economic uncertainty and this historic Presidential campaign. Walter Houston (father of director John Huston and grandfather of actress Anjelica Houston — three generations of Oscar winners) plays the newly elected President of the United States, a cynical and apathetic man who has an affair with his private secretary and refuses to meet with the leader of the homeless. But then he has an automobile accident and is seriously injured. When he comes out of his coma, he is transformed. As he becomes an outspoken advocate of integrity and economic justice, he makes some powerful enemies. But it becomes clear that he has been inspired by a visit from the angel Gabriel.

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This has been a controversial film since it was made for its frank acknowledgment of political policies based on scripture and for its association of policies some people consider “liberal” with religious beliefs some people consider “conservative.” Audiences have argued about whether the President is a visionary or a dictator. But it seems astonishingly prescient in its portrayal of the failures of Wall Street and government and its sincere commitment to Biblical principles is still fresh and appealing.

  • Kevin L

    It’s not out on DVD, so your bestbet is to watch for it in the Turner Classic rotation.
    While the story does speak to a spiritual reawakening leading to more active policies, it also – from a 1932 perspective – can read like an endorsement of fascism. Huston’s character demands and gets dictatorial powers from Congress – on a “temporary” basis, of course. He repeals Prohibition, sets the Federal government as a liquor vendor, then goes literally to war with mobsters. Finally, he threatens European powers with war to compel payment of their outstanding war debts, before offering disarmament as an alternative to pay the costs. The implication was that he could not have accomplished these things working with a fractured, argumentative Congress.
    It has been said MGM head Louis B. Mayer delayed the movie’s release until after the 1932 election, so voters wouldn’t draw parallels between Huston’s character and Herbert Hoover.

  • jestrfyl

    This sounds like something Capra might have done, too. I might have skipped this movie on cable, were it not for this review. Well done.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The image of a President gone mad really does look like the George W administration.

  • Nell Minow

    That’s what I found most interesting about the movie — the President’s conversion was impossible to categorize as good or bad, right or left, sacred or profane. Refreshingly provocative.

  • ANDREW OLIVER SATCHELL

    EXCELLENT

  • Kevin L

    FYI: Scheduled for Turner Classic October 11th, 6:00 AM

  • boudica

    Was this movie based on FDR or did FDR get his ideas from this movie? I liked that the movie shows several points of view. People love or hate this president & his stance……..seems this is a more realistic view of the presidency even now. No president can make all people happy all the time. I feel that even the “old-boy” system in government is accurately portrayed. I was pleased to have stumbled upon this movie this morning.

  • techman

    Are you people aware that this movie was produced and funded by William Randolph Hearst? If you know anything about him, you will see his political and social beliefs all over this movie. He only used Biblical references out of context and for his own warped agenda. Sorry to break your bubble, but this is definitely not a “spiritual movie for the whole family”.

  • Nell Minow

    Thanks, Techman. No bubble to be broken. Viewed today, the movie transcends what Hearst had in mind. If you watch it on its own terms, it can be interpreted as socialism, fascism, or populism — it has elements of all of them. Viewed so many years after it was made, in times far removed from but resonant of the era that inspired it, the story of a cynical politician inspired by God to do better for more people and the results of that inspiration make the movie worth viewing for its provocative and ambitious take on social and spiritual issues.

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