In spring 2004 I took a class called “Depression Era Movies” and “Gabriel Over the White House” was one of many movies we watched. I wrote my paper about this film because I believe that what was occurring in 1930s USA (and the world) has much to teach us about what is occurring now – if we are willing to listen.

I mention Dr. Dhafir toward the end of the paper; at that time he had been held for 14 months without bail.

“Gabriel Over the White House” and the Lure of Totalitarianism

By Katherine Hughes

In 1933 the movie Gabriel over the White House was one of the most popular movies of the year.(1) The movie is set in the 1930’s Depression Era America and deals with a hack politician, Judson Hammond, who has just claimed the White House. The new president is ready to make good on promises he has made to the people who got him into the Oval Office, mainly people in the business community. However, after an automobile accident, caused by his own reckless driving, the new president becomes infused with the spirit of the Angel Gabriel and a desire to cure the ills of the country.

Robert McConnell in his article “The Genesis and Ideology of Gabriel over the White House” suggests, that the president’s reckless speeding and the car crash can be seen as a metaphor for the roaring 20’s and the Wall Street Crash of 1929.(2) To highlight the change in the president’s state of being, the camera lighting changes. The lighting is now harsh and emphasizes the shadows around the president’s eyes, giving him an almost fanatical appearance.(3)

In his newly acquired “inspired state” President Hammond dismisses the Congress and declares martial law, thus giving himself the powers of a dictator. He then proceeds to rid the country of it’s domestic criminals by putting them against the wall and shooting them. The character of Nick Diamond, who has a thick European accent and who has refused the opportunity to go back “home”, exemplifies these criminals. Hammond also creates an “army of construction” as a way to put unemployed men back to work. He is portrayed as the unemployed’s “savior” and calls them “my” soldiers.

The climax of the movie is when President Hammond gets the world’s leaders together and, after a show of military force, bullies them into signing a world peace covenant. His rationale is that if these countries no longer need to spend money on armaments it will allow them to start paying back the money that is owed to the United States. That in turn will help the United States to get back onto its feet.

Having achieved all of his goals, Hammond conveniently dies. In this way the moviemakers completely avoid discussing any of the troubling issues that are raised by the movie’s theme of dictatorship and totalitarianism.

To understand the popularity of this movie (it was one of the biggest box office draws of its time(4)) it is important to understand the climate of the country. The United States was deep in the heart of the Great Depression. The economy collapse and stock market crash of 1929 sent unemployment from 3.2 percent in 1929 to 24.9 percent in 1933.(5) This meant that 1 out of 4 people were unemployed and many families had no one bringing in any money at all. Many people were unable to feed themselves or their families.

John Pitney in, Fascism in Gabriel over the White House, sums up the situation of the country very well. He says:

“In 1933, the country faced an ever-worsening domestic disaster that threatened to spawn dictatorship or violent revolution. In the America of 1933, responsible people were talking about dictatorship. A few welcomed it, while others regretfully thought of it as inevitable. Even among the great majority who rejected a full-fledged fascist regime, many favored a temporary suspension of constitutional restraints, so that a strong leader could rescue America from the Depression.”

He goes on to say:

“Gabriel over the White House opens a window onto another time, and perhaps holds a distant mirror to our own.”(6)

I agree with Pitney’s idea that the fictional history of a movie like Gabriel can hold a mirror to our own time. It is indeed sobering, as Harry Keyishian notes in his book, Screening Politics, to imagine an America in which this film had plausibility.(7) These glimpses into past times give us the benefit of an experience that may prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past. I believe these lessons are particularly relevant to the current climate of fear in the United States and to the current administration in the White House which is amassing more and more power, in some critical instances, without accountability to anyone and a disregard for the civil liberties of many of it’s citizens.

In 1930’s America, many felt that desperate times called for desperate measures. People in this country were looking to what was happening in other parts of the world for possible solutions to the problems of the United States. The two dominant ideologies of the world were Communism and Fascism. In Russia in 1917 there had been a bloody revolution and Communism now ruled what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, were all ruled by Fascist regimes. Both communism and fascism dispensed with free elections in favor of dictatorial rule. Fascism however, unlike communism, preserved private ownership.(8)

The preference here in the United States seemed to lean towards the fascist solution. This may have been because key elements of the press in the United States actively supported Mussolini and gave very positive views of his achievements. For example, documents of a survey of the American press (between 1928 and 1931) by the Italian Ambassador to Washington were discovered in Italy during world war ll. According to the documents the newspapers most favorable to the Italian regime of Mussolini were from, “Il Gruppo Hearst.”(9)

In 1932 Senator David Reed, a Republican, said “I do not often envy other countries their governments but I say that if this country ever needed a Mussolini it needs one now.” Vanity Fair in the June issue of 1932 declared: “Appoint a Dictator!” and Fortune declared, “No Long-winded parliaments or congress between idea and action. No ignorant masses to consult on complex economic questions.”(10) President Hammond couldn’t have put it better himself!

Indeed, many of the words in President Hammond’s mouth were coming from none other than William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, who was widely considered to be a fascist sympathizer in no small part because his papers gave Mussolini such positive press. Hearst was one of the principal backers of the film and made many additions to the dialogue of the movie. He even wrote the final speech that President Hammond gave on world peace. As one might guess from the movie, Hearst favored the “benevolent dictatorship” solution to the country’s problems. Many wealthy people’s concern, like Hearst’s, was pragmatic. They wanted to ameliorate the circumstances of the people just enough to preserve the status quo. In the movie Gabriel there is no mention of changing any of the institutions that helped to create the crisis of the Great Depression.

Ferdinand Lundberg, in Imperial Hearst, called Hearst “…the most influential American Fascist.” He went on to explain:

“Hearst’s personal editorials in all his newspapers have deplored both communism and fascism as abhorrent, un-Jeffersonian and forms of regimentation. Hearst’s Jeffersonianism is one of the most effective political blinds behind which…to deceive the American population. (Recall Hammond’s invocation of Jefferson in Gabriel.) But in action Hearst praises Italy and Germany, the outstanding fascist states, approves violent assaults on organized labor and farmers, terrorization of teachers, reduction of school budgets, creation of concentration camps for radicals, and the like. Hearst has become the fascist in deed, even though he is still afraid to endorse fascism explicitly.”(11)

The movie, Gabriel, gave Hearst a perfect vehicle to explore these ideas in a more public realm without actually having to take responsibility for the ideas that were being expressed. Hearst was concerned about the possibility of a left-wing revolution in the United States and saw fascism, particularly Mussolini’s brand of fascism, as a good alternative. In Hearst’s view, this would prevent, “…the least capable and the least creditable class from getting control of the country.”(12)

Political columnist Walter Lippmann, turned film critic, was drawn into the debate about the fascist implications in the movie. He suggested that the character of President Hammond was:

“…irresistible in the picture because nobody he has to deal with is real. In his imagination he can conquer anything because he never meets anything his imagination has not created.”

He concludes that it is:

“…the world of irresistible wishes. More specifically, it is a dramatization of Mr. Hearst’s editorials.”(13)

Thus the character of President Hammond embodies the myth of the hero with supernatural abilities and this was a very seductive story line for people mired in the Depression. After his automobile accident, President Hammond is presented as someone who has a direct line to God and is a man with a mission.

This is not unlike our current president, apparently, who when asked by the journalist Bob Woodward if he ever turned to his father, and ex-president, for advice replied, “He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength. There’s a higher father that I appeal to.”(14) President Hammond, experiences virtually no resistance whatsoever when he sacks his cabinet, dismisses Congress, declares martial law (shredding the Bill of Rights in the process) and bullies the world leaders into signing a Peace Covenant. This is the kind of “co-operation” that, it seems, the current President, George W. Bush, might dream of in his own war against “evil”.

Ian Scott in his book, American Politics in Hollywood, suggests that viewers are prepared to accept this kind of behavior from President Hammond because of the movie’s fast pace that gives approval to the idea of “benevolent dictatorship” thus distracting us from the more dubious fascist undercurrents of the film.(15) The film seems to exploit this strategy. It clearly discourages viewers from questioning The President’s totalitarian methods of achieving his goals. For example, a discussion between Hammond’s Chief of Staff, Harley Beekman and his “special secretary”, Pendie Molloy, after the president has set in place a number of relief policies, clearly instructs viewers on how they should think. Beekman says to Molloy, “The way he thinks is so simple and honest, that it sounds a little crazy”. Molloy replies, “If he’s mad, it’s a divine madness. Look at the chaos and catastrophe sane men have brought about.”(16) The implication here is that, if madness is divinely inspired then it’s okay, even if it means totalitarianism. Thus, we as viewers are encouraged to become complicit in the death of democracy.

In addition, the movie seeks to legitimize President Hammond and his actions by invoking great American Presidents of the past, in particular, Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson. Robert McConnell says:

“Not only oratory is used to invoke Lincoln; a considerable portion of the film’s imagery tries to associate Hammond with the Civil War president. It is most notable in the effort to portray Hammond as the emancipator of the millions of unemployed. On the eve of his address to Congress he sees a vision of the jobless veterans standing at the White House gates and softly singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The camera tracks slowly toward a bust of Lincoln in the Oval Office.”

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” seems particularly ironic here, given that the country is about to become a dictatorship. McConnell goes on to quote from President Hammond’s speech to Congress:

“I believe in democracy as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln believed in democracy, and 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 for the greatest good of the greatest number.(17)

Thus in this speech to the Congress, the idea of a Jeffersonian democracy was used as justification for his dictatorship.

What the movie didn’t make explicit was that this was Hammond’s reading of a Jeffersonian democracy. John Pitney disputes this reading of Jefferson and the right of a president to declare martial law. In a more recent critique of the film Pitney says:

“These notions about law and history are pure fantasy. A president has no power to declare martial law in peacetime. Lincoln took unilateral action at the start of the Civil War, but he argued that he had no choice because Congress was not in session when rebellion threatened the nation’s existence. And Jefferson did not define democracy as “the greatest good for the greatest number” (an idea that came from the Utilitarians). He would have despised Gabriel over the White House. In writing about proposals to establish a “temporary” dictator in Virginia during the Revolution, Jefferson voiced outrage: “In God’s name, from whence have they derived their power? Is it from our ancient laws? None such can be produced. Is it from any principle in our new constitution, expressed or implied? Every lineament of that expressed or implied, is in full opposition to it.”(18)

Therefore it would appear that President Hammond had read his history wrongly. This illustrates one reason why it is so vital that ordinary people take an active part in a democracy — to question authority.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note the reactions of MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer and Will Hay, of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), to the movie. They were appalled when they saw an early screening of the movie. This was not because of the film’s fascist implications, it was because they were staunch Republicans and the movie could be viewed as an indictment of the Hoover administration and supportive of the new Roosevelt administration.(19)

However, many Hollywood trade journals and many newspapers and magazines praised Gabriel without seemingly being aware of darker implications of the movie, or questioning the authenticity of claims made by the movie president.(20)

Thankfully, not everyone was seduced or persuaded by the quick-fix solution offered (reminiscent of Faust’s bargain with the devil) for the mere trade of civil liberties. Fortunately, even as people desperately sought solutions to problems of gargantuan proportions, some critical thinking was still taking place. The Nation called it a blatant attempt to:

“…convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country.”(21)

And political commentator Walter Lippmann said:

“…the body politic is one kind of body that Hollywood has not learned about. Indeed I never dreamed that such virginal innocence could come out of the moving-pictures.”(22)

My own view of the movie Gabriel over the White House is as a cautionary tale, particularly in light of things that are happening in this country at present. In its attempt to be a cheerleader for a “strong man”, Gabriel completely ignores the underside of totalitarian rule. In the movie, Beekman (who is now the head of the newly established police force) tells Diamond (the gangster):

“We have in the White House a man who’s enabled us to cut the red tape of legal procedures and get back to first principles.”(23)

This quotation from the film, above, could conceivably be used to describe the current president in the White House. In my reading, the movie should be seen as a clarion call for people to exercise their democratic rights. It is incumbent upon people in a democracy, whether in the 1930’s or the 2000’s, to be active participants.

I believe there are two primary areas of concern that people in the United States today need to urgently consider. These are, the attack on civil liberties by the present administration and also the changing regulations of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is allowing more and more media outlets to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In his book, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Naom Chomsky warns us, “Propaganda is to democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”(24)

Just six weeks after the events of September 11th 2001, with practically no debate, the Bush administration rushed “The PATRIOT Act” through Congress and passed it into law. In an apparent disregard for civil liberties, this Act changed the balance of power between liberty and security to weigh much more heavily in favor of security. The Bush administration is planning for an even greater attack on civil liberties with it’s desire to pass a second Act, “PATRIOT Act II”.

The big push for this probably will come during Bush’s second term, if re-elected. Robert Reich, former Clinton Secretary of Labor, on the subject of a second term for George W. Bush writes:

“A reelection would strengthen the White House’s hand on issues that even many congressional Republicans have a hard time accepting, such as the assault on civil liberties. Bush will seek to push “Patriot II” through congress, giving the Justice Department and the FBI powers to inspect mail, eavesdrop on phone conversations and e-mail, and examine personal medical records, insurance claims, and bank accounts. Right-wing evangelicals will solidify their control over the departments of Justice, Education and Health and Human Services curtailing abortions, putting federal funds into the hands of private religious groups, pushing prayer in the public schools, and promoting creationism.”(25)

And, on the subject of the Federal Communications Commission, Reich says:

“[T]he Federal Communications Commission will allow three or four giant media empires — all tightly connected to the Republican Party — to consolidate their ownership over all television and radio broadcasting. Nothing is more dangerous to a republic than fanatics unconstrained by democratic politics. Yet in a second term of this administration, that’s exactly what we’ll have.”(26)

I believe the consequences are grave. Already people from other countries and citizens of the United States are being held for extensive periods of time without any recourse to due process. In Guantanamo Bay, a US naval base in Cuba, 595 foreign nationals have been held for two years and seven months and will continue to be held indefinitely without any access to a lawyer. Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi, both American Citizens, are being held in a military prison in South Carolina without the normal constitutional protections that would ordinarily be afforded to a United States Citizen.(27) Here in the Syracuse area, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, of Manlius, is being held. He has spent14 months in prison, been denied bail three times and his case has yet to come to court. Dr. Dhafir is charged with breaking UN sanctions against Iraq by sending money to Iraqi children through his charity “Help the Needy”. The UN Sanctions on Iraq over the last 10 years, sponsored mainly by the United States and the United Kingdom, have contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children due to lack of access to food and medical care.

And just this week we have learned that Disney has refused to release and distribute Michael Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 9/11. The movie is about the close ties that the Bush family has with many wealthy Saudi Arabian families, including the Bin Laden family. Moore justifiably questions whether in a free and open society Disney should be able to make such a decision. Fortunately the movie will be released and distributed in the United Kingdom.(28)

The White House has also recently made complaints about the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, scheduled for release on May 28th. In his article in the British Guardian, John Sutherland tells us that the complaint is because the movie:

“…narrates the wrong apocalypse. One caused by man-made global warming, that is, rather than God’s white-hot rage against sinners. The apocalypse depicted in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books is, we assume, the US government approved version.”(29)

Andrew Bergman talking about the1930’s and the movie Gabriel over the White House says something that I fear may well turn out to be prophetic. Bergman says:

“An American Fuhrer would be like the guy next door, and in time of crisis no one would notice the Bill of Rights being shredded to bits.”(30)

I hope the American people will wake up to this clear and present danger soon.

Democracy is at stake.


1. Bergman, Andrew. We’re in the Money. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1971.

2. British Broadcasting Council (BBC) Online. “UK will screen blocked Moore film.” May 6, 2004.

3. Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics and the Movies. Cambridge University Press, 1994.

4. Chomsky, Naom. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. Seven Stories Press, 2002.

5. Christensen, Terry. Reel Politics: American Political Movies from Birth of a Nation to Platoon. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

6. Kelley, Beverly Merrill. Reelpolitik: Political Ideologies in ’30’s and ‘40’s Films. Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 1998. (With John J. Pitney, Jr., Craig R. Smith, and Herbert E. Gooch III.)

7. Keyishian, Harry. Screening Politics: The Politician in American Movies, 1931-2001. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 2003.

8. McConnell, Robert L. “The Genesis and Ideology of Gabriel over the White House,” Cinema Journal 15:2 (Spring 1976), 7-26.

9. Reich, Robert. “W.’s Second Term: If You Think the First is Bad.” Citizens for a United Earth. 2004.

10. Richey, Warren. “Bush’s Power vs. rights of detained citizens”. The Christian Science Monitor. April 28, 2004.

11. Riefenstahl, Leni. Triumph of the Will. Film, 1935.

12. Scott, Ian. American Politics in Hollywood Film. Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

13. Slide, Anthony. “Hollywood’s Fascist Follies”. Film Comment. (July/August 1991.)

14. Sutherland, John. “God save America…” Guardian Online. May 3rd, 2004.

15. Swanberg, W. A. Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961.

16. Winkler, John K. William Randolph Hearst: A New Appraisal. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1955.

1. Christensen. P.34
2. McConnell P.12
3. Kelley P.52
4. Christensen. P.34
5. Kelley P.47
6. Kelley P.45,47 and 61
7. Keyishian P.75
8. Kelley P.43
9. Kelley P.43
10. Kelley P.48 and P.49
11. Kelley P.64
12. Kelley P.49
13. Keyisham P75
14. Sutherland P.1
15. Scott P.39
16. Keyishian P.74 and McConnell P.25
17. McConnell P.15 and P.16
18. Kelley P.54
19. Christensen P34
20. McConnell P.8
21. Black P.l44
22. Black P.144
23. Kelley P,54
24. Chomsky P.20
25. Reich P.1
26. Reich P.2
27. Richey P.1 and P.4.
28. BBC 2004
29. Sutherland 2004
30. Bergman P.118