The Visionary Walter Huston in Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Walter Huston, Franchot Tone & Karen Morley in Gabriel Over the White House (1933)The Movie: Shaky financial institutions, a do-nothing Congress, a constitution in shreds, combat veterans denied their due, and a leader who might be an inspired visionary, a glad-hander controlled by big business or a fanatic. No, I’m not talking about an election year news program, but about one of the strangest and more compelling movies made during the studio era.

When this movie came out, playwright and critic Stark Young would write in The New Republic that the movie “represents pretty well its public”. The usually measured columnist Walter Lippman expressed the belief around this time that “a mild form of dictatorship will help us over the roughest spots in the road ahead.” The New York Times even said that the film “is a curious, somewhat fantastic and often melodramatic story, but nevertheless one which at this time is very interesting.”

1933, the year of this film’s release, seems to have had an air of tension similar, some felt, to when the fascisti marched on Rome a decade earlier, or when the Kremlin was taken by the Bolsheviks, but in actuality, it had as much to do with jockeying for position with a new administration in Washington as it did with feeding the public taste for fantasy.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933), (which is on at 12am EDT on 9/18), should never have been made, and least of all by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. The general manager of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, was staunchly Republican and prided himself on his friendship with President Herbert Hoover. The status conscious Mayer was thrilled that he’d been asked to stay at the White House and that Hoover had been his guest in LA. Even as the country and the world slid into a steep economic descent after 1929, Mayer shared the faith of Hoover that Americans’ latent pioneer qualities would help the strongest pull themselves out of the Depression without government intervention. Well, they generally didn’t call it Social Darwinism back then, but you get the gist of it.

Having served as a Democratic Congressman for two terms beginning in 1902, Hearst had run unsuccessfully for the office of mayor of New York City and governor of that state as well. While the press lord still harbored unsatisfied political hopes for himself, he saw the writing on the wall pretty clearly as November of 1932 approached. Hearst, who had favored John Nance Garner for the presidency, was non-plussed by the nomination of New York governor Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency, but had some influence over the party apparatus that supported FDR‘s campaign. He may have seen the movie as a chance to ingratiate himself with FDR and possibly gain favor with the American public by aligning himself with him. He certainly had hopes that the political movie would provide the newly elected president with a blueprint of how to conduct himself in office. Hearst was simultaneously an odd mixture of a self-serving power broker, political groupie, paternalistic bleeding heart, and an open admirer of the fascist methods and (up till then) successes of Benito Mussolini in Italy and later, (for a briefer time) with Adolf Hitler in Germany. From 1927 until the mid-1930s, Hearst regularly ran columns from both fascists and distributed their newsreels throughout the U.S. Yet Hearst, whose world view was largely anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant, who informed his lurid and scandal mongering newspapers with a sensationalism sometimes compared to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”, was also curiously naïve about Roosevelt‘s canny political instincts. The president elect liked the shooting script, which he received from Hearst. FDR is even said to have added a few touches, such as transferring a meeting from a battleship to a commodious yacht, and moving the Bonus marchers to Baltimore rather than Washington, (to make them appear less threatening). Franklin Roosevelt diplomatically sent a note to Hearst complimenting him on “how pleased I am with the changes you made in “Gabriel Over the White House “. I think it is an intensely interesting picture and should do much to help.”

Certainly, some of the ideas found in the movie, such as “the army of the construction” found its way into the real world administration attempts to organize the unemployed and stimulate the economy. The Civilian Conservation Corps, introduced in 1933, was an idea first mentioned by late 19th century author Edward Bellamy in his popular novel of the future in “Looking Backward”. Unlike the rather bombastic talks that Huston gives in the film, FDR‘s radio “fireside chats”, begun in March of ’33, were a less dogmatic and intimate way that the new president communicated his ideas to the Americans.

While we may watch this movie now with our mouths agape at the simplification of the story of a “benevolent dictatorship” and the radical ideas for change it proposed, the film was a hit with an increasingly desperate public staggering under the burden of the economic tumble since October, 1929′s Wall Street crash by the time it premiered in the April of 1933. We probably need to remember that the damage that could be done to societies under dictators of the left or right hadn’t unfolded to the degree that it would in the very near future. The Roosevelt administration may have seen the movie as a wish fulfillment and a panacea for the real world bitterness of movie-goers, who were looking for hope as FDR came to power.

Not surprisingly, some of this odd brew of influences made its way into the story of Gabriel Over the White House, which centers around a political hack named Judson C. Hammond (Walter Huston) who mouths platitudes publicly and privately keeps a mistress (Karen Morley ) and plans on rewarding his cronies with the spoils of his office. A fervent isolationist and ardent anti-intellectual who doesn’t know where Siam is when he receives a congratulatory telegram from their leader after his inauguration, Huston‘s character uses a quill pen said to have been used by Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves to thoughtlessly sign a bill he knows nothing about to improve sewers in Puerto Rico, (which no doubt lined the pockets of his crronies in the process).

Yet, for several convoluted reasons, the bizarre project of Gabriel Over the White House began production under liberal Walter Wanger in the election year of 1932 under the aegis of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst‘s Cosmopolitan Pictures at MGM. Hearst, who regarded film as “the most modern form of presentation” of ideas, usually used Cosmopolitan to produce films for his mistress, Marion Davies, but when he encountered the novel by a former British brigadier general and Liberal Party cabinet member Thomas F. Tweed, (which was published anonymously), he felt compelled to translate it to the screen for several reasons. The book, which was set in 1950, was adapted to reflect the present day of the film’s production, enabling Hearst to make his ideas more pointed and relevant.Walter Huston, "listening to the angels of his better nature" in Gabriel Over the White House

So far the story was so much like Warren G. Harding it wasn’t funny. Then, thanks to the president’s insistence on driving recklessly, an accident leaves him in a coma near death. He awakens a changed man after being visited by an unseen angel in the form of light (the unseen Gabriel of the title).

Soon, Walter Huston, in an audacious performance as the mystically inspired president is dismissing his cabinet full of hangers-on and storming into Congress and demanding special powers superseding the constitution. Huston‘s president uses the relatively new medium of the radio to communicate directly with the public, cutting through the bureaucracy and formality of the state. He meets with marching veterans near Washington and appeases them, helping to form them into a “citizens army” to engage in mammoth public works projects that will channel the nation’s labor constructively. This sequence, which is a pointed reference to the 1932 debacle when desperate Bonus Marchers clashed with the Hoover administration, is particularly effective. Domestic criminals, made bold and rich through government corruption, are soon accosted in their lairs by the forces of law led by Franchot Tone in a gleaming chocolate soldier outfit, (after which the miscreants are summarily shot by a firing squad–in front of the Statue of Liberty!). Director Gregory La Cava with his cast in Gabiel Over the White House (1933)The nations of the world owing war debts to the United States are compelled by the president to sign a treaty promising peace and to pay what is owed after a display of America’s military weaponry. Franchot Tone, in only his second movie, who plays Huston‘s right arm, speaks admiringly of the inspired president’s ability to “cut through the red tape of legal procedures and get back to the first principles — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.” As the election season ended and Roosevelt won handily, the Hays office at the Production Code had its first long look at the script, which was largely a collaboration by Hearst, Wanger and screenwriter Carey Wilson.

Hays office censor James Wingate‘s initial comment was that it was “undeniably a powerful story.” While the Production Code boys attempted to curb the more outrageous aspects of the plot, I think that the studio’s internal, less diplomatic assessment of the story as “wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree” is an apt description of this movie’s contradictory power. Directed by Gregory La Cava, who would come to be associated with comedies with bite such as My Man Godfrey and Stage Door more than drama, much less political diatribes on film, the movie was delayed by Mayer until after the election. Mayer did succeed in having a sequence in which Huston was almost assassinated excised from the film after anarchist Giuseppe Zangara attempted to assassinate Roosevelt in Miami in February, 1933. Will Hays, the enforcer of The Production CodePCA representative Wingate and former Harding cabinet member Will Hays argued that the events in the film would be likely to undermine the faith of the population in the government and might enflame “radicals and communists” by the implied criticism of the platitudes mouthed by Huston at the beginning of the film. Hays also felt that the depiction of other countries being cowed by the U.S. threats would be bad for the foreign markets. In the end, surprisingly few changes were made to the script.

*Mild Spoiler Alert* *Mild Spoiler Alert* *Mild Spoiler Alert*

Walter Huston‘s character, who was originally meant to awaken from his messianic state and denounce his actions publicly, died just as the now regretful president went to the microphone to make such an announcement. War with the debtor nations via a “secret weapon” was no longer threatened directly.

*End of Mild Spoiler Alert* *End of Mild Spoiler Alert*

Hays, it is said, wished to avoid controversy at all costs, but even he could not change the tenor of this wildly topical fantasy.

Fortunately for the country, Roosevelt, while equipped to lead the country toward some seemingly radical and innovative solutions, wound up saving the republic from much more radical change. His relationship with Hearst was a politically expedient one, but as FDR‘s awareness of the country’s economic plight became even greater, and people were increasingly sobered by the ramifications of real dictatorships abroad, the allure of such fictional solutions became less appealing. Despite his initial involvement with the new administration, as the Depression deepened and Hearst‘s newspaper empire began to crumble, he eventually became a committed opponent of Roosevelt‘s administration by the mid-30s.

Despite the studio’s qualms and the repugnance that Mayer had for this movie, it proved to be exceedingly popular with the public when it was released, despite the oversimplifications of the problems and the solutions offered by this piece of propaganda. Perhaps Hearst was right when he wrote that “The public is even more fond of entertainment than information.”

The Actor:
“They’ll never be another like me.”
Walter Huston
That line was spoken by actor Walter Huston in The Furies (1950), his last film before his death in April of 1950. There are a few actors, whom I can count on the fingers of one hand, such as Walter Huston, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson whose acting in any movie–even when they pull out all the stops, and yes, nibble the scenery a tad–has an infectious joy in performing that is so delightful to watch repeatedly. I relish one such performance in Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Playing a dictatorial yet visionary “great man”, Huston raises this movie from propaganda to artistry, just as he did in films as diverse as the searing Kongo (1932), (in a part he originated on Broadway in 1926), Capra‘s fascinating early work, American Madness (1932), the near perfect Dodsworth (1935) and what may have been the apogee of his work on film prior to “Sierra Madre”, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). Today Walter Huston may be best known as the father of director John Huston (and grandfather of Anjelica and Danny Huston). Seemingly a bit of a caring rascal in life, who supported his rambunctious yet talented son’s adventures with remarkable tolerance, he hid his own discipline and artistry behind a rather folksy exterior. Eli Wallach recalled in his memoir that when he was working as a student as an usher in a theater where Huston was touring with the play of Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth, he once sought out the actor as he quietly smoked a cigarette at the stage door. Wallach eagerly blurted out to Walter Huston that he longed to be in show business. Never missing a beat, Huston said to him, “We all do, kid, we all do” and was gone.

His work may be best remembered for his Oscar winning part as the prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre(1948). He is invariably the most compelling actor in any scene, and even more so perhaps when he played secondary roles in less accomplished films. One such movis is the upcoming Always in My Heart (1942), a relatively low budget attempt by Warner Brothers to cash in on that Hollywood studio trend to have gifted youngsters such as Deanna Durbin & Kathryn Grayson sing a few quasi-operatic numbers and rake in the cash from the public.

The songbird in Always in My Heart (on TCM on 9/25 at 1:30am EDT) question here is Gloria Warren, who seemed to have a good voice, a pleasant manner, and a brief career. Oh, and her “supporting” players, who play her long separated parents, are none other than Kay Francis (who returned to Warners for this low budget movie& still wearing unlikely & elaborate ensembles for a middle class Mom) and Mr. Huston. As I mentioned a few weeks ago in my interview with Scott O’Brien on the SOTM Kay, Walter Huston and Francis were old friends. Neither was receiving the kind of leading roles in movies that their talents deserved at the time, though Huston‘s secondary character work began to become more prominent later in the ’40s. Even if he does have to play second fiddle to a warbling youngster and some harmonica players in this one.

Sure, it’s a variation on Four Daughters & Daughters Courageous, but there is one scene that makes the soapier aspects of this dud worth enduring:
Always in My Heart: an obscure Huston film, graced by his actingWalter Huston, who is a paroled convict whose children were too small to remember him when he went up the river, comes to see them. As Gloria Warren practices her singing and piano alone in her house with the doors and windows open, he listens intently in the street. He eventually introduces himself to the teenager as an itinerant piano tuner, drawing her out about her hopes for the future and present problems. Huston does very little speaking throughout this sequence, but the active intensity, expression and body language of the old pro actor made it moving and tense throughout what might have been a flat moment.

Come to think of it, while barely raising his voice or an eyebrow, the ol’ boy stole the scene, and the movie.

In the same year as his death, one of Huston‘s best directors, William Dieterle, who had worked with him on The Devil and Daniel Webster, wove the evocative vocal presence of his recently deceased friend into a key sequence of a now nearly forgotten romance, September Affair (1950). Set in post-war Italy, a pair of traveling strangers, played by Joseph Cotten and Joan Fontaine, cast convention to the winds, and find themselves sharing a meal in a hilltop restaurant above Naples. Their Neopolitan hostess, wondering why Americans are always in such a hurry, shows them a collection of 78s left by a now deceased American soldier during the recent war. Looking through the album, Fontaine comments that seeing the titles of each record, from “Oklahoma” to “Lili Marlene” to “All Alone By the Telephone” allows you “to almost tell what sort of man he was”. One record, described as a favorite, is soon placed on the ancient gramophone. The scratchy record is the classic Kurt Weill number from the 1939 Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday. That show was stolen by Walter Huston as he sang “September Song”, a tune that is given added resonance by Huston‘s unmusical but moving way with a song, as well as the expressive emotions that pass over the faces of the two middle-aged actors while they listen.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4z2YNNR11vM]

His vocal presence steals the movie for me. Strange how some performers’ work deepens with time, while others never make as much of an impression, even though in their time, they were quite popular. That’s how I feel about Walter Huston on film.

  • Please click here for a list of upcoming Walter Huston films on TCM.
  • Please visit this link to see an amusing interview with Huston in 1931.
  • Please click here for a visit to the multi-media site for Hearst Over Hollywood.

Sources:

Alter, Jonathan, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Simon and Schuster, 2007.
Black, Gregory, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies,Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Grobel, Lawrence, The Hustons, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.
Pizzitola, Louis, Hearst Over Hollywood, Columbia University Press, 2002.
Wallach, Eli, The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage, Harcourt Press, 2006.
20 Responses The Visionary Walter Huston in Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Posted By Patricia : September 18, 2008 12:29 pm

“Always in My Heart” – as you described the scene, a memory came back of a movie seen once long, long ago whose title was lost to me.

Thanks for another piece to save and share.

Posted By Patricia : September 18, 2008 12:29 pm

“Always in My Heart” – as you described the scene, a memory came back of a movie seen once long, long ago whose title was lost to me.

Thanks for another piece to save and share.

Posted By Helen : September 22, 2008 11:53 am

You’ve done it again. It’s like you read my mind. I love Walter Huston and am thrilled about your take on Gabriel as well as some of the rest of his films. I wish more people would discover this great actor’s work.

Posted By Helen : September 22, 2008 11:53 am

You’ve done it again. It’s like you read my mind. I love Walter Huston and am thrilled about your take on Gabriel as well as some of the rest of his films. I wish more people would discover this great actor’s work.

Posted By ian : September 26, 2008 12:02 pm

This is a great article in tribute to a nearly forgotten master actor. I was at the Telluride Festival when “Dodsworth” was shown to a very young audience that was largely unfamiliar with Walter Huston, Sinclair Lewis or William Wyler for that matter. The people who saw it talked of little else for the rest of the festival. Thank goodness TCM exists to preserve and present such talents to new audiences on a mass scale. How about a month of Walter Huston films, TCM?

Posted By ian : September 26, 2008 12:02 pm

This is a great article in tribute to a nearly forgotten master actor. I was at the Telluride Festival when “Dodsworth” was shown to a very young audience that was largely unfamiliar with Walter Huston, Sinclair Lewis or William Wyler for that matter. The people who saw it talked of little else for the rest of the festival. Thank goodness TCM exists to preserve and present such talents to new audiences on a mass scale. How about a month of Walter Huston films, TCM?

Posted By andrea : September 26, 2008 12:21 pm

Having just seen THE FURIES(1950, I can’t wait to see more Walter Huston movies. I’m told that THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, KONGO and ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY are not to be missed. Are there any other Walter Huston recommendations? I’d like to request GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE on TCM again soon. Thanks for a great blog.

Posted By andrea : September 26, 2008 12:21 pm

Having just seen THE FURIES(1950, I can’t wait to see more Walter Huston movies. I’m told that THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, KONGO and ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY are not to be missed. Are there any other Walter Huston recommendations? I’d like to request GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE on TCM again soon. Thanks for a great blog.

Posted By BLAKE : September 27, 2008 11:14 am

ALWAYS IN MY HEART seemed to be such a waste of talent. Not only Walter Huston, but Kay Francis and the singer Gloria Warren seemed to be trapped by a conventional plot and a small budget. This seemed to be pretty typical of the downside of the studio system. They had so much talent at their disposal, but rarely utilized it as carefully as they could have. Does anyone know why the film AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is not available on tv or on dvd?

Posted By BLAKE : September 27, 2008 11:14 am

ALWAYS IN MY HEART seemed to be such a waste of talent. Not only Walter Huston, but Kay Francis and the singer Gloria Warren seemed to be trapped by a conventional plot and a small budget. This seemed to be pretty typical of the downside of the studio system. They had so much talent at their disposal, but rarely utilized it as carefully as they could have. Does anyone know why the film AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is not available on tv or on dvd?

Posted By Andrew : October 27, 2008 9:15 am

To Blake,
The film of “And Then There Were None” was in the public domain for a time, but as an independently produced film it may have fallen into that black hole known as “litigation hell” due to copyright issues. I’d like to see this one again too.

Posted By Andrew : October 27, 2008 9:15 am

To Blake,
The film of “And Then There Were None” was in the public domain for a time, but as an independently produced film it may have fallen into that black hole known as “litigation hell” due to copyright issues. I’d like to see this one again too.

Posted By fay : January 15, 2009 9:04 pm

did walter huston ever appear in the knickerbocker holiday movie talking september song?

Posted By fay : January 15, 2009 9:04 pm

did walter huston ever appear in the knickerbocker holiday movie talking september song?

Posted By moirafinnie : January 16, 2009 7:58 am

Fay asked: “did walter huston ever appear in the knickerbocker holiday movie talking september song?”

No, unfortunately Walter Huston did not appear in the film version of Knickerbocker Holiday (1944).

That movie was made starring Nelson Eddy, Charles Coburn, and Constance Dowling. According to Variety, the film “has nine songs, five more than the [1938] Broadway show. The music ties the production together neatly. Four songs – lyrics by Anderson, music by Weill – carried over from the original. They are ‘Nowhere to Go but Up’, ‘It Never Was Anywhere You’, ‘Indispensable Man’ and ‘September Song’, first two sung by Nelson Eddy, last two by Charles Coburn.”

Made by the low budget PCA, the film was generally considered rather dull by most reviewers, one of whom said that “[a]ll in all, one gets the impression that “Knickerbocker Holiday” wasn’t much of a holiday for those who made it, and likely is not a hilarious holiday for those who see it.”

If you’d like to see it to judge for yourself, there are rare vhs copies around, and some dvd-rs of the movie may be floating around on the internet. The cd of the original musical featuring Huston as Governor “Peg Leg” Stuyvesant in Old Amsterdam can be purchased from various outlets as well.

I suspect that Mr. Huston’s presence was sorely missed by the creators of the show, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, though Mr. H. was profitably occupied making Edge of Darkness (1943), The North Star (1943), Dragon Seed (1944), and And Then There Were None (1945) around the time of this movie’s production.

Thank you for your interest.

Posted By moirafinnie : January 16, 2009 7:58 am

Fay asked: “did walter huston ever appear in the knickerbocker holiday movie talking september song?”

No, unfortunately Walter Huston did not appear in the film version of Knickerbocker Holiday (1944).

That movie was made starring Nelson Eddy, Charles Coburn, and Constance Dowling. According to Variety, the film “has nine songs, five more than the [1938] Broadway show. The music ties the production together neatly. Four songs – lyrics by Anderson, music by Weill – carried over from the original. They are ‘Nowhere to Go but Up’, ‘It Never Was Anywhere You’, ‘Indispensable Man’ and ‘September Song’, first two sung by Nelson Eddy, last two by Charles Coburn.”

Made by the low budget PCA, the film was generally considered rather dull by most reviewers, one of whom said that “[a]ll in all, one gets the impression that “Knickerbocker Holiday” wasn’t much of a holiday for those who made it, and likely is not a hilarious holiday for those who see it.”

If you’d like to see it to judge for yourself, there are rare vhs copies around, and some dvd-rs of the movie may be floating around on the internet. The cd of the original musical featuring Huston as Governor “Peg Leg” Stuyvesant in Old Amsterdam can be purchased from various outlets as well.

I suspect that Mr. Huston’s presence was sorely missed by the creators of the show, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, though Mr. H. was profitably occupied making Edge of Darkness (1943), The North Star (1943), Dragon Seed (1944), and And Then There Were None (1945) around the time of this movie’s production.

Thank you for your interest.

Posted By American : April 6, 2010 5:24 pm

To TCM:

Please replay “Gabriel Over The White House” in the near future I missed todays showing!

Posted By American : April 6, 2010 5:24 pm

To TCM:

Please replay “Gabriel Over The White House” in the near future I missed todays showing!

Posted By Gabriel Over the White House (1933) Review | Pre-Code.Com : November 2, 2012 4:01 am

[...] TCM’s Movie Morlocks goes heavily into the back story for this one. To sum it up: Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (yes, the man whose life formed the basis of Citizen Kane) pushed through this film with the ideas of what he believed Franklin Roosevelt could embody as President. FDR even offered input into the film, and some of the seeds you see here, like the army of veterans, came to fruition in reality. The head of MGM, Louie B. Mayer, was a staunch Republican and Hoover supporter, and their clashes led to the movie’s release after the election. [...]

Posted By Gabriel Over the White House (1933) Review | Pre-Code.Com : November 2, 2012 4:01 am

[...] TCM’s Movie Morlocks goes heavily into the back story for this one. To sum it up: Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (yes, the man whose life formed the basis of Citizen Kane) pushed through this film with the ideas of what he believed Franklin Roosevelt could embody as President. FDR even offered input into the film, and some of the seeds you see here, like the army of veterans, came to fruition in reality. The head of MGM, Louie B. Mayer, was a staunch Republican and Hoover supporter, and their clashes led to the movie’s release after the election. [...]

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