“Prosperity is just around the corner.”
One of the biggest factors in the unhinged quality of pre-Code films is the Depression itself.
And one of the cognitive dissonances of the Depression was the unending stream of rosy predictions and prognoses spewing from financial, political, and journalistic experts. Cultural critic Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1935 that “The discrepancy between fact and fiction had a profound effect on the minds and hearts of the American people.”
These platitudes were viewed much as many now view President Bush’s bravado misstatement “Mission accomplished”—they would have been cruelly ironic if they hadn’t been so insistent and determinedly in contradiction to the most blatant and painful realities. It got so bad that a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune compiled a book of these phrases, titled Oh Yeah? Here are a couple: “The worst is over without a doubt.” —James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor, June 19, 1930. “We have hit bottom and are on the upswing.” —James J. Davis, Secretary of Labor, September 18, 1930.
While generally Hollywood viewed (and views) its mission as entertainment and escapism, conditions were so horrendous that making only movies depicting an imaginary world of tuxedoed playboys and bejeweled debutantes spouting inane, lighthearted dialogue in drawing room comedies was just too jarring—audiences needed characters and situations that they could actually connect to the world they found themselves in. And so the studios began producing, in addition to their normal escapist fare, films that attempted to be relevant, to address the extreme conditions and mental anguish the nation was confronting.
In Class One we will look at a historical moment, not well known today, that unfolded in the summer of 1932. It became a focal point for the frustration, panic, and outrage that were growing unchecked in the U.S. as it moved into the fourth year of the Great Depression. The events that then transpired in Washington, D.C., which culminated with the U.S. Army attacking the encampment of homeless WWI veterans and their families—more than 50,000 people— who had come to petition congress for relief. Newsreel footage of the attack shocked and horrified the nation, which saw the events at their local movie theater (as well as in powerful photos like the one below, of the encampment burning with the Capitol in the background).
We’ll begin today’s class by watching the documentary March of the Bonus Army.
…followed by a 10-minute break.
Then we’ll look at a remarkable feature film, Gabriel over the White House (1933), that incorporates those real events into its own plot and agenda.
By 1932, when Gabriel over the White House was filmed, Americans had been hearing cheery platitudes and sunny forecasts for three years, as things deteriorated from bad to unthinkably worse. Herbert Hoover, the pro-business President who had enjoyed great popularity before his election and for his first year in office (when “to hoover” was slang for good management), was now being regularly booed (and worse) in his newsreel appearances by movie audiences (the ones who could still afford the price of a ticket—box office admissions had fallen from a high of 110 million before the Crash to 60 million a few years later), and their mood was increasingly dark and desperate. As the Depression took hold the president’s name developed a different connotation: “Hoover blankets” were newspapers, “Hoover flags” were pockets turned inside out, and “Hoovervilles” were encampments of the homeless.
Power brokers and pundits all had their prescriptions for what ailed the country. Dictatorship was enjoying a vogue and Mussolini was extremely popular in the U.S. William Randolph Hearst was not alone in his belief that a strong hand was the best answer to healing the country, but he was perhaps the only one who could produce a motion picture to make his case. Gabriel over the White House was bankrolled by Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, the company he had founded to make starring vehicles for his mistress, the comedienne Marion Davies, with MGM producing and releasing it. Producer Walter Wanger was the MGM supervisor, and he was concerned that Louis B. Mayer, a staunch Republican, would interfere with Gabriel…, but Irving Thalberg, Mayer’s chief of production, told Wanger not to worry; he would handle Mayer. When Mayer saw the finished movie he was outraged and tried to prevent its release, but he did not prevail.
Hearst had a lot of ideas about what the country needed, and he got to implement his plans through Gabriel‘s protagonist, the new President, Judd Hammond (Walter Huston). Hammond is the quintessential party hack. He has no ideas of his own, feels no empathy for the suffering of the nation, and is completely inadequate to the job of governing the country.
At Hammond’s first press conference, his responses are vintage Hoover. Here’s a real quote from President Hoover: “The only real and lasting remedy for unemployment is…employment.”
President Hammond faces the White House press corps with lines like this: “My attitude is one of complete optimism. … I plan to carry this nation from the depths of despondency to the unsullied and sunny heights of prosperity.”
Asked if he will meet with the leader of the Army of the Unemployed (stand-in for the real Bonus Army of 1932): “The President considers John Bronson a dangerous anarchist. If he comes near the White House he will be arrested. …The President considers the whole question of unemployment a local problem.”
Asked if he will take any action against racketeers and gangsters, if they are going to “get away with it,” Hammond replies, “My party also regards Nick Diamond and all racketeers as local problems. We choose to believe that bootlegging and all forms of racketeering will disappear as soon as the public become educated to respect the 18th Amendment [the Volstead Act; Prohibition].” Actually, after 13 years that saw the consolidation of organized crime and the corruption of law enforcement and the judicial, Prohibition was, to much of the country’s relief, about to be repealed. (More about Prohibition and America’s loss of faith in institutions and authority in Class Three: Scarface—Gangsters and Scofflaws.)
A reporter reads the laundry list of hopelessness, homelessness, starvation, waste, economic collapse, and lawlessness, pointing out that there were 5,000 gangland killings in the preceding year but only five gangsters in jail, and those convicted not of murder but of income tax evasion (plot point). “What does the new administration say to this? What answer, what definite plan, has the government to this indictment, this state of misery and horror, of lost hope, of broken faith, of the collapse of the American democracy?”
The President waits for the reporter’s rant to end, looking slightly uncomfortable, then smiles, “Young man, I shall answer you directly. … America will weather this Depression as she has weathered other Depressions, through the spirit of Valley Forge, the spirit of Gettysburg, and the spirit of the Argonne. The American people have risen before, and they will rise again. Gentlemen, remember, our party promises a return to prosperity.”
“May the President be quoted?”
“The President may not be quoted.”
Following this exchange President Hammond is critically injured in a car accident (he was recklessly driving himself, and had the motorcade pushing 100mph), is seemingly visited by an angel, and is transformed.
The new Judd Hammond is grim and purpose-driven. He tries his wings by
- firing his Cabinet
- dissolving the legislative branch
- declaring martial law
- creating a national public works program to temporarily solve the unemployment crisis until private industry begins to function again
- ending Prohibition by imposing government control on the production and sale of alcohol
- creating a national police force that rounds up, court martials, and summarily executes gangsters
- threatening the many nations (and that would be all of them) that have not repaid their war debt with annihilation unless they both make payment and destroy their own military. Strangely, all the nations comply, cheering Hammond as they sign the treaty.
Pretty wild stuff.
Although Gabriel was released before the Code crackdown that took place a few months later, it was still subject to approval and certification by the censors, who had concerns about the movie and refused to grant it a certificate until they were addressed. In particular, wrote James Wingate, head of the Studio Relations Committee of the MPPDA, depicting mobs of armed men marching on Washington, talking of revolution, “may lead to the radicals and the communists, and other who believe in governmental changes by other than constitutional methods, doing the same thing, thus helping to lessen the confidence of the peons in their form of government.”
The Hays Office also worried about the scenes of drinking in the White House (while Prohibition was still the law of the land), and of presenting Congress as corrupt and incompetent. Such scenes were likely to offend sate and federal legislators, and perhaps encourage them to punish the industry with new taxes or harsher censorship.
And there were international concerns as well. Colonel Frederick Herron was in charge of the foreign office of the MPPDA, which secured international licenses for American films, thought that the depiction of foreign diplomats as “groveling and alibiing” and the debtor nations shown as “bad boys being brought up before the teacher and given a good lecture” was highly objectionable. Herron was involved in some very sensitive negotiations and needed the help and cooperation of the very nations shown so insultingly in Gabriel, and he was afraid the movie could jeopardize the outcomes.
True to his word, Thalberg had kept Mayer away from Gabriel, but Mayer finally saw the film at its preview in Glendale, and he was outraged by the completed film, fearing that his friend President Hoover would consider it a personal insult. But Hammond (aside from the platitudes) was much closer to an earlier President, Warren G. Harding, whose lighthearted temperament was a bad match for such a serious office. Mayer demanded that the movie be locked in the vault. He had shrugged off the red flags the Hays Office had been sending him, trusting in Thalberg and Wanger.
Hays insisted on changes at the beginning of the story: “I think it is essential that the picture be so changed in the early footage to indicate that there is some intelligence and some wisdom and some high purpose rather than to avoid even the promises, let alone execution, of proper duty.”
These changes were wrangled but made, the director, producer, and screenwriter were most unhappy with the results, but on March 29, 1933 they got their certificate from the MPPDA and Gabriel was cleared to open in theaters.
The finished film was not released until March 31, 1933, almost a month after FDR’s inauguration, and it landed not in the middle of Hooverian paralysis but Roosevelt’s legendary first 100 days, when the New Deal arrived with a flourish. The film turned a modest profit but its cultural moment had passed before it opened, a fate it shares with many films throughout the ages of cinema.
Still, President Roosevelt was sufficiently taken with the film that he screened it several times, and at least one of President Hammond’s ideas made it into the New Deal—the Civilian Conservation Corps, which over its nine-year lifespan employed 3,000,000 single young men to conserve and develop publicly owned natural resources.
As Jonathan Alter writes in The Defining Moment, Hearst encouraged Roosevelt, before FDR’s first major radio speech, to follow in fictional President Hammond’s footsteps, declare martial law, and take hold of the exhausted, crisis-battered nation. FDR did not heed his advice, and Gabriel over the White House marked the end of America’s “dictator craze,” which was only beginning across the Atlantic. FDR may not have been able to fix the Depression, but he was able to offer a sense of stability, a feeling that hard as it would be, there was a way forward, a future.
A New Yorker piece on Gabriel: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2013/01/inaugural-cinema-gabriel-over-the-white-house.html
The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Jonathan Alter
Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent, by Matthew Bernstein
On the Bonus Army:
The Bonus Army, by Paul Dickson and Thomas B. Allen
The President and Protest, by Donald J. Lisio
The Bonus March, by Roger Daniels
The Bonus, a novel by Georgia Lowe, whose parents were members of the Bonus Army