1. “Brother, can you spare a Duce?”
Apparently, that was the question on the lips of many Americans during the early years of the Great Depression. They watched from afar as Mussolini, unburdened by political opposition, made tremendous strides in ridding Italy of unemployment and bringing back economic prosperity. Many Americans wondered if their problems could really be solved by democratic means, and whether a dictator might not be the most sensible solution.
But they didn’t want a dictator of the Red variety. Despite the swelling ranks of the American Communist Party during the “Red decade,” average Americans never got past their horror at Communism’s atheism and totalitarianism. It was authoritarianism we needed, they said – not totalitarianism. What they wanted was a “third position” – something between American democratic crapitalist Scylla and communist Charybdis.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood responded to this mood.
In 1933 Columbia released a 76 minute documentary, narrated by NBC journalist Lowell Thomas, entitled Mussolini Speaks. The film was a largely uncritical celebration of Italy’s progress under fascism. At one point in his narration Thomas exclaims “This is a time when a dictator comes in handy!” In its first two weeks at New York’s Palace Theater, Mussolini Speaks was seen by almost two hundred thousand patrons. (Hitler was just getting started, of course – but in time Germany’s spectacular renewal would also be widely and openly admired.)
The American longing for a Führer was the subject of Hollywood fiction as well. The two most significant such films are, without question, Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel Over the White House (1933) and King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934). These films were controversial in their time, with many critics and viewers denouncing them as “fascist.”
They remain controversial today – among the tiny number of people who have even heard of them. As cinema, neither film holds up well. They are interesting entirely for the light they shed on their era – and for reminding us that, once upon a time, fascism was considered a live option by many Americans. Though chronologically it comes second, I will deal first with Our Daily Bread as it is in many ways the more interesting film.
This film would make a great triple-feature along with a couple of other King Vidor classics: The Crowd (1928) and The Fountainhead (1949) – which are two of the most misanthropic films ever made. The Crowd is now widely regarded as among the greatest American silents. It centers on a young married couple, John and Mary Sims, who struggle to make ends meet in a cold and cruel world. The film’s downbeat conclusion (which threw Louis B. Mayer into a tizzy) has Sims reduced to wearing a clown costume and carrying a sandwich board that reads “I am happy because I always eat at Schneider’s Grill.”
The Crowd has often been seen as a critique of modernity and of urbanization. Indeed, Vidor’s politics seem to have been vaguely right wing (with the accent being on “vaguely”). He was a member of the anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals – as was Ayn Rand.
Leftist critics have always claimed to see something “fascist” in Rand’s work, and Vidor’s film of The Fountainhead was denounced by The Daily Worker as “an openly fascist movie.” Rand’s followers always angrily dismiss such accusations by pointing to explicitly anti-fascist and anti-collectivist statements in her non-fiction. But this is a little like claiming that because Christianity preaches chastity there can’t be any sex in the Bible. The truth is that Rand’s fiction — especially The Fountainhead and its film version — reeks of anti-democratic elitism and quasi-Nietzschean Übermenschlichkeit.
So, there is ample reason for us to polish our monocles and take a closer look at Mr. Vidor’s Our Daily Bread – which may turn out to be about a little more than just living off the land.
The film centers on a young married couple named John and Mary Sims. Yes, that’s right: the very same names used in The Crowd, which makes it arguable that Vidor intended Our Daily Bread as a sequel to his greatest film. Indeed, Vidor confirmed this in an interview many years later: “I wanted to take my two protagonists out of The Crowd and follow them through the struggles of a typical young American couple in this most difficult period.”
In fact, Vidor originally offered the role of John Sims of Our Daily Bread to the man who had originally played Sims in The Crowd: James Murray. By then, however, Murray was a hopeless drunk and panhandler who dismissed Vidor’s offer as “charity” (he would die two years later, a drowning victim and possible suicide). Offering the part of Mary Sims to Eleanor Boardman, the actress who played her in The Crowd, would have been awkward, as Vidor had divorced Boardman in 1931. In Our Daily Bread, John is played by Tom Keene and Mary by Karen Morley.
When I first saw the film, my reaction was that their acting (especially Keene’s) was about on the level of an Ed Wood movie. Imagine my surprise when I did a little research and found that Keene’s final film was none other than Plan Nine From Outer Space (he plays Colonel Thomas Edwards, Chief of Saucer Operations). Virtually all the acting in Our Daily Bread is stilted and unconvincing. Indeed, there is a kind of awkwardness and cheapness about the whole production (alleviated now and then by some great moments and well-crafted sequences).
This is no accident. Vidor proposed the project to MGM, but according to him “they were afraid of it.” So he mortgaged his house in order to finance the film. That was how strongly he believed in Our Daily Bread. Unfortunately, it must have been a very small house. Vidor could not afford top actors or expensive sets (or multiple retakes). One wishes, though, that he could have looked around a bit more before hiring Keene. The ideal actor would have been Jimmy Stewart (who would make his film debut a year later, in 1935).
In any case, John and Mary are depicted as a typical young American couple struggling to survive in the darkest days of the depression. They literally have to pawn their possessions in order to put food on the table (thankfully, they have no children).
Things look pretty bleak until an uncle offers John a disused farm that is about to be foreclosed on. Maybe John can get the place up and running and make it profitable. Eager to try anything, John and Mary relocate to the farm, which they find to be in a considerable state of ruin. Undaunted, they begin cleaning up the house and tilling the soil – though neither of them has any idea how to work the land (it’s kind of like a depression-era Green Acres). In desperation, John puts up signs along the road asking for ten men with useful skills to come settle on the farm and help him work it. A large crowd shows up in response – men and their families desperate for any kind of employment, desperate just to eat.
We forget today just how calamitous the Great Depression was (and it doesn’t help matters that the recent recession has been likened to it; there really is no comparison). By the time Vidor made Our Daily Bread, unemployment in the U.S, had hit 25%. More than 5,000 banks had failed. Hundreds of thousands of people had defaulted on loans and were driven from their homes, some gathering in shanty towns called “Hoovervilles” (in reference to President Herbert Hoover, whose policies did nothing to alleviate America’s economic misery and in some cases worsened it). To make matters worse, a drought hit the American heartland, creating the infamous “Dust Bowl” and the great Okie migrations.
People were homeless and starving, but — in one of capitalism’s many harsh ironies – it was not for lack of homes or food. As Greg Johnson puts it in his essay “Money for Nothing”:
In an economic depression, the land does not suddenly go sterile. The udders of cows do not go dry. Men do not suddenly become stupid and lazy. The sun keeps shining; the crops keep growing; the chickens keep laying; people keep working. Goods pile up in warehouses and stores. And on the demand side, people still need to eat. But silos are bursting and people are starving because, for some mysterious reason, there is suddenly “not enough money.”
People have no money to spend, or they are afraid to part with the money they do have, because of a climate of uncertainty. After all, half way around the world, a massive swindle has been discovered; a bank has collapsed; a speculative bubble has burst. So, naturally, back in Hooterville, stores are filled with sour milk and rotting vegetables and children are going to bed hungry.
It was precisely Vidor’s indignation over this sort of perverse spectacle that led him to make Our Daily Bread, and to suggest an alternative.
That alternative soon presents itself in the film as the cooperative farm built by John and Mary Sims. John finds a way to use most of the men who come to him – even the “high class pants presser” and the violinist. One of them, a Swede named Chris Larsen is actually a farmer, and under his direction they begin to till the soil.
A meeting is held outdoors after dark, and John makes an inspirational speech about how they must all now work together as a community, in the spirit of the men who first settled the country. The question then comes up of what sort of government their little community should have, and what unfolds is the most fascinating sequence in the film. Sims scratches his head and says that he’ll go along with whatever government most of the crowd wants. In a kind of exaggeratedly reverent tone, one man proclaims: “Then I suggest, my friends, that we bind ourselves together in sacred covenant and establish an immortal democracy!”
The response to this is astonishing. The crowd jeers, and one man cries: “It was that kind of talk that got us here in the first place!”
Another man, his voice sharp and strident, declares: “We must have a socialistic form of government! The government must control everything. Including the profits.”
The crowd jeers this as well, and at this point Larsen, the sensible Swede, speaks up: “I don’t know what them words mean. All I know is we got a big job. And we need a big boss! And John Sims is the boss!” (The word “leader” is carefully avoided here.)
The crowd roars its approval, and John Sims is essentially made dictator of the farm. The scene is fascinating on several levels. First of all, it is amazing to hear democracy jeered (by the good guys) in an American film. More significant, however, is the way in which what is expressed is the need for a third position, in answer to the unacceptable alternatives of democracy (read here democratic-capitalism) and Soviet-style socialism. At one point, they agree to place all their valuables in a kind of storehouse from which each can draw, so long as he works (sound familiar?). Ironically, what they arrive at is a kind of anarcho-collectivism, with one tiny difference: there’s a Führer.
In a recent article published on this website, Matt Parrott quotes Noam Chomsky on anarchism, then offers his own thoughts:
Chomsky claims that “The consistent anarchist, then, should be a socialist, but a socialist of a particular sort. He will not only oppose alienated and specialized labor and look forward to the appropriation of capital by the whole body of workers, but he will also insist that this appropriation be direct, not exercised by some elite force acting in the name of the proletariat.” In summary, the workers of the world should sort of take back the wealth and power in a disorganized manner, trusting one another to equitably share whatever spoils they reap from the capitalists. If you’re struggling to imagine how this would actually work in practice, you’re not alone.
Vidor realized the naïveté of anarchist and utopian socialist theories. While they may present an economically viable – and just – scenario, their understanding of human nature is absurdly optimistic. There is an order of rank among men, and every time some egalitarian scheme has been tried, the alpha males always emerge and assert themselves – and are generally welcomed (especially by the women). Someone’s got to be in charge, if only to save people from themselves.
Time passes, and we see that this gang of homeless men and their families has formed itself into a small society. They have even built makeshift houses for themselves out of odds and ends, even parts of old cars. The scene recalls the Hooverville shanty towns, only this is no longer a mob of disgruntled bums and hoboes. The inhabitants of John Sims’s farm have learned to trade and barter with each other. The stonemason helps build a wall for the carpenter, and the carpenter erects the frame for the stonemason’s house. The pants presser offers his services in trade. Even the violinist finds gainful employment, since someone wants their little boy to take violin lessons, and they are willing to trade this and that for so many hours of instruction.
It’s all rather reminiscent of the first stages of Socrates’s “city in speech” in The Republic. Only this is no “city of pigs”: as well shall see, these people are united by a sense of obligation to the whole, and of the necessity of self-sacrifice. Vidor’s little utopia is “diverse” in the sense that it includes several immigrant families. However, all of them are European. There are no blacks, Asians, or Hispanics. There is one Jewish family, the Cohens (Mr. Cohen is the pants presser).
There is no reason to think that Vidor was any sort of racialist. Indeed, Vidor’s Hallelujah! (1929) was one of the first all-black films made by a major studio (MGM). In his autobiography, Vidor writes warmly of his black cast – but also not without a good deal of bemused condescension (especially when he recounts the story of the black man who carried around an old telephone on which he said he could call God). It is clear from Our Daily Bread, however, that Vidor understood that the sort of community he envisioned would be undermined if the racial and cultural differences between its members were too great.
One of the best scenes in the film has John and Mary discovering the very first sprouts emerging from the soil. “It really works, doesn’t it?” says John, movingly. “It makes you feel safe, comforted. Like somebody was kinda watching over you. There’s nothing for people to worry about. Not when they’ve got the earth.”
It is fascinating to consider this film in relation to The Crowd. In the earlier film, John worked a demeaning and deadening desk job. He and his family lived in New York, which is depicted as a cold, ugly, and inhuman war of all against all. At one point, John’s youngest child is run down in the street. (A scene which still reduces audiences to tears.) The response from his fellow New Yorkers is indifference — or fleeting, mock concern. Their sentiments have been atrophied by the alienation and dehumanization of modern, urban, capitalist life. (An intertitle famously announces “The crowd will laugh with you always. But it will cry with you for only a day.”) In Our Daily Bread, John and Mary have left all this behind. They have rediscovered the earth, and a genuine sense of human community and fellow-feeling.
For awhile, everything seems copacetic. There is jubilation on the farm when word gets around that the earth is still delivering. But it doesn’t last long. Soon the news comes that the farm has been foreclosed on and that the sheriff will soon arrive to auction it off. John and Mary are devastated, but their friends – who include a number of rather shady tough guys – are not about to let their dream be sold out from under them. At the auction, the men of the farm insert themselves into the crowd of elegantly-dressed investors and physically intimidate them into not bidding! The winning bid (of $1.85) is made by one of the scabbier-looking members of the collective, and the sheriff and his cohorts leave in disgust. Little Eden is saved!
But what’s Eden without a serpent? She arrives one dark and stormy night in a convertible, seeking shelter for herself and her ailing father. She is Sally, a blonde bombshell, a doll, a flapper. A bit of a dumb Dora, but one thing’s for sure: she ain’t no bug-eyed Betty. Is she trouble? And how! We know she’s trouble when we find out she’s brought jazz records with her. These come to light when she plays them on the day the farmers bury her father’s body on the hill. You see, when John and company went out to her car in the pouring rain, they found the father dead in the back seat. (Was it really her daddy, or just a sugar daddy? And how exactly did he die? We never find out.)
Critics have often objected that Sally is an unnecessary character, and the subsequent events surrounding her something of an unwarranted intrusion on the main plot. In truth, the character essentially represents the amoral, selfish, degenerate elements of city life that Vidor so detested. Sally arrives to remind us of these things, and to set up a contrast to the emerging social ethics of the farm, which places the good of the whole above all else. This ethics is embodied by one of the men, who turns out to be an escaped convict. Without telling any of the others, he turns himself in so that Sims can collect the $500 reward for his capture, a tremendous boon for the farm. Sally finds his sacrifice inexplicable.
The community uneasily accepts Sally, though a number of them suspect that she has set her sights on John. Mary gives Sally the benefit of the doubt and tries to befriend her. Besides, they’ve all got bigger things to worry about: a drought has hit, and it is a humdinger.
The community looks to John for ideas, but John has run out. The corn is dangerously close to dying, and John grows more and more despondent. Finally, he simply loses his grip and runs off with Sally under cover of darkness in her convertible. They don’t get very far, however, before John literally sees a vision of his self-sacrificing convict friend (wearing prison garb) looming over the highway and warning him to stop. John pulls the car over to the side of the road – and suddenly has an inspiration. There is a creek some distance from the farm. If they can dig a canal they might just be able to divert the creek and irrigate the crops! He runs off into the darkness, headed back to the farm. An enraged Sally zooms off in her car, and out of the story.
On his return, John finds the community reluctant to trust him again, but with the aid of Chris Larsen he manages to convince them of his scheme. It will not be easy, though. The creek is several miles away, over hills and through areas blocked by heavy boulders that will have to be cleared out. In a long and extremely effective sequence, Vidor shows the community triumphing against all odds, building its canal, and irrigating its parched crops. The End.
Since its premiere, critics and film historians have debated the politics of Our Daily Bread. Some have claimed it for the Left, while others have perceived that it veers dangerously close to fascism. (For my money, it veers and falls right in.) Vidor actually got the idea for the film from a Readers’ Digest article by a leftist economics professor who recommended the formation of co-operative farms as a solution to unemployment. But this means nothing: political space is curved, and there are points at which the Right and Left meet and become virtually indistinguishable.
Reviews at the time were mostly very positive, though the film flopped at the box office. Surprisingly, Our Daily Bread won second prize at a film festival in Moscow. Vidor was told that the film would have won first prize, but it was perceived as “capitalist propaganda.” There’s just no winning with some people.
3. Gabriel over the White House
Philosophically or ideologically, Our Daily Bread is the more interesting of the two films discussed here, but Gabriel over the White House is far more polished and entertaining. It is also far less politically ambiguous: Gabriel over the White House is openly, unapologetically, almost naïvely fascist. And it was perceived as such and denounced at the time.
Made by the studio that had refused to back Our Daily Bread, an internal MGM memo described the script of Gabriel over the White House as “wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree.” But there were powerful forces who wanted to see this film made – including William Randolph Hearst, who gave the production financial backing and promoted it in his newspapers. On Gabriel’s release, just a few weeks after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration, The Nation declared that the film’s aim was to “convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country.” The New Republic labeled it “a half-hearted plea for fascism.”
Hearst supported the film because he supported Roosevelt. Essentially, he saw Gabriel’s protagonist, a dictatorial American president, as the sort of leader he was hoping he had bought with FDR.
For his part, Roosevelt loved the film. Apparently, he even read the screenplay during his campaign and suggested a few changes. After seeing an advance screening, he wrote to the film’s producer (Walter Wanger), “I want to send you this line to tell you 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.” Franklin and Eleanor are supposed to have seen the film several times and after one screening the First Lady wrote “if a million unemployed marched on Washington . . . I’d do what the President does in the picture!”
Americans today have forgotten not only the extent to which Roosevelt ruled as a dictator – but also the extent to which he was openly asked to do so, and often publicly praised for it. Journalist Walter Lippmann wrote in his column at the time: “The more one considers the scope and the variety of the measures that are needed for relief and reconstruction the more evident it is that an extraordinary procedure—‘dictatorial powers,’ if that is the name for it—is essential . . . ” Privately, he told Roosevelt, “The situation is critical, Franklin. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” The New York Herald Tribune greeted Roosevelt’s inauguration with the headline: “FOR DICTATORSHIP IF NECESSARY.”
This is the context needed to understand Gabriel over the White House – the circumstances of its production, and why it struck a chord with many (though it was not a big hit). It may seem odd that a film both I and critics of the time have called “fascist” could have been enjoyed by Roosevelt, who was a man of the Left. But this is yet another instance of political extremes meeting. The President in the film is indeed much further to the Right than Roosevelt, abandoning even the semblance of democracy. (Or does that make him much further to the Left?)
The basis for Gabriel over the White House was a novel by Thomas Frederic Tweed called Rinehard. Tweed was an advisor to Lloyd George – considered the founder of the modern welfare state – from 1927 until Tweed’s death in 1940. Curiously, Rinehard is not mentioned at all in the credits of Gabriel, and it is said to be based upon a novel by “anonymous.”
The story opens with the inauguration of President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston, who delivers a really splendid performance). In a wise move, the screenplay never identifies Hammond’s party, because it simply doesn’t matter: the perspective of the filmmakers is clearly that the two major parties are corrupt, out of ideas, and virtually identical. (More than one recent commentator has noted that this film feels in some ways like it was written last week!) Hammond inherits the Depression. But he is positively the worst man for the job. He is a dolt, a cynic, a vulgarian, and a party hack. The opening scenes at the White House show the aftermath of Hammond’s inaugural ball, where he exchanges jokes with his supporters, laughing about how he’s going to break his promises to the people, and about all the votes that he had to buy.
We are introduced to Hammond’s new secretary, an idealistic young man named Hartley Beekman (Franchot Tone), whom Hammond insists on addressing as “Beek.” So overawed by the chance to serve as secretary to the President of the United States, Beek doesn’t notice Hammond’s foibles at first. But his eyes are opened later in the evening when Hammond’s mistress shows up.
Her name in the film is Pendola “Pendy” Molloy, and her character is actually based on Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress (with whom Thomas Frederic Tweed also had an affair). The part is played by none other than Karen Morley, “Mary Sims” of Our Daily Bread (in real life Morley was alleged to be a Communist, whose Hollywood career ended in 1947 after her refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee).
Pendy Molloy just walks through the front door of the White House and presents her calling card to Beek. This is not the first time such an event occurs in the film. (Even if it is not true that individuals had such easy access to the White House in 1933, it is certainly revealing that Americans were prepared to believe that they did.) The fact that the President (who is depicted as unmarried) would entertain his mistress in the White House is supposed to indicate to the audience that this is not only a man of questionable morals, but questionable judgment as well.
Pendy turns out to be not such a bad gal after all, and she and Beek soon form a friendship. Both wish that Hammond were a better man, and she tries to urge him to do something meaningful with the power he’s been given. But Hammond won’t hear of it. “The party has a plan,” he says. “I’m just a member of the party.” He reaches decisions at cabinet meetings with lines like “Well, if it’s alright with you boys then . . .” He plays hide and seek with his little nephew while listening to a radio broadcast about the plight of the unemployed. And he spouts insufferable, dimwitted bromides to the press about “America’s greatness.” It is all too depressingly familiar.
And Hammond is reckless. He insists on driving his own car, and on one outing exceeds ninety miles per hour. Unfortunately, he doesn’t negotiate one curve all that well and winds up in an accident – and in a coma. President Hammond lingers unconscious for weeks. Just when it looks like he is near death, he suddenly awakens. A strange light plays over his face, as the curtains in his bedroom are gently moved by a sudden afternoon breeze. Hammond looks around the room as if seeing it for the first time. And it as if we see him for the first time: some peculiar change has come over him. In fact, what has occurred is that he has been possessed by the Archangel Gabriel. I kid you not.
Hammond rises from his bed a changed man. Gone is his sloppy, informal, glad-handling manner. Gone is his cynicism and irreverence. He behaves as if he does not even know Pendy, calling her Miss Molloy. (I have to note here that Huston, the father of director John Huston, does a brilliant job in creating two distinct Hammonds – even his bone structure seems to have changed.)
At a cabinet meeting, the President is informed that a million unemployed men led by a rabble-rouser named John Bronson are about to march on Washington. He is urged to call out the Army. Instead, Hammond insists on the right of every citizen to a decent, living wage and proclaims his intention to meet with Bronson and his men. When his Secretary of State threatens resignation, Hammond sacks him on the spot. Later, when he discovers his cabinet is plotting against him, he sacks the lot of them.
And then he travels to Baltimore to meet with Bronson’s “Army of the Unemployed.” Hammond promises to turn them into a real army – an army of laborers who will be put to use across America, working various construction projects and stimulating trade and industry. This, of course, is precisely the sort of thing Roosevelt would soon create with his Civilian Conservation Corps – though Hammond’s paramilitary conception is far closer to Hitler’s Reichsarbeitsdienst.
(The “Army of the Unemployed” of the film is based on an actual situation that occurred during the Hoover administration, when Hoover sent the Army to disperse a large group of unemployed protesters with tear gas. Roosevelt responded to them in a manner not unlike Hammond – with the difference that he sent Eleanor to talk to them, rather than going himself.)
Meanwhile, Congress is debating whether the President should be impeached and removed from office. Throwing all protocol out the window, Hammond simply walks into the House of Representatives and addresses them. When he asks them for money to fund his new Labor Service, the Congressmen jeer him. So Hammond does exactly what I would do: he politely requests that Congress adjourn indefinitely and grant him special powers! Immediately, they accuse him of wanting to destroy democracy and set himself us as a dictator. Hammond’s response is remarkable.
He defends himself by invoking a tactic often used by both fascists and communists. He argues that what he intends to bring about is true democracy, because he will be acting according to the will of the people. Congress, on the other hand, has failed to listen to the people. If this is dictatorship, Hammond declares, it is one based upon the original principle of Jeffersonian democracy: “the greatest good for the greatest number!” (Ahem, actually Jefferson never said this. I believe it was Jeremy Bentham who first coined the phrase, which is associated with the utilitarian philosophy.) When Congress refuses to adjourn, Hammond simply declares martial law. A newspaper headline declares: “Hammond Dictator.”
Hammond’s invocation of Jefferson is typical of the sanctimonious way the film often wraps itself in the flag. (John in Our Daily Bread also appeals to America’s “glorious history” in order to motivate the collective.) Gabriel features frequent gag-inducing references to Lincoln, including lingering close-ups of a bust of Lincoln in Hammond’s office. Huston had actually portrayed Lincoln three years earlier in a film directed by D. W. Griffith (one of only two sound films made by Griffith). And it is clear that director La Cava wants to portray Hammond as a latter-day Lincoln. He even lights Huston so as to accentuate his cheekbones and give him a “gaunt,” Lincolnesque appearance.
I suppose this is appropriate, given that Lincoln was also a tyrant – but of course that view is at odds with the naïve, unctuous twaddle Americans tend to secrete whenever they talk about Lincoln, and American history in general.
Neither Our Daily Bread nor Gabriel over the White House wants to argue that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the American founding philosophy. Instead, they draw on the American mythology in order to justify their complete negation of it. It’s a shrewd way to try and win over ordinary Americans (who have never been the slightest bit interested in self-criticism).
Now Hammond decides to go after the racketeers who have profited from prohibition. Personally, I find prohibition extraordinarily hard to fathom. It is a good example of the senseless fanaticism Americans are often capable of (though a few other countries adopted similar measures during the same period). That it lasted in America from 1920 until December of 1933 is astonishing.
Still, it wasn’t all that hard to get a drink during prohibition: organized crime kept the liquor flowing, just as organized crime keeps drugs on the streets today. And just like the drug lords of today, the criminals who brewed and distributed the booze during prohibition became extremely wealthy, and extremely brazen. When the Depression hit, American resentment against prohibition became particularly intense. Part of the reason was the knowledge that while so many were starving and homeless, bootlegging gangsters were sitting on easy street.
Hammond addresses the nation by radio, promising to put an end to the racketeers. This is followed by an astonishing scene: a drive by machine-gunning of the White House! As Hammond, Beek, and Pendy stand inside one of the entrances to the mansion, a car zooms by while one of its occupants sprays the building with bullets. A doorman is hit – as is Pendy. The scene is both ridiculous and shocking, as the violence is pretty graphic for its day (this was a “Pre-Code” film, after all).
This “drive by” has been instigated by the top hood in the country, Nick Diamond (an immigrant whose real name is revealed as Antone Brilawski). Diamond is so arrogant he’s ready to take on the President himself.
Though Pendy is seriously wounded, she lives. And love blossoms between her and Beek. (A completely gratuitous and unnecessary distraction from the film’s main plot.) As Hammond is married to the Nation now, he gives his blessing to the relationship. While visiting Beek and Pendy, he asks Beek to head his new “Federal Police,” a uniformed paramilitary force that will be charge with maintaining domestic law and order. It’s sort of like . . . oh, I just can’t recall the name. Starts with an S. And ends with an S . . .
Led by Beek, in his snazzy new uniform, the Federal Police barrel down on Nick Diamond’s distillery with tanks and blow it to kingdom come. No warrant is ever proffered. Diamond and his subalterns are captured alive and tried by military tribunal (remember, the nation is still under martial law). In a rather blatant case of a conflict of interest, one of the members of the tribunal is Beek himself, the arresting officer. (Strangely, he seems disinclined to recuse himself.) Unsurprisingly, Diamond and his men are found guilty. In his closing remarks, Beek refers to how lucky America is to have a president who has cut through all the legal red tape and gotten back to “first principles.” Diamond and his men are then stood against a wall and summarily executed by firing squad!
It was this series of events that made me start thinking of George W. Bush, and feeling a little uncomfortable about how much I was enjoying this film. After all, I was as scandalized as a libertarian by Bush’s warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, military tribunals, waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition. (And anyone wishing to know my view of the Department of Homeland security need only read my essay “Guys.”)
But I suppose that my indignation over these things is not because I find them intrinsically wrong. I don’t object to them as such; I object to the particular set of interests they were intended to serve. Bush’s “dictatorial” measures were not put in place to protect “the homeland” or people like me. No, the US government is committed to screwing people like me, and allowing the unchecked invasion of the “homeland” by those who openly hate and wish to displace the descendents of the people who founded the country. No Arabs were waterboarded to protect the interests of John and Mary Sims. They were waterboarded to protect the interests of the Nick Diamonds of this New World Order, the fat cat globalist destroyers of our people, our culture, and our earth. I can get behind waterboarding – it all just depends on who’s doing it, who it’s being done to, and why.
So, to return to our story: As if all this weren’t enough, Judson Hammond now achieves world peace. He tells the press that he will soon be meeting with representatives of the European powers to demand that they pay their debts to America (incurred during the Great War). Wearing top hat and tails, Hammond meets with the diplomats on board a ship. He surprises them by bringing along microphones, to broadcast their meeting to the entire world. When Hammond demands that they pay their debts, the diplomats are oily and condescending — but he patiently explains to them that he has a plan. If every debtor nation will simply stop sinking money into armaments, they can easily pay what they owe the US.
To make this argument stick, Hammond unveils America’s newest secret weapon: an air force of biplanes! As the European diplomats watch in amazement, the American biplanes destroy two obsolete and decommissioned American warships. The message is clear: continuing to develop and stockpile armaments is futile, as America’s air force can easily crush them. Instead, use the money for peaceful purposes, like repaying your debts. As to the security of your nation, fear not! America will protect you. America will secure the peace.
The scene shifts to a great hall where the diplomats are all poised to sign on the dotted line – pledging to place themselves in America’s hands and to repay their debts. But then comes the sad and shocking news: President Hammond has died. Having solved America’s and the world’s problems, the Archangel Gabriel has headed home, leaving Hammond behind like a discarded skin. Beek and Pendy are devastated, but their grief is assuaged by the knowledge that Judson Hammond has left them with a bright and secure future. Here endeth Gabriel over the White House.
I wouldn’t call either of these films “great.” In fact, they’re not even that good.
But they have good things about them. As I’ve already discussed, Our Daily Bread is marred by bad acting and a generally cheap, creaky quality. Still, that it has some bright moments should be unsurprising, given that it was helmed by one of America’s greatest directors. Chiefly, it is interesting for its ideas, which are genuinely thought provoking.
Gabriel over the White House is a much sillier movie, but honestly it’s a lot more fun. True enough, it is contrived, naïve, and often just plain dumb. It is also much too short a film (only 86 minutes). The events are sort of rushed on screen, barely giving us a chance to absorb and digest them. Nevertheless, the film has that same luminous platinum quality so many MGM films from the 1930s possess. And it has the kind of infectious effervescence that really shows itself in full flower only later in La Cava’s greatest film, My Man Godfrey (1936). Gabriel is the sort of picture Frank Capra would have made, had he stayed in Italy and made movies for Mussolini. It is not a “film of ideas” like Our Daily Bread. Rather it is basically wish fulfillment for the fascistically inclined. It is the feel-good fascist movie of 1933.
Speaking of Frank Capra, no one ever accused him of being a fascist but his work is often interesting for its populist, and often vaguely anti-capitalist elements. In 1941 Capra made a film which, in certain ways, can be seen as his “answer” to the fascist-inclined films of the preceding decade: Meet John Doe.
The plot concerns a fictitious letter to a newspaper, in which an unemployed “John Doe” threatens suicide. The letter sparks a nationwide movement of “John Does,” focusing attention upon society’s less fortunate and advocating a return to “neighborliness.” (In this way it is very much a film of the Depression. Though by 1941 America’s economic picture had greatly improved, unemployment was still fairly high.)
Fascism enters the picture in the form of a newspaper magnate (almost certainly based on Hearst) who wants to use the John Doe movement to form a third, vaguely fascist party. He even has his own paramilitary outfit who, in one amusing scene, engage in some precision drilling on motorcycles.
But Meet John Doe is a story for another time.
These films are not great cinema, but they are fascinating because they show us how close Americans once were to embracing fascism. Ah, the good old days . . .