Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Walter Huston in the White House

Years before Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Jason Robards and Daniel Day-Lewis took on the role, Walter Huston played President Abraham Lincoln a couple of times.  He was the slain president most notably in Abraham Lincoln, a 1930 film directed by D.W. Griffith.  Huston seemed to be a pretty good fit for the White House.  He went there again in a 1933 MGM release that's quite a bit surreal, a bit dated but oddly relevant today as a somewhat cautionary tale.  The movie is called Gabriel Over The White House.  Judson Hammond, played by Huston, is a bachelor and the new president of the United States.
Have you see this movie?  It's only about 85 minutes long and it gets right to the point.  It opens with an inauguration.  Hammond is being sworn in as president.  Jud Hammond promises to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. That short scene is followed by inaugural festivities, mostly stock footage from parades.

Then we go to the White House where he's being congratulated by the men in his cabinet.  Mr. President has a sweet little nephew who has a toy gun and wants to be "a gangster."  It's an innocent statement but it's the effect of gangsters making so many headlines that they've achieved a celebrity status in the country.  We see that President Hammond will repay the favors that got him to the White House.  Serious national problems like crime and unemployment, he feels, must be dealt with locally.  In an off-the-record statement to the press, he distances himself from those problems.  There's also a romance in the bachelor president's life.  It's suggested that Miss Penny Molloy and he have had a romantic -- and sexual -- relationship.  She'll become an administrative assistant.  She is smart, sophisticated and skilled for the job.  She also cares about politics and the condition of the country.  He calls her "an idealist."  She believes he can do great things in office.  The country is still being scarred by the Depression.  Americans are grappling with foreclosures and failing banks.  Farmers need help.
In the photo above, there's Gabriel Over the White House director Gregory La Cava holding the script with actors Walter Huston, Franchot Tone and Karen Morley.  Tone played Beekman, the devoted Secretary to President Hammond.  He's just as much an idealist as Miss Molloy.  He will fall in love with her.  It's Penny Molloy who gently guides the president's attention to a gift on his desk.  She says, "Lincoln freed the slaves with that pen."  He makes light of the gift as he starts signing official documents but she adds, "You could do important things with that pen if you wanted to."  He politely counters by telling the idealist there's a lot of things people don't understand and don't want to.  He tells her that the party has a plan and that he's just a member of the party.
As a Hammond cabinet member said, "No matter what happens, the party comes first."

President Hammond will take care of his shady cabinet buddies.  Also, he has a big boy recklessness about him that we see in a very unlikely but key scene. Mr. President takes the wheel.  He likes to drive real fast and Jud Hammond can do whatever he wants because...he's The President. An accident occurs.  Tragedy ensues.  He's in a coma for over a week.  He's near death.  There's a sound of a celestial horn.  President Hammond awakens from the coma a changed man.  A very changed man.  There's a different look in his eyes, a different pitch to his voice.  He's no longer reckless.  He doesn't have time for shady cabinet members.  He becomes a no-bullshit leader who says, "As President, my first duty is to the people."  He now calls Penny, "Miss Molloy."  She notices the change.  She calls Mr. Beekman's attention to it.  Penny Molloy doesn't consider herself a religious woman but she does feel that there's something about the Angel Gabriel in President Hammond's new self.  Is he getting messages from Gabriel?  We wonder if he's getting spiritual guidance from the leader Walter Huston played in 1930.  Is he being guided by Abraham Lincoln?

Because President Hammond is no longer his former self, the sexual relationship with Penny Molloy is over.  But he still needs her in his inner circle.  That's fine.  She's now more excited by his commitment to the the people.  If Washington insiders think he's mad, she calls it "a divine madness."  This also clears the way for Mr. Beekman.  He's fallen in love with Miss Molloy...and she's fallen in love with him.  The President will be pleased.

Because of the Great Depression, unemployed men are sleeping in parks, like Central Park in New York City.  That really happened.  My grandfather was unemployed during the Depression and slept in Central Park a few times before he landed work as a domestic employee in the home of a wealthy family.  In Gabriel Over The White House, a Million Man March on Washington is planned.  The out of work men want work.  They want the government's attention.  The old President Hammond told the press, off-the-record, that the question of mass unemployment was a local problem.  Audiences in 1933 must have been reminded of the Bonus Army marches on Washington in 1932.  Unemployed WWI veterans wanted jobs and demanded benefits they were promised.

When the leader of the Million Man March speaks on national radio (no television in those days), President Hammond is not listening.  He has the radio turned on but he's loudly playing with his little nephew before he leaves to drive himself out of control on a long highway.

The renewed Hammond goes to meet with the unemployed black and white men.  He walks among them.  He speaks to them from the heart.  Without a written speech.

He boots corrupt cabinet members.  "Gentlemen, I suggest you read the Constitution of the United States" when he reminds them of his Presidential power.  The Presidential balls must now clang like the Liberty Bell when he walks.  Here, the movie is surreal not only in action, but also in look as he takes care of dealing with gangsters and the rash of gangland murders that have claimed innocent lives.

There's a big touch of German expressionism in the look of Gabriel Over The White House.

I've read that this little movie caused some big controversy.  It was directed by Gregory La Cava and -- if you think about it -- the movie has social elements that he later dealt with comically and very successfully.  My Man Godfrey is about responsibility to your fellow man.  We see this message played out with a rich family of screwballs in New York City that whimsically hires a homeless man to be its new butler.  He was one of the "Forgotten Men" living in the city dump because of unemployment in the Great Depression.  My Man Godfrey (1936) starred William Powell and Carole Lombard.

In Stage Door, he puts a bunch of wisecracking struggling actresses together in the same New York City theatrical boarding house while they seek auditions for work.

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn starred as the roommates who came from opposite ends of the social scale.  They will bicker then bond and become best friends.

Again, there's an element of regard for helping someone who's down and out.  In Stage Door, it's Kay.  She's the gifted dramatic actress who was a breakthrough critical sensation one season in a Broadway play and then couldn't find a job the next season.  And the next.  She's on the brink of becoming homeless.  In Best Picture nominee Stage Door (1937), the forgotten man is a woman.  Andrea Leeds played Kay.
As for Gabriel Over The White House, if this project was remade as a movie for HBO, if it kept some of the basic 1933 elements and had Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Dennis Haysbert or Jimmy Smits as President Judd Hammond, it was cause controversy again.

There would be media buzz about this transformed president and his new deal for a country in an economic crisis plus his way of handling international leaders.  Cable's Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart would be talking about it.

We never see a celestial character, like in Here Comes Mr. Jordan,  or its Warren Beatty remake Heaven Can Wait, or Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.  The change is seen with a subtle change of light on Walter Huston's face -- and it's a change of light and attitude that Penny Molloy also witnesses.  She feels some other presence in the room.

The Miss Molloy character is very interesting for a pre-Production Code Hollywood movie.  She's a mature and independent woman.  She loves a man and, it's implied, has made love to him without asking him to give up his bachelor status.  She's an idealist.  She believes that "a simple honest man could solve everything."  Penny Molloy cares about others.  She doesn't call herself religious but she has a respect for and a knowledge of the Bible.  Look at the countenance on her face when she says, "Lincoln freed the slaves with the pen."  She's her own woman.  She's a woman of substance.  She's very well-played by Karen Morley.  She, Franchot Tone and Walter Huston deliver excellent performances in this odd movie.

Huston cut a mean figure.  He was a big man, graceful and comfortable in his own skin.  Rugged yet elegant.  He could look just as comfortable in a tuxedo having a swanky dinner with socialites as he could wearing casual duds and fishing in the woods..  He carried himself well.  He wore clothes well.  He had a masculine magnetism that was truly "All-American."  Women wanted to be with him.  Men wanted to be with him.  This strength and charisma are utilized beautifully when he starred in William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936), a great film.  We see that All-American quality in his charming portrayal of George M. Cohan's father in Yankee Dandle Dandy (1942).  We see his Oscar-winning skill as a character actor when he played the old prospector who respects America's overlooked riches in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  He won Best Supporting Actor of 1948 for that film classic, directed by his son, John Huston.

La Cava's Gabriel Over The White was released by MGM studios.  It's an usual production for MGM, a powerful Hollywood studio that became the Tiffany of movie musicals.  In the 1930s, MGM didn't delve into social issues the way Warner Brothers did.  The opening credits show that it's based on a novel written by "Anonymous."  It was co-produced by William Randolph Hearst, the template for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane character.  Gabriel Over The White House is now available on Warner Brothers Archive Collection DVD.  This dramatic political fantasy is worth a look.



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