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When Joe Biden takes the oath of office Jan. 20, amid a pandemic and shortly after a Capitol riot, it will be one of the more unusual inaugurations. But a 1933 movie offers eerie echoes of this strange moment in U.S. history.
MGM’s Gabriel Over the White House was a political allegory rushed into production to coincide with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s March 4 inauguration, his first. (It was made in two months and released March 31.) In fact, the film opens with an inauguration: that of newly elected Judson Hammond (Walter Huston, the lead in D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln), who was a proxy for then-president Herbert Hoover. The fictional new president is a corrupt political hack with a hands-off approach to the Great Depression and a hands-on approach to young women. Hammond even had a catchphrase: “Our party promises a return to prosperity!” But when he totals his car and falls into a coma, he awakens a changed man. (One character theorizes it’s because he was visited by the angel Gabriel.)
Suddenly, he reads a lot. He’s thoughtful. He turns down a bribe from a Prohibition racketeer. And, as a march descends on Washington to protest unemployment, he forbids his cabinet from turning the Army on it. Asked by the press about the standoff, he tells them the truth. Ultimately, he fires his entire cabinet, leading to an attempted impeachment. But Hammond convinces his detractors to reconsider.
“If what I plan to do in the name of the people makes me a dictator,” he says, “then it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson’s definition of democracy: a government for the greatest good of the greatest number!” (His rousing speeches were penned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst, a great supporter of Roosevelt and a bankroller of the film.) He then saves the country by having the federal government hire legions of unemployed, getting Europe to repay its World War I debts, and abolishing Prohibition so the government can run the alcohol business.
Roosevelt loved the movie so much, he used some of those ideas.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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