‚Donald over the White House:‘ Depression-Era Film and the Trump Campaign

I currently teach a class about detective, gangster, and G-Man figures across the media in the United States during the 1930s. Last session, as a follow-up to a discussion of Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), we watched excerpts from Gabriel Over the White House (Gregory La Cava, 1933) and discussed Anna Siomopoulos’ text on both films, “Scarface Over the White House: The New Deal and the Political Gangster Film,” which is a chapter in her excellent book Hollywood Melodrama and the New Deal (London: Routledge, 2012). As a side-note, I mentioned that I thought Siomopoulos’ description of the fictional president Judd Hammond in the film reminded me of Donald Trump. About half of the students agreed, some others appeared rather puzzled. Learning that it wasn’t just me who made the connection encouraged me to jot down some thoughts, which are meant more as general ideas than as a fully-fledged argument. So here it goes.

Released just after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gabriel Over the White House tells the story of a fictional American president with a laissez-faire approach to (not) solving the Depression crisis, seeing no need for government intervention and support for the poor and unemployed. After a car accident, the president (Walter Huston, see image) wakes from a coma and, with supposedly angelic inspiration, takes command, puts the unemployed construction workers in government-paid jobs, ends prohibition, declares martial law, and sends his own militarized police force to combat the film’s fictional public enemy, an Al Capone-like Italian gangster boss (who ends up being executed in a reverse staging of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre). Siomopoulos highlights how both the earlier president as well as his converted self is “fearless, forceful, and even violent,” and “resembles a reformed gangster in that he is an aggressive and independent leader, and not ‘just a member of the party,’ as Hammond (the fictional president, my comment) describes himself” (Siomopoulos, 21). This presidential character, she ascertains in the beginning of the chapter, displayed a rigorous political style that caused contemporaneous critics to scorn the film for its embracing of anti-democratic, dictatorial leadership and downright fascism (13). The film, Siomopoulos explains, failed at the box-office at the time because audiences disliked its obvious political propaganda (28).

gabriel over the white house 2

Despite its box-office failure, the film does bear witness of a social sentiment and a public discourse about politics in the 1930s, in which MGM was bold enough to release a film that questioned the adequacy of democratic leadership. The more forceful leader, the film suggests, could “cut the red tape” that now, in the 1930s, provided mob bosses with skilled, government-paid lawyers that continuously spared them a prison sentence. As Siomopoulos stresses, “what comes across clearly in Gabriel is the idea that a fearless, forceful, and even violent leader in the style of Tony Camonte (the gangster in Scarface, my comment) or Rico Bandello (The Gangster in Little Cesar, my comment) is more important to solving national problems than the philosophy and practice of procedural democracy, with the caveat that the leader should be an Anglo-American who has the citizens’ best interest at heart” (21). These sections in her text resonate with the current media coverage of Donald Trump’s candidacy in noteworthy ways. Trump not only embodies the overly self-assured hyper-masculine despot, but he similarly stresses that he is independent, not a ‘tool’ of a party or a social class, and his actions seemingly go around the bureaucracies of the government. Maybe Barack Obama, in his recent speech in Hannover, was responding as much to Trump as to the rise of right-wing politics in Europe (the latter of which he was actually addressing) when he reminded us that democracy takes time, and he highlighted that he knew that because he had a congress to work with. Siomopoulos’ comment that the forceful leader should be an Anglo-American in fact has more significance for the Obama/Trump opposition than it has for Gabriel Over the White House.

The other resonance between Gabriel and Trump is that the film itself and the fictional president within the film are responses to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and parts of the discourse around Trump’s candidacy are related to the suffering of a poor white working class, high rates of unemployment, and an economic crisis that has been compared to the Depression of the 1930s. Obviously, Gabriel Over the White House is a Hollywood film and Donald Trump a very real person seeking the most powerful position in the White House. Nevertheless, most people have little more direct access to Trump as they do to Hollywood movies. Both reach them in the form of, mostly, screen images. In a way, Gabriel presents a fictional response not to the actual Depression, but to its version of the depression as created on screen, and Trump’s claims similarly are responses to a crisis that, although it inarguably severely affected parts of the population, was also a mediatized event that was described employing a rhetoric of the 1930s Great Depression. In the film’s description of its fictional president, “whether or not his economic policies actually provided relief does not seem to matter as much as the strength of the president’s own convictions” (Siomopoulos, 28). I believe that a similar claim holds true for Trump, in that his followers seem oblivious to the question of the feasibility of his projects and his more general lack of a plan. In line with his reality-TV public character, Trump’s proposals communicate his incentive rather than a specific course of action. His words are a media response to a mediatized problem, cut off from the living people ready to cast a vote, who see their economic conditions addressed in Trump’s campaign when really, his responses aim to provoke a momentary emotional response rather than a true political agenda. Trump is responding much more to the representation of economic crisis in the media than to the factual living conditions that at one point sparked, but also threaten to get lost in the rhetoric of the ‘economic crisis.’ Just as president Hammond’s actions need to be neither effective nor plausible as long as they’re forceful for the plot of Gabriel over the White House to make sense, Trump’s proclamations, in response to a rhetoric of crisis, suffice for his own media narrative to become a working story with enough emotional appeal to, unfortunately, attract voters.

Note: Thanks go to my co-bloggers Felix Brinker and Svenja Fehlhaber for feedback / support.

Text: Siomopoulos, Anna. “Scarface Over the White House: The New Deal and the Political Gangster Film.“ Hollywood Melodrama and the New Deal. London: Routledge, 2012. 13-29. Print.

Critical Commons has an excerpt of president Hammond’s speech in front of the congress from Gabriel Over the White House online.

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