Sunday, November 30, 2008


During the Depression, Jud Hammond (Walter Huston) is elected President and immediately begins breaking his campaign promises. He tells reporters that problems such as unemployment and crime are purely of local concern and not worth his attention. He's a figurehead for his do-nothing party, politics as usual, until he suffers a serious concussion in a car accident (caused by his own reckless driving). His doctors don't hold out much hope for him, but he suddenly recovers (after a heavenly breeze rustles the curtain in his room) and is a changed man. When a protesting "army" of the unemployed arrives in Washington, he greets them with open arms and announces the creation of a "Construction Army" to put them back to work and to stimulate the economy. He asks Congress to dissolve itself and give him full power to rebuild the government; when they balk at this, he threatens to invoke martial law. As a dictator, he ends Prohibition (to put racketeers out of business), bans mortgage foreclosures, and, to go directly after criminals, he cuts the "red tape of legal procedures" to get "back to first principles" by creating a Federal Army which is able to go after notorious gangster Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon) without due process, putting him and his men before a firing squad. Soon he goes after Europe, threatening war unless they begin paying back their debts. Somehow, this leads to a global disarmament agreement, and once that's signed, there's another heavenly rustle and Hammond collapses and dies.

This political fantasy (thus fitting in with my Thanksgiving fantasy theme, though it's certainly not an epic adventure) is a wild wish-fulfillment fever dream. It was filmed just as FDR came into office; clearly Hammond is meant to be the kind of president who would save the country from the mess that Herbert Hoover could not; the Construction Army is a forerunner of the WPA, one of Roosevelt's biggest "New Deal" plans for propping up the economy. William Randolph Hearst, an FDR backer, produced the film and according to Jonathan Alter's book The Defining Moment, about FDR's first hundred days in office, Roosevelt himself made some script suggestions. Of course, the problem is that even if the trains are back to running on time, so to speak, Hammond has become a fascist. If, as a fantasy from the Depression years, this seems almost quaint, think of George W. Bush having President Hammond as a role model. The movie, however, is not quaint and does still pack some power (in Hammond's scary speeches, the gunning-down of the gangsters, and the bizarre show of military power near the end), albeit not the inspiring kind that Hearst assumed it would have. Franchot Tone plays Hammond's secretary who grows to admire the president, and Karen Morley (pictured above with Huston) is Hammond's mistress, whom he installs as his "confidential secretary," though later he gives her up, and almost literally gives her away to Tone, who is in love with her. Though occasionally a bit creaky as filmmaking, this is a fascinating document of its time and is well worth seeing, especially if you know something about 1933. The title comes from some speculation between Tone and Morley that the Angel Gabriel, whom Tone calls "the angel of Revelations," has guided the President. [TCM]

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