Hollywood as Propaganda Machine: Context for Gabriel Over the White House

Pacific Film Archive, April 15, 2009

When Steve Seid and I talked about this series, we wanted to show how Hollywood reacted to the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. Roosevelt, of course, had extraordinary communications skills — millions of Americans gathered around their radios to hear him educate them with his friendly Fireside Chats long before media pundits dubbed Ronald Reagan “The Great Communicator” for his brilliant ability to dumb us down. So how did the studio chiefs and stars of the great entertainment machine in California deal with the aristocrat from the Hudson River Valley when he moved into the White House and became a “friend to the little guy” to some and “a traitor to his class” to others, including some of the studio chiefs like Louis B. Mayer of MGM?

The Depression was a time when people understandably sought escape from the economic catastrophe that they experienced every day. Hollywood was ready to provide them with spectacular if temporary escape as film technology grew more sophisticated with the introduction of sound and color. But some understood early on that in addition to entertainment, the film industry was ideally suited to shaping the thought of millions, that it was potentially the greatest propaganda machine ever invented. Adolf Hitler understood this, and so did William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst was almost 20 years older than Roosevelt, the only child of mining baron and U.S. Senator George Hearst and Phoebe Apperson Hearst and, like Roosevelt and Hitler, he would attempt to shape the world to his will. Like Hearst, Roosevelt was an only child, the descendant of a family that had had money and land for centuries and could comfortably look down its nose at nouveaux riches with far more money such as the Vanderbilts — or the Hearsts. Both Hearst and Roosevelt were so spoiled that they believed themselves predestined for the presidency. Hearst’s father was a U.S. Senator, while Roosevelt’s distant cousin was U.S. President.  But Roosevelt had a profound sense of social obligation that seems left out of Heast’s makeup.

Hearst built a media empire from his father’s gift of the SF Examiner in 1887. He understood the power of print — and then of moving images — to implant his own thoughts and opinions into the minds of millions without their knowledge and at vast profit to himself. Media would also give him the means to become president. He used this power to whip up the Spanish-American War in 1898, but it had the unintended consequence of putting Teddy Roosevelt, not Hearst, into the White House.

The young Hearst was so much a Progressive and so independent that the nation’s oligarchy saw him as a dangerous radical, an enemy to his class — and it balked every attempt that he made to get to the White House so that he became known as Also-Ran Dolph Hearst. By the time of the Depression, he still had some of his Progressive credentials, a much larger fortune, and still no doubt that he knew best how to run the country and the world. He was getting a little old for the job, however, so in the campaign of 1932, he threw his support behind Franklin Roosevelt at the Democratic convention in Chicago, assuring FDR of the nomination and then of the election. Hearst felt that President Hoover had done a terrible job of getting the country out of the Depression and that Roosevelt showed promise but needed some instruction on how best to proceed. Gabriel Over the White House was made as a joint venture between his Cosmopolitan Studios and MGM in the period between Roosevelt’s election and inaugural. I believe that it’s Hearst’s wet dream of the president he would have liked to have been as refracted through the incumbent president he’d helped to elect.  Hearst took personal interest in the project and wrote much of the dialogue himself.

It would be fascinating to see what landed on the cutting room floor before Gabriel was released on March 31, 1933 less than a month after Roosevelt’s inauguration and during the famous Hundred Days of legislation that launched the New Deal. The plot of a cynical, womanizing bachelor president who — under divine guidance — makes himself a benevolent dictator and uses overwhelming military force to end organized crime and war was so incendiary that the Hays Office demanded major changes. Bear in mind that as weird as it is, what you’ll see is a vanilla version of what Hearst really wanted. We usually think of the Hays Code as protecting the public morals from too much and the wrong kind of sex, but it also contained this “General Principle:” “Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.” Hearst had always been a law unto himself, and so is the protagonist, President Judd Hammond played by Walter Huston, who answers to a higher law than the U.S. Constitution.

Hearst was no stranger to such controversy. In 1916 during the bloody Mexican Revolution that threatened the huge Hearst mining and land claims in Mexico as well as Hearst friend and dictator Porfirio Diaz, Hearst produced the movie Patria. Its depiction of  fiendish Mexican and Japanese armies swarming the U.S. through its soft underbelly seemed calculated to incite a pre-emptive U.S. invasion of Mexico and war with Japan just when President Wilson was trying to prepare the country for entering the European war. Wilson found Patria so inflammatory that he personally requested twice that Hearst re-edit or withdraw the film to avoid an international incident.

As you will see, Gabriel incorporates actual newsreel footage of the despair and violence brought on by the Depression. This was a time when the future of democracy was very much in doubt in the U.S. as in Europe as political extremes on both ends of the spectrum got millions of new adherents. After seeing the first rushes, the chief censor in the Hays office wrote to Irving Thalberg at MGM that “We feel nobody engaged in the industry would want to do anything that might foment violence against the better elements of established government, particularly in these times of stress and unrest.”

Roosevelt himself previewed the edited movie before its release and personally complimented Hearst on what he called (in classic understatement)  “a most unusual picture,” which he said “should do much to help.”

Few of those right wingers now attacking the New Deal understand how close the U.S. came to revolution or a second civil war at that time, let alone of how the New Deal saved capitalism from itself. It was at such a time of crisis that FDR briefly considered taking dictatorial powers to defeat the Depression and was advised by some such as Hearst to do just that. Perhaps because he had a virtually rubber-stamp Democratic Congress, he decided to take the Constitutional route rather than the one taken by President Hammond in the movie. Nonetheless, many on the right accused him of making himself a dictator anyway, though as far as I know they did not send teabags to the IRS as an act of flaming rebellion.  

The huge public works program that Hammond undertakes in the movie in order to turn the Army of the Unemployed into an Army of Construction is just what Roosevelt’s New Deal would undertake in the U.S. and Mussolini and Hitler in Europe. Unlike the fascist dictators, however, Roosevelt gave labor unions rights to organize that they had never enjoyed before. The wave of  strikes and violence that followed just as Gabriel was being released — and especially the Maritime and General strikes in San Francisco that seemed for many like the beginning of a revolution — began to change Hearst’s opinion of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst also does not seem at first to have understood that the enormous public works program and military buildup that he himself recommended would require wealthy Americans such as himself to foot much of the bill to pay for it, and that would stop construction on his assorted castles at San Simeon and elsewhere. By 1935 when FDR launched the WPA, Hearst had become one of Roosevelt’s most powerful and bitter enemies.

Here I should say that, like many wealthy Americans, Hearst admired Hitler and Mussolini’s talent for imposing order and fighting Communism. He and Hitler were both great impresarios. So it is not surprising that in the summer following Gabriel’s release, Hearst would have a private audience with Hitler in Berlin. The only record we have of that meeting is Hearst’s.

U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and investigative reporter George Seldes later claimed that Hearst had accepted a $400,000 annual bribe from the Germans to run the Nazi point of view in his newspapers. He did, in fact, syndicate top Nazis and fascists and advocated U.S. neutrality right up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Hearst became convinced that the Soviet Union was far more a threat than Nazi Germany. As his papers became theaters of red-baiting, many accused him of being a native fascist himself. Some critics claimed that Hearst –run company towns like Lead, SD were small scale models of fascism. Hearst denied the charge, asserting that “fascism will only come into existence in the U.S. when such a movement becomes really necessary for the prevention of Communism.” But with the SF strikes in 1934, Hearst told his readers that communism not only had arrived but had actually occupied the White House. He told them that the strikes were communist uprisings, a radical revolution supported by an administration “more communist than the Communists themselves.” I leave you to imagine the option that Hearst then felt was justified. 

Hearst was also busy at the same time working with Hollywood’s studio heads to make sure that socialist Upton Sinclair did not become governor of California. When Hearst newspapers ran a picture of hoboes riding the rods into California to live off generous state handouts in anticipation of Sinclair’s redistribution of wealth, someone pointed out that the photo was actually a still from the movie Wild Boys of the Road which we showed last week.

Despite or because of the controversy, Gabriel turned a handsome profit for Hearst and MGM. Perhaps Walter Lippman passed the best judgment on it when he said that it represented “the infantile world of irresistible wishes. More specifically, it is a dramatization of Mr. Hearst’s editorials.” As a means of infantilization of the American public, it is a precursor to one of the greatest salesmen to emerge from Hollywood, a man who would be far more successful than Hearst in rolling back the hated New Deal that had saved his own family’s bacon and that of the Hearsts That man remained a personal friend of the Hearst family, his political career backed by the Hearst papers. The man was, of course, actor Ronald Reagan in the role of a lifetime that seamlessly merged Hollywood and Washington, much as does Gabriel Over the White House.


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