Walter Huston — “If I Were Roosevelt —” (1933) 🇺🇸

Walter Huston |

January 26, 2022

In “Gabriel Over the White House” Walter Huston plays a President of the United States. Moreover, he encounters many of the same problems that now face President Roosevelt. How does he solve them? How does he lead America out of the depression — and cope with unemployment, balance the budget, settle the foreign debts, wipe out the gangsters? He tells you in this interview — and you may be amazed to find out how often he does the same things that President Roosevelt is doing or plans to do!

by Jack Grant

“If I were Roosevelt,” said Walter Huston, “I would probably do exactly what he is doing — that is, of course, providing that I had the ability, the courage and the foresight our new President has already shown he possesses. He stepped into office to face a crisis in our national affairs as great as has confronted any Chief Executive in history. And he has lost no time in setting into motion the machinery that will bring order from threatening chaos.

“It is, nevertheless, an interesting question you ask — ‘What would I do if I were Roosevelt?’ I doubt if I would have the temerity to attempt an answer, were it not that I am so impressed by this role I am playing in ‘Gabriel Over the White House.’”

Huston, as he spoke, was in make-up for the picture. He plays Jud Hammond, President of the United States. It marks his third term as President, as he has previously given us Lincoln and Grant on the screen.

Jud Hammond is, however, an entirely fictitious character. An anonymous author created him and imagined what he might do in solving the riddle of present conditions. At first, President Hammond is a party man, a politician loyal to the powers that brought about his election, a hail-fellow-well-met type, mouthing empty promises, possessing no convictions that have not been dictated for him by party bosses.

Then the President is hurt in an automobile accident, receiving head injuries that utterly change his personality. A divine madness leads him to act without fear or favoritism. Instead of submitting himself to dictation, he becomes a dictator, forcing his hopelessly incompetent Cabinet to resign and Congress to adjourn sine die. He deals summarily with the problems of unemployment, lawlessness, foreign debt collection, disarmament, farm and industrial relief, and the various items of taxes, tariffs and the unbalanced budget. All of this is accomplished in a year, before the President recovers from what is ironically called “insanity.” He is, in short, a bit of a “miracle man.”

Author Anticipated Events

Gabriel Over the White House” appeared in book form some months previous to the time Roosevelt took office. With the exception of the march upon the Capitol of an army of unemployed and a bank holiday, not a single incident has any basis in fact. The whole plot is hypothetical and satirical. Yet by a very strange set of circumstances, the filming of “Gabriel” anticipated, sometimes by only a day, the newspaper headlines.

The film’s cast was appalled to be confronted by the news of the attempt to assassinate Roosevelt, on the same day they had enacted a scene of identical import. The naval sequence, in which the pitiful lack of strength of the U. S. fleet against bombing planes is demonstrated, preceded the announcement of Roosevelt’s strong naval policy by less than a week. Countless other parallels occurred in the actual moves of our President and those of the fictional President depicted in the film.

It is impossible to give any explanation for this odd situation. Some clarity might be gained from the knowledge of the identity of the author. But his anonymity has been closely guarded. Several guesses have brought forth the names of Samuel Blythe and Samuel Hopkins Adams, among others. Then the publishers further obscured the issue by announcing that “Gabriel’s” author was “an Englishman as well known on London’s Downing Street as on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Doubtless the studio knows, though it refuses to tell, to whom it paid royalties. There occurs, however, in Carey Wilson’s screen play, a marginal note that may be a possible lead as to the original author. This note says, “A series of quick, hysterical cuts are to be prepared from Mr. Hopkins’ gags.” An investigation failed to reveal a “Mr. Hopkins” on the lot. Can it be that this mysterious Hopkins wrote “Gabriel Over the White House?” Whoever the author is, there is no doubt that he is a keen student of politics. His satire is tinged with bitterness, containing the while some solutions to current national difficulties that are even now in the making by Roosevelt.

Would Abandon All Secrecy

President Jud Hammond was hit on the head,” Huston reminds us. “President Roosevelt doesn’t need to be. He is thinking as clearly now as Hammond did with the Divine aid of the Messenger Gabriel. And just as clearly as he thinks, does he speak his mind.

“It is a great thing for public morale when a President abandons all secrecy — and tells the people by radio and through the press just what the government is doing. Too long have conferences been held behind locked doors, with the news of what went on rigidly censored for public consumption. Hammond in the picture overthrows precedent by broadcasting every word of his meeting with foreign diplomats regarding the cancellation of war debts. The world is allowed to hear, not a prepared speech, but the whole of the negotiations. If I were Roosevelt, I would establish the same radical policy against secrecy in all governmental affairs.

“What this country needs is a leader, a man with the personality to say ‘Come’ so that the masses will follow with enthusiasm — with confidence. I believe Roosevelt is such a man. He has yet to exhibit indecisiveness. He has inherited a load of problems, but he does not make them confusing by political phraseology. He seems to realize that by plain speaking and forthright action he can banish the fear that has shaken American business confidence. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with America. All that we need is someone to lead us out of the despondency we have learned to call depression.

“In the picture, President Hammond attacks the unemployment question by mobilizing the Army of Unemployed. He admits what everyone knows — that tons of food are rotting in warehouses while millions of people go hungry. He asks, ‘What’s to prevent us from putting the wasting food into the mouths of the hungry, even though it means building one less battleship this year?’

What About the Unemployed?

“If the unemployed march on Washington and the President refuses to declare war on them — to call out the army against the people of the United States. He meets them fearlessly — in person — against the advice of his counselors. He talks to them, telling them that he wishes to put picks and shovels in their hands, as fifteen years ago the government gave them guns and bayonets. He knows they would rather engage in a public work than accept public charity.

“He creates an Army of Construction, under military discipline, receiving food, clothes and housing, as did wartime armies. And with army rates of pay. He sends this army into industrial enterprises — doing everything from baking bread to building dams. Not a dollar of profit accrues to any individual. Then as the wheels of industry, stimulated by these efforts, begin to turn, the men are retired from the Army of Construction into different private enterprises as rapidly as industry can conveniently absorb them.

“The scheme may seem slightly visionary, as Technocracy and other known plans are visionary. Yet if I were Roosevelt, I would seriously consider a practical application of a similar idea. And Roosevelt does have plans somewhat along these very identical lines.

“Dictatorship is an ugly word. It defies the traditions of the democracy upon which the United States of America was founded. But the President does not have to become a dictator to exercise some of the now-nearly-forgotten rights given him by the Constitution. He can, for example, declare the country under Martial Law.

Wiping Out the Gangsters

Hammond does just that. And by organizing a mobile unit of the U. S. Army under the title of Federal Police, he cleans out the gangsters. He finds that bootleggers still operate even after the legalizing of liquor — that racketeers continue to terrorize the land with their extortion threats — that criminals and murderers, whose records are on file in every police station throughout the land, walk the streets as free men because courts of justice are hampered by legal technicalities. So, he serves warning before sending his Federal Police into action.

“Habitual offenders against law and order are dealt with summarily. If found guilty when brought before quick, but just, court martials, they face the firing squad. Crime is reduced to normal almost overnight. If I were Roosevelt, I would adopt this plan in toto. Why should we support public enemies in comfortable prisons or allow them to go free, just because of false sympathy? They have no sympathy for us, shooting and killing at will. We should be equally ruthless until this malignant, cancerous growth is destroyed.

“Hammond, in the book, prohibits the manufacture of bullets, thereby robbing a few men of their pleasure in hunting wild animals. But the saving of human life is a greater benefit.

“There are many matters with which the book deals that were omitted, in the name of entertainment, from the screen transcription. A high protective tariff and a sales tax are briefly mentioned, the latter under the theory that if you can afford to buy an article for one dollar, you can afford to buy it for a dollar and two cents — providing there are no other Federal taxes to pay. Perhaps the excise tax that President Roosevelt is quoted as favoring is preferable and the tariff should take into consideration American export and import needs.

Can There Be Disarmament?

Perhaps, too, the disarmament display that climaxes our picture and brings about a satisfactory solution to the payment of foreign war debts is better drama than it is government — human nature being as quarrelsome as it is and preparedness a protection for peace. If I were Roosevelt, I would know the answers in every detail. As I am merely an actor of Presidential characters and not a real President, I would rather leave these questions to a man who has made a sincere study of them.

“In one of the best speeches in the picture, Hammond says, ‘I propose to reduce materially the cost of running the government. We are spending too much money for the most expensive article of merchandise in America to-day — red tape. We use millions of yards of red tape a year — at thousands of dollars a yard. Well, Uncle Sam isn’t going to buy any more.’

“Apparently, President Roosevelt has the same idea. In his campaign, he pledged himself to a twenty-five per cent reduction of governmental expenses. He has already started to balance the budget to that extent. And it is up to every American among us to aid him.

“This is not a time for party politics. America must forget political party lines just as they were forgotten in the Roosevelt landslide. To-day is a day of collective effort when we must think in the terms of tomorrow instead of yesterday.

“The job the President faces to-day is not an easy one. Yet he has approached his tasks — and there are none greater — with a contagious optimism, with the strength, power and courage to solve them.

“Still, I do not envy him. In fact, if I were Roosevelt, I believe I would rather be someone else.”

Walter Huston has no time for formality in “Gabriel Over the White House”

Source: Movie Classic Magazine, May 1933