When Fascist Heroes Took Over the Movies

Frustrated with a weak government and the Great Depression, Americans in the 1930s began rooting for authoritarian jerks.

Actor Warren William in Employees' Entrance
A scene from Employees’ Entrance.

Photo illustration by Slate. Still by First National Pictures.

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Excerpted from Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 by Thomas Doherty. Published by Columbia University Press.

In 1932, the American Legion passed a resolution declaring that “the principal causes of the present situation are in general such that they cannot be promptly and efficiently met by existing political methods.” Bereft of faith in the present occupant of the White House and holding out little hope that a shuffling in personnel would prompt a change in conditions, one of the most patriotic and conservative organizations in America was calling for the overthrow of the national government. “From what source come these unmanly fears that prevail among us? … What is it that has shaken the nerves of so many?” asked journalist Walter Lippmann, himself not a little shaken by the proposal. Perhaps, he wondered in his book Interpretations, “it is not only against the material consequences of the decade of drift and hallucination, but against the essence of the spirit that the best and bravest among us are today in revolt.”

One troubling response to the hallucinatory sensation of drift was what Lippmann termed the “hankering for supermen,” the rage for order that called out for a take-charge leader who would seize the wheel and right the ship of state. With democratic capitalism on its knees and with a hapless Herbert Hoover in the White House, the punctual virtues of authoritarian order and the forthright actions of charismatic dictators seemed attractive by comparison. Just as American communists looked dewy-eyed toward Joseph Stalin and the future that worked in the Soviet Union, homegrown authoritarians yearned for potent stewardship and doted on images of ordered men marching together in sharp uniforms.

Hollywood filled the leadership vacuum with what the trade press dubbed a “dictator craze”: a series of films with strong tyrannical personalities who, whatever their flaws as human beings and citizens, at least knew how to take strong action. Four decisive models of benevolent dictatorship, two from the world of business and two from the world of politics (one domestic, one international), arrived with suggestive punctuality during the cultural transition from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Power and the Glory (1933) embodied the hankering for a superman in title, sentiment, and central character. Directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay by Preston Sturges, the film is often considered a precursor to Citizen Kane (1941) because of its pioneering use of voice-over narration. The Power and the Glory resurrects the deceased and unmourned railroad tycoon Tom Garner (Spencer Tracy) for a meditation of the price of greatness. Personally flawed but professionally flawless, Garner rises Horatio Alger–fashion from pauper to plutocrat. When his railroad workers strike and threaten violence, he marches alone into their ranks and brings them to heel through sheer dint of his haughty bearing. Once out of his presence, the workers strike, and Garner makes good on his promise to suppress them by force, killing more than 400 men in a wild labor riot. Despite the massacre, and the fact that Garner’s love life is a mess that drives him to suicide, the end reel judgment on the tycoon answers one question—is this any way to run a railroad?—affirmatively. The suicide and the massacre are acceptable trade-offs for the power and the glory.

The definitive incarnation of this autocratic personality type was the actor Warren William, who appeared in film after film as an electrifying if caddish professional (lawyer, businessman, producer, political fixer) whose mean exterior concealed a meaner interior. A joy to watch in action, William played men callous in character but commanding in presence, harsh dynamos with not a whit of self-doubt or common decency.

Released mere weeks before FDR’s inauguration, Roy Del Ruth’s Employees’ Entrance (1933) showcases William at his magnetic worst. The film tracks the machinations of ruthless business executive Kurt Anderson (William) of the Franklin Monroe Department Store, the names of the Founding Fathers now an ironic rebuke. In business, “There’s no room for sympathy or softness—my code is smash or be smashed!” Anderson tells his calcifying board of directors. He proves as much by ruining a kindly old factory owner because the man failed to fulfill a contract due to labor unrest.

A workaholic with no home life, Anderson roams the store after hours and comes upon the unemployed Madeline (Loretta Young), trying to sneak a night in a “model home” exhibit in order to be first in line for a job the next morning. “With your looks, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job,” Anderson flirts. “Thank you,” she replies virtuously, “but I’d rather be employed for my brain.”

But it is her brain that tells her she is in no position to refuse the attentions of Anderson when he tempts her with, “How about a little dinner?” Next morning, Madeline has a job in the women’s department as a model.

Anderson moves on to other business. Store revenues have dropped $45 million. “That’s Depression!” he declares redundantly. When he asks for ideas on how to meet the crisis, a milquetoast executive named Higgins meekly states the official line: “I should say that the thing to do is retrench, economize.” Anderson erupts. “Get out Higgins—you’re dead weight!” Humiliated, Higgins commits suicide. “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window,” sneers the executive who drove him to his death.

Anderson is a fierce businessman and avowed misogynist, but one thing he is not is timorous and vacillating. His decisive actions and firm hand at the helm are infinitely preferable to the impotent board of directors and cowardly bankers who “couldn’t go out and earn a nickel.” Unlike the financiers, Anderson acts. Next to the simpering characters who surround him, his aggressive command style is captivating and admirable.

The logical place to seek strong leadership was elected office, a platform from which to fantasize a figure without feet of clay or head of rock to take command in Washington. That impulse generated 1930s Hollywood’s most surreal excursion into the political realm, Walter Wanger’s production of Gabriel Over the White House (1933), directed by Gregory La Cava and written by Carey Wilson with uncredited contributions by media mogul William Randolph Hearst. At once silly and chilling, it shows how acute the national malady was in Hoover’s last year: better an energetic tyrant than a passive president.

Authentic newsreel images of the inauguration of Hoover are crosscut with the inauguration of President Jud Hammond (Walter Huston), a handsome party hack in the Warren G. Harding mold. Immature, inattentive, and prone to sins of the flesh (his mistress shows up at the White House and strolls across the presidential seal on the floor), he is the wrong man for troubled times. At a press conference, a swarthy member of the fourth estate launches into a fiery Bolshevik speech about the unemployed, but Hammond rejects pleas for presidential action. While a voice on the radio exhorts listeners to rally in Washington to protest government inaction, Hammond crawls about on the Oval Office floor, playing with his nephew.

When Hammond’s symbolic recklessness behind the wheel of a car knocks him into a coma, he looks to be a terminal case. But tingly music fills the soundtrack, a curtain in a window flutters, the light changes, and the president opens his eyes—not the eyes of the limp puppet who was Jud Hammond but the eyes of a man of deep wisdom and steely timber. Animated with a divine spirit, he calls Congress into session, declares martial law, and seizes dictatorial power. Brooking no opposition from his Cabinet, he sets about bringing order to the chaos of Depression America.

As both his aide and his mistress look on, perplexed but delighted by the personality transplant, Hammond resolves two parallel threats to the social order: the Army of the Unemployed, who plan to march on Washington for relief (a stand-in for the Bonus Marchers of the summer of 1932), and the gangster Nick Diamond, who thumbs his nose at the law (a stand-in for Al Capone et al.). Hammond co-opts the one and wipes out the other.

Title billing notwithstanding, the figure hovering over the White House is not the archangel Gabriel but the spiritual father Abraham Lincoln. Recognized as “the greatest crisis facing the nation since the Civil War,” the Great Depression called upon the wartime rhetoric and symbology as a wellspring of sustenance. When the transformed Jud Hammond is first glimpsed, he sits upright in a chair, posed like the Daniel Chester French statue at the Lincoln Memorial. Gangster Nick Diamond manipulates the law (“My lawyer will habeas my corpus out of there”), and so, like Lincoln, Hammond suspends habeas corpus. The Army of the Unemployed sings a rousing chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Leading up to and upon its release, courtesy of shilling by the Hearst newspaper and radio syndicate, Gabriel Over the White House was a controversial, hugely publicized prestige project. Notwithstanding the powerhouse backing of the media baron, however, the Hays office “flatly refused to pass the picture in its original form declaring that its reality is a dangerous item at this time.”

Yet Hays needn’t have worried about the danger lurking in Hearst’s message to the masses. In spirit a 1932 film, Gabriel Over the White House was released on March 31, 1933, which placed it not in the midst of Hoover paralysis but on the wave of FDR dynamism. “If you had voted for Hammond—there would have been no Depression!” screamed ads that flashed back to 1928 and failed to notice that Americans had already cast their vote for a new deal. Set in relief against FDR’s first hundred days, a radical call to action was redundant on arrival. This, and the traditional antipathy to hectoring screen rhetoric, had the film “dying the death of a flop” throughout the country.

On the domestic front, Gabriel Over the White House expressed the last gasp of the “dictator craze” of 1932–33. Overseas, however, Jud Hammond’s brand of tyranny was not the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. The consolidation of fascism in Italy and the rise of Nazism in Germany presented two charismatic models for decisive leadership. If most Americans viewed the European examples with trepidation or detached curiosity, in some quarters the admiration was undisguised.

Columbia Pictures proposed Italian fascism as a punctual alternative to the clumsy inefficiency of American democracy in a 76-minute compilation of newsreel clips of Il Duce, Mussolini Speaks (1933), “described and interpreted” by NBC radio commentator Lowell Thomas and edited and compiled by Jack Cohn. The precredit inscription reads: “This picture is dedicated to a man of the people whose deeds for his people will ever be an inspiration to all mankind.”

Natty in a sharp suit and sporting a carnation in his lapel, narrator Thomas speaks the exculpatory preface into a prop microphone. “Whether we agree with a man’s policy or not doesn’t matter,” Thomas explains. “We’re interested in a man if he marks himself a leader, if he molds history, if he’s a man of achievement, and if he has that rare gift—personal magnetism.”

Archival newsreel footage and adulatory commentary trace Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1920s. Blackshirts march on Rome, a sea of humanity fills the screen, and (the cliché for the ages) “the trains run on time to the dot.” New irrigation and construction projects fuel a roaring economy, and the seizure of North African colonies restores a national pride dormant since the Roman Empire. On land, sea, and air, Italy is a country on the move, on the upswing. “This is a time when a dictator comes in handy!” enthuses Thomas.

Released the week of FDR’s inauguration, Mussolini Speaks was advertised as “the timeliest box office scoop of the year” both “because it appeals to all red-blooded Americans” and “because it might be the answer to America’s needs.” At the Palace Theater in New York, where more than 175,000 saw the film in two weeks, press accounts reported “rounds of applause and handclaps” and audiences who “cheered time and time again.” Mussolini Speaks “should be shown in both Houses of Congress, in every high school, club, and university,” demanded syndicated columnist Arthur Brisbane in the New York American. “It illustrates as no picture has done, the role that talking pictures are destined to play as education.”

But with FDR in the White House, neither Jud Hammond nor Benito Mussolini became motion picture stars. Invited to “size up” the Italian alternative against the new American president, the overblown stature of Mussolini shrank. The “dictator craze” was quashed by the impact of FDR on American popular culture. Onscreen and off, his good-humored manner and steady hand broke the fever and satisfied the rage for order.

Excerpted from Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 by Thomas Doherty Copyright (c) 1999 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.