The movie was directed by Gregory La Cava, produced by Walter Wanger and written by Carey Wilson based upon the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed, who did not receive screen credit (the film's opening credits say "based on the anonymous novel, Gabriel Over the White House") and received the financial backing and creative input of William Randolph Hearst. The supporting cast features Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, C. Henry Gordon, and David Landau.
When the film opens, U.S. President Judson C. 'Judd' Hammond (Huston) (possibly a reference to Judson Harmon) is variously described as "a Hoover-like partisan hack" or "basically a do-nothing crook, based on, to some extent, Warren G. Harding." Then he causes a near-fatal automobile accident and goes into a coma. Through what Portland State University instructor Dennis Grunes calls "possible divine intervention," (characterized by a breeze blowing through a closed window) Hammond awakens as a decisive man of action.
President Hammond makes "a political U-turn," purging his entire cabinet of "big-business lackeys." When Congress impeaches him, he responds by declaring martial law, dissolving the legislative branch, assuming the “temporary” power to make laws as he "transforms himself into an all-powerful dictator." He orders the formation of a new “Army of Construction” answerable only to him and nationalizes the manufacture and sale of alcohol.
The reborn Hammond's policies include "suspension of civil rights and the imposition of martial law by presidential fiat." He "tramples on civil liberties," "revokes the Constitution, becomes a reigning dictator," and employs "brown-shirted storm troopers", called "Federal Police", led by the President's top aide, Hartley 'Beek' Beekman (Tone).
When he meets with resistance from the organized crime syndicate of ruthless Al Capone analog Nick Diamond, the President "suspends the law to arrest and execute 'enemies of the people' as he sees fit to define them," with Beekman handing "down death sentences in his military star chamber" in a "show trial [that] resembles those designed to please a Stalin, a Hitler or a Chairman Mao," after which the accused are immediately lined up against a wall behind the courthouse and "executedby firing squad."
By threatening world annihilation with America’s newest and most deadly secret weapon, Hammond then blackmails the world into disarmament, ushering in global peace. At the very moment the other nations of the world finish acceding to his "covenant" of world disarmament, Hammond, his supposed divine mission completed, suffers a fatal stroke which also seems to be divinely attributable (again a breeze through a closed window), and the story ends.
Despite revoking the Constitution and all the other actions he has taken, Hammond is not portrayed as the villain of the piece, but rather as the one who "solves all of the nation's problems", "bringing peace to the country and the world," and is universally acclaimed “one of the greatest presidents who ever lived.”
The Library of Congress comments:
Controversial since the time of its release, Gabriel Over the White House is widely acknowledged to be an example of totalitarian propaganda. The decision to buy the story was made by producer Walter Wanger. After two weeks of script preparation, Wanger secured the financial backing of media magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Although an internal MGM synopsis had labeled the script "wildly reactionary and radical to the nth degree," studio boss Louis B. Mayer "learned only when he attended the Glendale, California preview that Hammond gradually turns America into a dictatorship" writes film historian Barbara Hall. "Mayer was furious, telling his lieutenant, 'Put that picture back in its can, take it back to the studio, and lock it up!'"
Released only a few weeks after Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration, the film was labeled by The New Republic as "a half-hearted plea for Fascism". Its purpose, agreed The Nation, was "to convert innocent American movie audiences to a policy of fascist dictatorship in this country." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter concurred in 2007 that the movie was meant to "prepare the public for a dictatorship." "An aroma of fascism clung to the heavily edited release print", according to Leff.
The film was released in Britain, but was not a commercial success. Newsreel film of the Royal Navy was spliced into the yacht sequence in the British version, implying that both Britain and the United States were co-operating to obtain disarmament. The movie made a net profit of $206,000.Walter Huston ... President Judson Hammond
Karen Morley ... Pendola Molloy
Franchot Tone ... Hartley Beekman - Secretary to the President
Arthur Byron ... Jasper Brooks - Secretary of State
Dickie Moore ... Jimmy Vetter
C. Henry Gordon ... Nick Diamond
David Landau ... John Bronson
Samuel S. Hinds ... Dr. Eastman (billed as Samuel Hinds)
William Pawley ... Borell
Jean Parker ... Alice Bronson
Claire Du Brey ... Nurse (billed as Claire DuBrey)
Thomas A. Curran the early American silent film star plays an uncredited bit part.