‘Gabriel Over The White House’: Surreal, Yet Timely

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Walter Huston and Karen Morley in “Gabriel Over the White House.”

In the heyday of the Great Depression — during the first 100 days of the Roosevelt presidency — MGM released one of the most important political movies made in Pre-Code Hollywood, according to some historians.

Made one year prior to the adoption of the Motion Pictures Production Code’s censorship guidelines in 1934, “Gabriel Over The White House” was surreal and fascinating, and after a pre-screening of the film, MGM co-founder and producer Louis B. Mayer allegedly demanded, “Put that picture back in its can, take it back to the studio, and lock it up!”

Nevertheless, the film released in 1933, a few weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration — and it will screen on Sunday, March 17, at 3 p.m. at the Pierson High School auditorium, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor, as part of the Sag Harbor Cinema’s “Present Tense” series.

Directed by Gregory La Cava, written by Carey Wilson and backed by billionaire media mogul William Randolph Hearst, “Gabriel Over The White House tells the story of Judson Hammond — portrayed by Walter Huston — a recently elected American president and a hack, who responds to the unemployment, hunger, racketeering and foreign debt plaguing the nation with nothing but optimistic banalities.

“All that changes when, after a violent car crash, president Hammond awakens from a coma — with the help of the divine intervention — as a determined man of action,” according to a press release. “When he dissolves his entire cabinet as made of ‘big-business lackeys,’ Congress starts impeachment proceedings, to which he reacts with a string of less-than-democratic measures.”

Following the screening, Bruce Goldstein — repertory program director of New York’s Film Forum — will dwell on this most unusual film and discuss the rise of a demagogue populist leader in a difficult moment of American history, through the use of historical and censorship records.

“With its wealth of programs, rich history and loyal audience, New York’s Film Forum has been a great inspiration in our conception of the Sag Harbor Cinema,” Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, head of the Cinema’s programming committee, said in a press release. “Its director of repertory programming, Bruce Goldstein, is one of the geniuses in the business — a great showman, as much as he is a sophisticated film historian — who strongly believes that the best place to see movies is with other people, on a big screen, in a theater.

“Bruce is also a friend and a personal inspiration of mine,” she continued. “I am thrilled about the special program he is bringing to us for the ‘Present Tense’ series, and I hope this is just the beginning of a long collaboration that can flourish once the new Sag Harbor Cinema will be completed and open.”

Tickets are $15. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.

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