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Nearly all of American Madness, directed by Frank Capra in 1932, occurs in a single location: the Union National Bank, run by president Tom Dixon, who hasn't let Depression-era worries distract him from the kinder, gentler capitalism he believes in.
His faith in the power of positive banking strikes his anxiety-prone board of directors as sheer insanity-after all, bankruptcy and insolvency are running roughshod over the United States economy. But there's no stopping Tom, who's "not interested in profits" and thinks of depositors as "friends" rather than customers. Where the directors see dollar signs, Tom sees decent citizens who could "pull this country out of the doldrums" if financial leaders would realize that "character" is the only thing they can really bank on.
Tom obviously embodies the wide-eyed populism found in such Capra films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which also explore what it means to be a "little guy" in a world where millionaires and power brokers usually pull the strings. In some respects, American Madness amounts to a rigged argument in favor of Capra's most optimistic views. But along the way it shows his nagging awareness of the American dream's darker, madder side.
The movie begins with scenes of the bank's own little guys-a switchboard operator and a group of clerks led by head teller Matt Brown, who laugh and banter as they open the vault and prepare their cash supplies for the day. Things get more dramatic when the directors start plotting to oust Tom and merge with another bank. Then crooks arrive to lean on cashier Cyril Cluett, who owes them a huge gambling debt.
Subplots focus on a couple of office romances, and on Cluett's decision to wriggle off the hook by enabling the mobsters to rob the vault that night. To establish an alibi, he lures Tom's neglected wife to his apartment, causing a colleague to think he's having an affair with her. The heist takes place and exaggerated reports spread through the city, causing a run on the bank. This poses a towering challenge to Tom's business philosophy-he believes in "putting money to work for the country" instead of keeping large reserves on hand-and he'll be sunk if he can't raise the gigantic sums needed to pay off panicky depositors howling for cash. If there's a familiar ring to this, it's because the climax could be a dress rehearsal for similar material in Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), released 14 years later.
It's hard to pin down a specific meaning for the title of American Madness, which could refer to the fear-fueled run on the bank's resources, the inflated rumors that touch off the panic, the directors' knee-jerk refusal to recognize Tom's excellent track record, Tom's unquestioning trust in the goodness and competence of average folks, or (most likely) all of the above. It also points to the less-than-logical workings of the human heart, which lead a wrongly accused man to keep quiet about the real burglary culprit so the apparent philandering of Tom's wife won't be revealed. Madness takes many forms, and plenty are on display here.
Credit for American Madness goes to both Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, who wrote no fewer than eight Capra pictures during this period, from the Jean Harlow vehicle Platinum Blonde in 1931 to the highly political Meet John Doe in 1941, when creative squabbles ended their partnership. They were an odd couple-the director was a Republican conservative, the writer a Democratic liberal--but their sensibilities mesh beautifully in American Madness, which was evidently inspired by Riskin's admiration for the Bank of America's willingness to take financial risks for the greater good. According to critic Joseph McBride, the screenwriter wanted to "propagandize for the liberal lending policies" that were keeping various underdog businesses afloat-including Columbia Pictures, then one of Hollywood's small but scrappy Poverty Row studios.
Hoping to make maximum impact with its minimal budgets, Columbia encouraged Capra to economize by planning each picture around a few large, complicated sets that framed the action and defined the mood almost as much as the acting and dialogue did. These spacious settings also gave Capra the freedom to experiment with multiple cameras. Capra expert Ray Carney reports that at least two or three cameras, and sometimes six or eight, were rolling away during the most elaborate scenes in his '30s productions. This helps explain the visual energy of American Madness, and the lifelike spontaneity of its performances--especially Walter Huston as the bank president, Kay Johnson as his wife, Pat O'Brien as the chief teller, Constance Cummings as the secretary he's engaged to, and the inimitable Sterling Holloway, making his first talkie appearance as a gabby clerk.
Most critics agree that American Madness is compromised by its Capra-corny elements. Loyal supporters hardly hesitate before storming Tom's bank with bail-out money at the climax. Tom's faith in human nature is so profound that he gave the head-teller job to a crook he caught trying to rob his house. And the screenplay stacks the deck against the hostile directors by letting us know Tom's policies haven't caused a single loss in 25 years, which sounds less like good management than divine intervention. Still, the filmmakers take some bold stances-using camera movement and intercutting to link the bank's self-centered directors with the ruthless gangsters, for instance, anticipating the crime-and-business connections in later melodramas like Force of Evil (1948) and The Godfather Part II (1974).
American Madness seems less urgent now than it must have felt during the Depression era. Noting that it was too topical for comfort in some cities, a review by Pauline Kael observes that it opened in Baltimore the day after a bank panic, and closed less than 48 hours later. But today's audiences should find it engrossing and entertaining-a "good show," as a 1932 critique in The Stage put it, "and hokum only part of the time."
Producer: Harry Cohn
Director: Frank R. Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Maurice Wright
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Karl Hajos
Cast: Walter Huston (Thomas Dickson), Pat O'Brien (Matt Brown), Kay Johnson (Mrs. Phyllis Dickson), Constance Cummings (Helen), Gavin Gordon (Cyril Cluett), Arthur Hoyt (Ives), Robert E. O'Conner (Inspector), Robert Ellis (Dude Finlay), Jeanne Sorel (Cluett's secretary), Sterling Holloway (Oscar), Fred "Snowflake" Toones (Sam the Shoeshine Man).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt