Transitioning from Shirley Temple to Frank Capra makes sense as both presented highly optimistic views of America. Where Temple was the dimpled angel families could only dream of birthing during the harsh brutality of the Depression and WWII, Frank Capra was created populist tales of American perseverance. My experience with Capra is limited to a few films, but his gung-ho optimism either annoys or enchants. American Madness does the impossible: humanizing the banking industry at the peak of the Great Depression, no small feat, especially for modern audiences who’ve seen the issues with the banking industry since then. Blending melodrama with strong performances, American Madness is a time capsule feature with a moral message where the banks weren’t the bad guy (not quite!), and prosperity could be found by appreciating your local bank manager.
Thomas Dickson (Walter Huston) is a bank manager whose board of directors wants to oust him. In the same day, the bank is robbed of $10,000 and the resulting fear and panic cause a run on the bank.
The world is mad enough without the bank’s help, and yet Capra’s technique emphasizes banker’s are people. Thomas Dickson’s led the bank and can’t fathom how a few bad decisions are the reason for his downfall. See, Thomas believes in providing loans based on a person’s character, not their credit, an admirable albeit corny premise during the Depression. Capra’s films are about people first and institutions second, especially when those institutions threaten to consume the individual (Platinum Blonde is a prime example). Dickson isn’t money-hungry and that’s his downfall where the board of directors are concerned. Capra isn’t concerned with subtlety either. Upon entering the board room Dickson notes, “seven more and you’d have a jury.” He’s already on trial the moment he walks in, and yet in a few decades the banks would be the ones the American people wish were on trial.
Capra’s world is a cold, mechanical place starting from the opening shot of the bank vault. The various men meet to open the vault at the day’s star like they’ve done hundreds of time before; the responsibility of the bank’s – i.e. the world’s – money is in their hands. As the tellers push the money in front of them bank teller, Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien) asks a co-worker for ten dollars, a foreshadowing of the problems heading toward him after the bank is robbed since he becomes the prime suspect. And it wouldn’t be a 1930s feature without gangsters, right? Really are gangsters and bankers so different? American Madness plays up these similarities between the men behind in the vault and the men with the guns: both groups revolve around money, specifically money as insurance against one’s livelihood, and each is known for their strong-arm tactics and ability to leave people penniless.
Of course, in Capra’s world it’s the individual who reigns supreme and Dickson isn’t interested in working with the gangster. Walter Huston is the everyman this movie needs, who tries his damndest to succeed in every facet of his life and preserve a little dignity. However, like the biblical Job, Thomas can’t catch a break; not only is his bank robbed and he loses his job, but his wife (Kay Johnson) considers cheating on him with another man (Gavin Gordon). The love triangle is a bit incongruous with the serious social commentary of the bank issues, but it humanizes Dickson and shows that every facet of his life is out of whack.
It’s easily understandable how audiences would have reacted to American Madness. As the telephone operators scramble to connect calls the various callers shout out words like “panic,” “run on the bank,” urging everyone to “run down there and get your money;” you’re witnessing a moment in history, whether you were a part of it or not. American Madness presents the Depression in microcosm and the message at the center is readily apparent: It isn’t until the American people come together as a group, reinvesting in the banks with their hearts (and don’t forget, their money!) that everything will work out. It’s a rather ridiculous premise, with so many decades ahead of us proving it, but it’s understandable for the period.
If Gold Diggers of 1933 presented the Great Depression in musical form, American Madness does so via melodrama (and both reference “bread lines!”). American Madness lacks the fun music and finesse to overcome the drama, and it’s very heavy-handed, but Walter Huston is an adequate comfort to all the fear and apprehension of the time period. It’s certainly a more sobering story despite its happy ending.
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The Frank Capra Premiere Collection