UPDATED: Please enjoy my very own Hot and Bothered Blogathon banner. Thanks, Theresa!
Blogathons are a thing in the world of classic film writing. They’re great fun, and I read a lot of them. I admire writers who accept the challenge of crafting posts that fit a theme. So this is my first blogathon entry; a post about one of my favorite early Frank Capra films, American Madness. Thanks to Theresa of CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch, who is hosting today’s posts, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, who kicked things off yesterday. Go and read them all! If you’ve come here from one of those great sites, expecting to find a film blog, don’t worry, you’re in the right place, and welcome! I’m a tech writer and a podcaster in my professional life, but I have loved classic films since high school days, and I will be writing on the subject more regularly.
Proto-Capra: American Madness
Even among the handful of classic films that are seen and remembered by modern audiences, It’s a Wonderful Life occupies a rarified place. And its director, Frank Capra enjoys more name recognition among casual classic watchers than almost any other filmmaker of the period, except maybe John Ford. What more devoted classic film fans know is that Capra had been making films for 25 years before IAWW, some of which prefigured its idealism, while also existing in a very different, and less optimistic time than does the Christmas classic. American Madness (1932) is one of these. Made during Capra’s time as the most important director at poverty-row studio, Columbia, it bears many of the director’s trademark touches and ideas, but also exists in a Depression-era milieu, with just a hint of pre-code shenanigans on the margins.
In 1932, Capra was big fish in a small pond. Columbia had few stars of its own, relying on loan-outs from bigger studios like MGM and Warner Brothers to fill the top rungs of its film casts. Capra’s films, which do not look cheaply made, nevertheless saved studio head Harry Cohn money by limiting the action to a few sets. American Madness takes place almost entirely in the Union National Bank building, an echo-y, high-ceilinged elegant old place, whose like you rarely see in the 21st century. The vault room is all heavy doors, and gears and decorative metal; the lobby is decorated in marble and dark wood. Both photography and sound design contribute much to the film’s atmosphere and quality.
Though Capra’s reputation was made with the idealistic “Capra corn” films of later years, his Columbia output fit squarely in the pre-code era. By the time of _American Madness, he had already made Platinum Blonde with Jean Harlow, and begun his collaborations with Barbara Stanwyck, helming Ladies of Leisure and The Miracle Woman. Capra had also started working with writer Robert Riskin, who wrote or co-wrote most of Capra’s films in the 30s. Though Riskin (a progressive Democrat) and Capra (a conservative Republican) had different politics, their ideals met on the page, combining a distrust of institutions that were subject to corrupting influences with a faith in the ability of an individual to make a difference.
American Madness tells the story of bank president Tom Dickson (Walter Huston), an idealist who believes that a person’s character, rather than collateral, are the best indicator of whether he’ll be able to pay back a bank loan. We learn that Dickson has also applied his generous gut feelings about people to hiring decisions, giving Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien) a job as teller after Matt was caught trying to rob the banker’s house. Matt and most of the bank’s other employees seem to venerate Dickson. Obstacles to Dickson’s big-heartedness come in the form of the bottom-line focused board of directors who want to diminish Dickson’s power by merging with a larger bank, and a bank manager (Cluett, played by Gavin Gordon) who has racked up gambling debts to gangsters, and developed an unsavory liking for Tom’s lonely wife, Phyllis (Kay Johnson.)
It transpires that the gangsters will only forgive Cluett’s debts if he’ll let them help themselves to the contents of the vault, during the night. Cluett sets up an alibi, squiring Phyllis around, then inviting her up to his place while the robbery, which results in the death of a night watchman, is going on. They’re seen by Matt, who begs Phyllis not to do her husband wrong. Our first indication that Cluett is unlikely to skate out of this movie as a victim of circumstance, he pulls a gun on Matt to hasten his exit from the apartment.
Next day, news of the robbery travels quickly and gets exaggerated all out of proportion, thanks to a literal game of telephone. It all culminates in a run on the bank, complete with colorful customers we met the day before, panicked now, and employees scrambling to keep things under control. Now Dickson has more to worry about than the board. He has to find a way to get enough cash to pay off depositors, so that he can restore confidence in the bank.
In the meantime, noble Matt, who’s devoted to his boss, and is in line for a promotion, knows that Cluett and Mrs. D. were together, and that telling what he knows will allow Matt to save himself from arrest. Of course, it’ll also hurt his beloved boss to learn that he, Cluett, and Phyllis were in Cluett’s apartment at the time of the robbery.
In the end, Cluett is found out by the cops, confronted by Dickson, who suggests that he would have helped Cluett, if the manager had come to him. There’s that blind faith in character from Dickson, which is rewarded elsewhere in the film, but which we’re pretty sure is misplaced in Cluett’s case. As the bank run intensifies, a shaken Dickson calls everyone he knows for help saving the bank. There’s even a moment, so typical of pre-code films, when the camera pans to a gun in Dickson’s desk. After a pep talk from Matt, and a lot of “no’s,” enough of the people Dickson has asked to help the bank with emergency cash infusions (mostly little guys in town, not fellow bankers) come through. The bank president is able to calm the surging crowd, and regain his wife’s love by recommitting himself to the marriage.
A lone man, doing what’s right (and talking a lot about it) is a go-to device for Capra and Riskin. Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart (twice) took on the role in later films, Walter Huston, as banker Tom Dickson, is no less up to the challenge. Huston has an orator’s voice, and a dynamic physical presence as he confronts the directors in the board room, offers encouragement to his staff and customers, and delivers stirring speeches about what he believes in, to all of them. Unlike later Capra heroes, Huston begins the movie in charge of the institution he must save. He’s not working to reform it from the outside. Only in his dealings with his wife does he seem to be making mistakes. She can’t make him hear that he has neglected her, and learning that she’s been out with Cluett is devastating for Dickson. At the end, of course, that’s all resolved, and while banker Dickson wins over his panicked customers, and overpowers the obstreperous board members, he apologizes to his wife in a way that we are meant to believe will stick.
Despite the essential drama of the plot, including the ugliness of a crowd that could become a mob if a solution can’t be found, American Madness has its share of humor, mostly provided by character actors in small parts. The film opens with the bank’s ditzy switchboard operator (Polly Walters) who yawns and baby-talks her way through directing calls. We’ll see her several more times during the movie, including a pivotal moment when she unthinkingly contributes to the bank panic. There are bits of business between Huston and various hapless bank employees, and even a recurring gag which works less well, wherein a timid board member (Arthur Hoyt) never manages to finish a sentence, because his colleagues cut him off. Bank customers, and a hard-nosed police inspector (Robert Emmett O’Connor) round out the entertaining minor players who take the edge off the panic as they wander through the film.
Critics, mostly with the benefit of Capra’s entire body of work to mark it against, suggested that American Madness is less thoroughly realized than later works, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. But American Madness seems more a part of the time in which it was made than do Capra’s later films. In fact, the movie closed in Baltimore after two days because a real bank run in the city made the movie version feel a little too close to home. Today, it feels a little like a historical document; of Capra’s development as a filmmaker and idealist, of the Depression, of Walter Huston at the top of his powers, and even as an homage to architecture in the time of awesome bank edifices.