Frank Capra’s “American Madness” is one of the lesser known films of the director, lost among titles like “It Happened One Night”, “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It is, I think, the first of his socially conscious films that still make his reputation. Having now seen all his feature films released between 1931 (after “Forbidden”) and 1948 (“State of the Union”) (*), the period he was at the height of his powers, I also think it’s one of his best.
For 1932 audiences, the film, which tackles the depression and money rushes head on, must have felt too close to home. It is set in a bank ran by a man who strongly believes character is the biggest security any one can offer for a loan. In the aftermath of a robbery, a rumour starts to spread that the bank is insolvent and there’s a money rush.
Personally I find Capra’s politics a bit too utopian and the cynical in me gets frustrated with them. I don’t know enough of economics to argue against the romantic ideas he defends here, nor will I try. But in his best work, or if you prefer, those films of his that I enjoy the most, he has some of the best sense of drama ever presented on screen. The climaxes of “Mr Smith…” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are probably the best examples.
Walter Huston is great as the bank president, showing once more why he is considered one of the great American film actors. He has his Capra moment at the beginning when he delivers his speech about the depression, but he shines through in the scenes towards the end, during the money rush. The surprise however, comes from Pat O’Brien. I don’t like him very much but here I think he gives the performance of his career.
Edwin Maxwell as one of Huston’s antagonists in the board of directors is a proto-character of what Edward Arnold would come to symbolise in Capra’s films. Funnily enough his own screen persona seems to have been taken by Arnold later on.
(*) – Although “Broadway Bill” and “Lost Horizon” are very faded memories.