Iron-willed, but benevolent banker Thomas Dickson’s (Walter Huston, The Treasure of Sierra Madre) faith in the human race is put to the ultimate test when one of his most trusted employees helps a vicious gang of thieves robs his bank.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Character is the only thing you can bank on.”
The birth of director Frank Capra’s upbeat populism, charmingly known as “Capracorn.” Columbia Picture’s American Madness is a modestly-produced and slightly preachy, but superb Depression-era comedy-drama that is aided immeasurably by Capra’s heartfelt and astute direction, a fantastic ensemble cast and razor-sharp writing.
American Madness paved the way for Capra’s socially-conscious movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Like the aforementioned movies, American Madness highlights America’s finest qualities. It also showcases the country’s worst instincts.
I must admit that I was taken aback when I read that Capra was a last-minute replacement for director Allan Dawn (Sands of Iwo Jima), who was fired a few weeks into the shooting. Ironically, American Madness had been prepared by Capra’s frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, who, by the way, eventually severed ties with Capra over the director’s apparent lack of appreciation for his work.
Some film historians now believe that scripter Riskin is the true author of the movies he made with Capra, and since American Madness, which was written months before Capra joined the production, created the blueprint for all future Capra message-movies, perhaps these film scholars are right after all — it’s more likely than not that Riskin, not Capra, invented what is commonly referred to as “Capracorn.”
In any case, American Madness is a story about human decency triumphing over greed and self-interest. The film, passionately and definitely naively, is dead set on demonstrating that when push comes to shove, Americans are willing and capable of living up to their values. It’s a feel-good movie with a dab of magic dust. Fortunately, me the cynic loves fairy tales, so I eagerly consumed Capra’s ultra-sweet corn.
Early scenes are filled with humor, but the story eventually shifts into a series of heartbreaking moments that allow us to comprehend the challenges decent people constantly face in a cruel world. The main character, played by Walter Huston, is a hopeless idealist (he is famous for giving loans to people who have no collateral) and no one should be surprised that he begins to crack under the pressures of life.
Huston’s brilliant performance is the bait that keeps our teeth on the hook. Huston miraculously manages to turn a fantasy character into a three-dimensional human being — a scene where the banker loses all hope and contemplates suicide (anticipating the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life) was like a long knife in my heart. Pat O’Brien (Angels with Dirty Faces) is great too as Huston’s co-worker and friend.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Columbia’s American Madness packs lots of goodies in a short amount of time. Granted, it seems very unlikely that today’s jaded viewers have any appetite for a film that celebrates the goodness in people. It’s manipulative, alright, but the movie’s unashamed belief in the decency of the American people is perhaps what we need in a post-pandemic world. A little gem. Highly recommended! B&W, 76 minutes, Not Rated.