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AMERICAN MADNESS(director: Frank Capra; screenwriter: Robert Riskin; cinematographer: Joseph Walker; editor: Maurice E. Wright; 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 Ellis (Dude Finlay), Edwin Maxwell (Clark), Robert E. O’Conner (Inspector), Harry C. Bradley (Sampson); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Harry Cohn; Columbia Pictures; 1932)
“Though preachy, Capra’s film zips along at breakneck speed and always pleases.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Frank Capra’s rosy Depression era film is about keeping the faith in the American banking system. Robert Riskin’s script has the film’s hero Walter Huston, playing populist NYC bank president Tom Dickson, lecturing the antagonistic Mr. Clark, head of the board of directors, on who will pull the country out of its doldrums will be banks giving loans to businessmen of good character. Dickson’s liberal policy of giving loans has angered the board of directors, who are also upset with Dixon because he refuses to merge with another bank. They would like to buy him out despite the bank showing a profit every year he ran it, but he refuses.

Meanwhile wisecracking teller Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien) is engaged to Dickson’s secretary Helen (Constance Cummings), and is loyal to Dickson because he gave him a job despite his spotty record. Dickson has promised Matt a promotion to assistant cashier as a reward for paying back his trust in him by doing a good job. When Phyllis (Kay Johnson) visits her husband and he’s busy meeting with the board of directors, she pops in to see her old friend bachelor playboy head cashier Cyril Cluett (Gavin Gordon). Matt comes in when Cluett tries to steal a kiss from her. Cluett is not really interested in Phyllis but needs her to establish an alibi, as he owes ruthless mobster Dude Finlay (Robert Ellis) $50,000 in gambling debts. Dude threatens bodily harm unless he pays, and offers him a way out. Cluett that night arranges to shut off the burglar alarm and leave the safe open, and Dude’s boys visit the bank at midnight and kill the nightwatchman. As an alibi, the clumsy Cluett dates Phyllis, who goes into a snit when hubby breaks his date with her to go to Philadelphia for an important overnight business meeting. Matt is so angered by Cluett’s kiss, he visits him in his apartment late at night and is surprised to find that Phyllis is with him. After getting into a tussle with Cluett, the chagrined lady exits with the well-intentioned meddler. When the robbery is discovered the next morning, Matt becomes a prime suspect because he’s in charge of the vaults. Also false rumors spread about the bank’s condition and this causes a run on the bank, as people panic. The bank will go under unless Dickson can convince the customers there’s nothing wrong. Desperately trying to get the board of directors and other bankers to send him emergency money so he won’t have to shut his doors, he finds no allies. But the ‘little people’ in the last minute rush in to make deposits and save the bank.

The film ends on a happy note after the police crack the case and a number of hard lessons are learned by the banker. The principled Dickson learns he must give his neglected wife more attention, that his faith in people was affirmed and that the banking system has cracks in it. Capra’s film echoes the liberal philosophy shown in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Depression quote about keeping the faith in the banking system: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Though preachy, Capra’s film zips along at breakneck speed and always pleases. Cinematographer Joseph Walker’s mob scene at the bank captures the frenzied mood of the time, when people were desperate and afraid of every little thing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”