The entire premise is set around National Bank in New York City during The Depression. If it’s not enough explanation already, at least we have some hint of where we might be headed.
American Madness is an obvious relic of the saucier years of Capra and Riskin before the production codes set in and a movie like It Happened One Night dreamed up the “Walls of Jericho to maintain propriety between the sexes. In this picture, they kiss right out in the open and behind closed doors too. It doesn’t much matter.
With switchboard operators, secretaries, and people bustling every which way, there are also shades of Counselor at Law here. Again, we are dealing with a fairly limited space depicting working America in the 30s set against the backdrop of a Depression-era world. However, Capra’s picture appears more cognizant of its time and place, self-aware when it comes to poverty and the hard times hitting just about everyone.
The morning crowd comes in to open up the bank bemoaning one of their members who always finds a need to open the day with a corny joke out of his repertoire. His most pressing problem is owing $10 to someone else. That’s a lot of dough in the throes of the Depression!
The interest in these characters or their lives is not immediately apparent, and yet the story does pick up its steam borne on the shoulders of characters, dialogue, and a bit of drama.
There’s a joy in seeing fresh faces who became all too familiar friends in subsequent years. Sterling Holoway is one employer who gladly plays the gossip, supplying everyone else with his juicy tidbits over and over again (“You could have knocked me over with a pin”). Likewise, the obliging Principal at the It’s a Wonderful Life pool party (Harry Holman) passes through the bank seeking a loan. These are secondary pleasures of watching a film from an earlier decade like this.
Meanwhile, front and center is Matt (Pat O’Brien) a bank teller who the incumbent Mr. Dickson (Walter Huston) has set up with a job out of good faith. Everyone else seems to have given the man a bum steer because he served time once, but he’s been granted a second chance. With his sweetheart working under his boss, he feels beholden to his benefactor and maintains an unwavering loyalty toward him.
Because even as he mans his post and snatches kisses from his girl, a big to-do shakes the boardroom behind closed doors. “The four horsemen” and Dickson’s other partners have met on their own to discuss a merger. They want their other member to relinquish control of the company. They see the laundry list of outstanding loans and the needless hunches he’s backed as living proof. He’s sinking their upstanding institution into the ground. They’re all in agreement. It doesn’t help that the kindly Mr. Ives is always being cut off.
One has to admit, in a world sans Capra — gutted by the Depression — it seems like they have a valid point. Even this earlier rhetoric hints at a precursor to the Building and Loan that the Baileys famously ran. But when Walter Huston finally comes to the office with his affable charisma accommodating to all, we get something far more concrete.
Like any Capra/Riskin hero (George Bailey, Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, etc.), he finds his ideals under attack and makes a valiant effort to articulate why he feels so strongly about his convictions.
In his book, he’ll take an honest businessman against any amount of bad luck. To him, that is no risk and the way he sees it, it’s up to the bank to give people a break. He speaks in terms of relational capital where security is founded in quality character rather than stocks and bonds, even evoking one of the pillars of American banking, Alexander Hamilton.
Dickson readily invests in character that can pull the nation out of the doldrums, striving to keep cash liquid instead of allowing it to sit around in the vaults. It’s precisely because he runs their bank on such a flimsy thing as “faith,” he receives opposition. It’s true this point of contention really is an affront to all the “rational” sensibilities.
However although American Madness certainly acts as a platform for a certain call-to-action, in favor of the American everyman, there are mechanisms within the plot providing something to sink our teeth into.
Even as Dickson fights for his company, a blubbering inside man (Gavin Gordon) has found himself caught up with a noted gangster. However the spineless cad, also finds time to flirt with the boss’s wife. To him, it’s a bit more substantive and when Matt walks in on their would-be tryst, you can imagine his misgivings.
Then, a bank job goes down. Matt is a major suspect; he has a record, after all, and he doesn’t even try to exonerate himself. Of course, he’s covering for his boss, not that Dickson is guilty by any means. Still, it might kill him to find out his wife has drifted away from him, even as the bank begins to fold around him.
The once-formidable institution has its reputation steamrolled as the gossip makes the rounds. A “run” on the bank follows. This in itself is striking, not only as an early forerunner, again, of It’s a Wonderful Life, but also because, unlike that film, there is not the benefit of hindsight. These moments are being documented as close to real-time as you could manage. These are contemporary concerns laid out right in front of us.
Thus, the Depression is still fresh in the public consciousness; it still is a universal reality, and it shows me that the scene out of Capra’s later film was tapping into something real and profoundly relevant. My appreciation for both depictions broadens because of it. Although the ending is firmly planted in the Depression, it still manages to evoke the very same sentiments Capra would go back to in the final act of his greatest achievement after WWII.
But a short aside is in order. Because we can often quickly analyze someone like Alfred Hitchcock’s work and the through lines from 39 Steps to North by Northwest or even the evolution between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are easy enough to acknowledge. These happened over a period of decades.
We have the gestation period and the reworking of old ideas to garner more substantial results. However, even in a slightly less amount of time (about 14 years), Capra and Riskin managed a formidable collaboration with thematic elements that are also overtly visible.
Because fewer viewers are familiar with American Madness, less is made of the comparison, but the similarities are still uncanny. I’m not sure if it lessens the impact of the later film as much as it provides a blueprint and further proof that filmmakers often return to familiar themes to flesh them out even more.
In this case, going back to the well works because the culminating message champions the human spirit as Capra and Riskin always had a habit of doing. It’s smaller potatoes but still intermittently powerful blessed by Walter Huston’s own flawless magnetism. What’s more, Capra was on the cusp of his most fruitful period. It’s as if he would break out of the Depression into full bloom along with the American populous. For now, he and his collaborator were resigned to find a crevice of hope in the midst of the madness. It’s uplifting as only they could muster.