Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Banking on American Madness -- But in a Good Way

The film begins with the sight of a weary switchboard operator beginning her workday with a stifled yawn and a brief glance at her compact. Before it ends, it shows us a boardroom dispute, a bank robbery, an attempted seduction, and a bank run reminiscent of a similar scene in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Only this isn't It's a Wonderful Life. It's American Madness, a 1932 film by director Frank Capra that anticipates many of the same themes as It's a Wonderful Life but which has been neglected by film buffs for so long that I almost expected Joan Blondell to show up and start singing about it.

Does the movie deserve to be forgotten? Not in my opinion. Indeed, I found the film to be quite memorable.

Although it is tempting to declare the film dated because of the way banking laws have made bank runs a thing of the past, enough of the film rings true that I have no trouble forgiving Capra for that. Especially since he and his screenwriter Robert Riskin have provided such a good story.

Unfortunately, the movie's set-up seems more well-done than its resolution. Capra and Riskin have no trouble establishing the various characters of the bank staff in a way that seems more interesting than an actual bank would seem. But the way the bank's customers are panicked by negative rumors into attempted withdrawals of their money is depicted so convincingly that it takes quite an effort to believe such events can be reversed by mere mortals. And it is a bit depressing -- no pun intended -- to speculate how likely such a positive resolution would be in today's world.

For that matter, the philosophy of Walter Huston's Thomas Dickson, the president of the bank where all this takes place, seems a thing of the past. In these times of multiple credit reports, the idea that a bank president would justify bank loans on the basis of a man's character seems downright anachronistic. Yet I found myself identifying with Dickson even though Huston is by no means as naturally likable as Jimmy Stewart.

Could we use a Thomas Dickson today? I would like to think so. But somehow I doubt we will get one. And don't get me started on the likelihood of another Frank Capra...

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