American Madness

Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin
Stars: 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 E. O'Connor (Inspector), Robert Ellis (Dude Finlay), Jeanne Sorel (Cluett's secretary), Walter Walker (Schultz), Berton Churchill (O'Brien), Edward Martindel (Ames),Edwin Maxwell (Clark)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: U.S.
The Premiere Frank Capra Collection
American MadnessAlthough Frank Capra had been working in the film industry since the late teens--churning out gags for Mack Sennett, directing low-budget "quickies" for fledgling Columbia Pictures--American Madness is the first of his films that can be rightly described as "Capraesque" in the sense that it lionizes the power of the individual and the necessity of faith and trust, even in the face of insurmountable odds. At the time, Capra wasn't the towering figure of American cinema he was soon to become, but rather a hard-working director who felt the need to add a fictional middle initial "R" to his name to make it sound more important.

Prefiguring many of Capra's later classics, American Madness makes the most of its limited means in telling the story of a good-hearted banker in danger of failing at the height of the Depression. The fact that American Madness is a film about the height of the Depression made at the height of the Depression also marks it as unique, as it was one of the first Hollywood films to deal explicitly with the country's economic ravages. The film's still-powerful images of customers panicked by wild rumors about the bank's imminent demise trying desperately to retrieve their money not only prefigures a similar scenario in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but also encapsulates for many the greatest fears of the era. Capra's extreme high-angle shot looking down on an ocean of swarming fedoras is a perfect metonym for the real danger of misguided panic becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the first of what would become 13 collaborations, Capra and his screenwriting partner Robert Riskin embody the answer to the country's woes in Thomas Dickson (stage actor Walter Huston), who was loosely based on real-life San Francisco banker Amadeo P. Gianni, who loaned the money that helped get Columbia Pictures started. Dickson runs his bank on faith and belief in the hard-working ethos of those to whom he loans money; hence, he rejects the board of directors' insinuations that he needs to sell out to a larger bank, only making hefty loans to established corporations and hoarding the rest in the vault. Dickson argues that the only way for the country to get out of the Depression is to keep money circulating among those who need it, particularly small business and farmers. Thus, Dickson is not just interested in keeping his bank successful, but the country as a whole. He's a true blue patriot in a three-piece suit saving the U.S. one small loan at a time.

The narrative in American Madness intercuts several subplots together, all of them hinging on a late-night robbery of the bank orchestrated by Cyril Cluett (Gavin Gordon), the bank's sniveling cashier who has gotten himself deep in debt with the mob. Cluett is also making moves on Dickson's wife (Kay Johnson), who is particularly vulnerable because she is feeling neglected by her husband's constant attention to the bank. Matt Brown (Pat O'Brien), one of the bank's cashiers and a close friend of Dickson's, discovers the potential infidelity, yet he refuses to divulge this knowledge to Dickson even when he is blamed for the robbery and it could offer an alibi.

Riskin's screenplay is fast-paced, witty, and cleverly organized, although it does suffer from a few weaknesses in which characters have to act against their own best interests in order to string the plot along (Matt's refusal to divulge his whereabouts during the robbery in order to protect Dickson's relationship with his wife is among the worst). As a balancing act between comedy and drama, American Madness portends what Capra would do best in his later films, especially in the way he never loses sight of the importance of the individual and the centrality of human relationships.

As the protagonist, Dickson is clearly an ideal, albeit one who is allowed to show signs of genuine weakness when he almost allows the bank to go under while he mopes about his wife's infidelity. Yet, Capra shows us that there is an intimate connection between the personal and the economic because both his marriage and his business are ultimately founded on the faith that people are good and will come through in the end. It is thus not surprising, given the Capraesque nature of American Madness, that it is individuals, not some monolithic business enterprise, who save the day, restoring order and ensuring the titular chaos is only a temporary blip on the country's otherwise assured path to regaining prosperity.

American Madness DVD
American Madness is included as part of "The Premiere Frank Capra Collection" box set, which also includes It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the 2006 documentary Frank Capra's American Dream. Included in the box set is a 92-page booklet containing notes about each film, photos, and page excerpts from the original shooting script for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by Frank Capra, Jr. and film scholar Catherine Kellison
  • "Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers ... American Madness" featurette
  • DistributorSony Home Entertainment
    SRP$59.95 (box set)
    Release DateDecember 5, 2006

    Given its age (nearly 75 years), American Madness looks fantastic in its DVD debut. As a relatively low-budget film, it was clearly shot on somewhat cheaper film stock, hence the slight graininess of the image (credit the transfer for not trying to smooth out the grain and lose the image's filmic qualities). Detail in the black-and-white image is superb throughout, which allows you to really admire the enormous bank set and all of its details. The film print used for the transfer was in excellent condition, and digital restoration must have been done to get the image looking so pristine (there are barely any signs of age whatsoever). The monaural soundtrack comes across as a bit primitive, which is typical of early sound films. It sounds about as good as one could expect, with virtually no ambient hiss or aural artifacts, which allows you to better appreciate Capra's innovative use of overlapping dialogue.
    In the screen-specific audio commentary, Frank Capra, Jr. and Catherine Kellison, adjunct professor at New York University, offer their thoughts on the film. Naturally, Capra, Jr. tends to offer information about his father's background and how that affected the film, while Kellison discusses its various cinematic merits. In the new 25-minute retrospective featurette "Frank Capra, Jr. Remembers ... American Madness," Capra, Jr. spends the first half talking about the real-life San Francisco banker on which the film is based. He also discusses the various innovations his father employed to make the film more dynamic (overlapping dialogue, sped-up acting style, lack of dissolves, etc.). In addition, the featurette includes interviews with Columbia University film scholar Richard Pena and Jeanine Basinger, curator of the Capra Archives at Wesleyan University.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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