Written by Robert Riskin, American Madness, a great film of the Great Depression, may even be director Frank Capra’s masterpiece. Perhaps he could be so patiently and penetratingly objective about the times because, a right-wing Republican (who veered into fascism with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939, and Meet John Doe, 1941), Capra wasn’t seduced by the sentimental mythology of F.D.R., whom he politically opposed, or of the New Deal, which he also opposed. Capra sentimentalizes instead a bank president, Dickson (Walter Huston, tremendous), whose generosity in approving bank loans is backed by an analysis of an applicant’s track record and talent. Dickson reasons in the case of a formerly successful but currently failing businessman that greater economic damage will be done if, denied his loan, the applicant must consign his hundreds of employees to unemployment. Dickson was based on Amadeo Giannini, whose working-class bank in San Francisco, The Bank of Italy, looked ahead to today’s Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Dickson may have helped to inspire a later character: Fredric March’s Al Stephenson, the postwar banker who “bets on America” by easing loan restrictions for returning soldiers in William Wyler’s very moving The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
About half of American Madness is taken up by a run on the bank triggered by a grinding local rumor mill after a sizeable bank theft: this, the apogee of Capra’s artistic attainments. In particular, overhead inserts of the bank-running mob grip and horrify. The combination of Stephen Goosson’s stunning steely design of the bank vault, Joseph Walker’s dark, deep cinematography, and Capra’s marvelous mise-en-scène locates the housing of the money in the cultural recesses of a nation’s collective unconscious.
Pat O’Brien is wonderful as an ex-con whom Dickson has given a responsible job and mentored.
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