Monday, December 14, 2009

More Frank Capra

TCM is putting the spotlight on director Frank Capra every Monday night in December. The movie I'd like to recommend this week is American Madness, airing at 5:15 AM Tuesday.

Walter Huston stars as Dickson, an unconventional bank director in the early days of the Depression. He's got the same sort of belief that George Bailey would have 15 years later in It's a Wonderful Life, that the true strength of the bank lay in the individual depositors, and that it was therefore important ot approve their small loans. This drove the other directors nuts, to the point that they wanted him to resign from the board so that they could merge with another bank. Some of the bank employees liked him, however, such as his secretary (Constance Cummings) and her boyfriend, Huston's assistant (Pat O'Brien). However, there's also another bank officer who's gotten into some financial problems with gambling, and the only way he can get himself out is to let them rob the bank. So, he fiddles with the vault's alarm system timer, implicating O'Brien.

This sets off a string of problems. In addition to O'Brien's being accused of the crime, the bank robbery starts a whispering campaign. Like a game of "Operator", the whispering from one person to the next results in ever higher amounts of money being given as having been lost by the bank, and the depositors become afraid that they're about to lose all of their money. So, they do the logical thing, which is to start a run on the bank. O'Brien, of course, has an alibi: at the time the bank was robbed, he just happened to be in the other officer's apartment. Conveniently, he also saw the other guy carying on an affair with Huston's bored wife -- which makes him reluctant to divulge his alibi, since it would devastate Huston if he found out his wife was cheating on him.

American Madness is never dull, although it's not quite as good as the social commentary movies that were being put out by Warner Bros. at the same time. Walter Huston is one of the more underrated actors of the 1930s, and he gives another very good performance here. Pat O'Brien is Pat O'Brien, which depending on your point of view is either a good thing or a bad thing. I'll be charitable and say he doesn't get in the way of the action. The woman are serviceable, and Gavin Gordon, the actor playing the officer with a gambling debt, shows why he was always relegated to secondary roles. (You can see him in another secondary role tonight, that of Barbara Stanwyck's fiancé in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, at 8:00 PM ET.) Those who enjoy spotting the character actors will also notice Sterling Holloway, whose voice made him somebody you can never overlook. The highlight of the movie, however, is probably the bank run scene, which is grittier than that in It's a Wonderful Life, and probably more realistic, too.

American Madness is one of Frank Capra's lesser known movies, which is one of the reasons it hasn't made its way to DVD yet. So, you'll have to catch the TCM showing tonight.

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