Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Robert Riskin
Starring: Walter Huston, Pat O’Brien, Kay Johnson, Constance Cummings, Gavin Gordon
Loyalty can never be bought, it must be earned and only then will that bond stay strong in the face of adversity. The fight for loyalty runs through every conversation and character motivation in this Frank Capra classic, as it also shows the fickleness of the American public despite individuals trying to help them.
Being forced to merge his bank with another, Dickson (Walter Huston) believes in his workers and wants to carry on with his work. He promoted ex-convict Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien) as the head of tellers, which gives him the responsibility of closing the safe each night after the close of business hours. Brown always puts in honest work, but another teller by the name of Cyril Cluett (Gavin Gordon) ran up quite the gambling debt and messes with the safe in order for the mobsters to steal from the bank to eradicate what he owes. The robbery leads to Brown being accused of leaving the safe open. Brown has an alibi for the night but revealing it would harm Dickson, the man who gave him a second chance.
Frank Capra loves to tell stories about the average person in America and how they can strive to reach the dream promised to everyone who lives in this country. Usually creating heartwarming stories detailing what we can be as a country if we follow the ideas we espouse to others. It would be naive to believe that his films have realism, but warms the heart to see our potential as a nation. American Madness doesn’t serve as his only foray into the banking world and the relationship between the institutions and the public. He more famously did it with George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, but this film still exudes its own brilliance and he ties it into loyalty.
The character of Matt Brown went to jail for undisclosed purposes but then gets the opportunity for a second chance to make amends and get the opportunity to acquire a job with plenty of responsibility. Brown owes that to the owner, Dickson, and their relationship shows an admiration they have for each other. One that goes beyond that of employer-employee and one of two friends. It makes it all the more heartbreaking when Brown faces accusations of being a thief when his alibi could harm Dickson not in a financial way, but it would on a personal level. Brown fights through the struggle of disclosing the information by others because he cares too much for Dickson to reveal information that would shift his entire world. Is it loyalty to a fault? Absolutely, but still an admirable display by Brown. A man who has everything to lose in this situation, but refuses to break because Dickson believed in him from the beginning.
American Madness also displays just how quickly misinformation can spread among the American public. When news breaks out of the robbery at the bank, the actual number stolen went from tens of thousands to the imaginary millions in the worst game of telephone ever done. A problem that has not been eradicated in our society since the film’s release in 1932. How often do we see news stories break wrought with misinformation and while efforts to spread the truth may start, the wildfire of lies has already spread to an uncontrollable degree. It takes an honest person to bring faith to the people and Capra injects it into most of his films and he does so once again with American Madness, as sincerity wins in the end. This film represents a story of second chances and integrity in a way only Capra could do and displays why he’s one of my favorite directors.
As straightforward as it gets in storytelling, American Madness tells an efficient and timeless story bolstered by some fine acting and a director starting to enter his prime. This film has quite a bite to it with its characters and the type of scandal not seen in many films of the 1930s. It kickstarts Capra’s rise to the top with other films on the horizon like It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and It’s a Wonderful Life but this film demonstrates what he will integrate into all of his later films. A type of sincerity not found often in our cynical world with individuals that put relationships ahead of their personal gain.