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American Madness (DVD Review)

30 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Sony Pictures
$20.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Walter Huston, Pat O’Brien, Kay Johnson, Constance Cummings.

When It Happened One Night entered what for many decades was an exclusive Hall of Fame by taking home “Big-5” Oscars for picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay, Frank Capra reached a new plateau in terms of his standing as a filmmaker. And, for that matter, Columbia Pictures reached one as well in terms of its former standing as a not too major studio. Thinking about the period from, say, 1929’s Flight through Broadway Bill (released ten months after Night but also in 1934), it’s undeniable that I have a sweet spot for Capra’s early talkies — each fashioned before the director began to feel the escalating pressures brought on by Oscar success and the famed temper tantrums of studio chief Harry Cohn. In other words, when a movie could just be a movie.

Of these, American Madness is one of my favorites — and, of course, it is nothing if not topical. Sony put it out as an on-demand release several weeks ago after its show-up several years ago as a standard DVD release — though only on one of those big-buck boxes that sometimes tease director enthusiasts into shelling out because they want to own an otherwise unavailable title. All major movie titles that reflect Depression living are naturally of double interest today, and I noticed a spate of “Facebook action” a few weeks back when Turner Classic Movies aired William A. Wellman’s still hugely relevant Heroes for Sale (1933). Madness isn’t as grim, though things get pretty hairy for its bankers and the locals about to “make a run” on the vaults that hold their life’s savings.

You don’t find too many Hollywood movies sympathetic to bankers — and, yes, we all know the profession of the guy John Ford portrayed as the heavy in Stagecoach. But the banker Walter Huston plays here is a straight shooter — with an altruistic streak something like Fredric March’s in The Best Years of Our Lives or the savings-and-loan exec James Stewart plays in It’s a Wonderful Life. In other words, Huston’s character trusts his customers and his own instincts in loaning money (which, of course, puts him on the outs with his board of directors). In about 75 zippy minutes, Capra and his longtime screenwriter Robert Riskin manage to work in boardroom battles; Huston’s mildly straying wife (Kay Johnson, real-life mother of actor James Cromwell); a gangster subplot; a bank robbery that erroneously implicates a bank clerk (Pat O’Brien); and a run on the bank by depositors who don’t need Depression economics and heist artists with their own ways of depleting bank funds.

Through it all, Huston remains a force of nature (this guy and Bob Lutz would get along) — though even he has a dark moment or two when the customers storm the joint in a memorably staged scene that could grace (and it has) documentaries about how Hollywood treated the hard times of the 1930s. According to the American Film Institute Catalog for that decade, Ohio’s censorship board objected to this near-classic scene and would only clear the movie for exhibition if it were removed, thank you very much. My home state didn’t have to put up with this kind of nonsense as long as Maryland did (if you want to push John Waters’ funny button, ask him about the crackpot woman who ran Maryland’s own board for what seemed like a million decades). But I do recall from childhood that Ohio wouldn’t clear 1950’s James Cagney vehicle Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye for four years because it showed a cop on the take, which we all know has never happened. American madness, indeed.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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