Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Movie Review - American Madness

In my movie reviews, I give my brief thoughts on what I watched. Sometimes I will expound on those thoughts, but more often than not, I will just give a brief opinion. You can read plot descriptions on Internet Movie Database or on Amazon.

American Madness. 1932. Starring Walter Huston and Pat O'Brien.

Watch it here:

It was released on DVD for the first time on Dec. 5, 2006. It is only 76 minutes long, but very, very good.

American Madness (1932) is a Depression Era story about Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien), an ex-convict who is given a new chance in life as the chief teller of the Union National Bank, which is managed by Thomas Dickson (Walter Huston). The bank is robbed, and Brown becomes the main suspect.

Brown has a solid alibi, but will not reveal it because of his dedication to Mr. Dickson. Brown faces a problem: Should he be selfish and save his own reputation, and possibly prevent serving time in prison, or should he tell the truth and destroy Mr. Dickson’s life?

This film is distinctly American in its message. It is about loyalty to people and to a job, about second chances, power and the little man, and the struggle to survive. In short, it is about the American Dream. The time period in which this film is set was a time of insecurity, change and suspicion of business and of others.

Looking at this film, we see many items that Capra later reused later in It’s a Wonderful Life, including themes and dialogue that was either taken word-for-word, or re-worked to find its way into It’s a Wonderful Life and other Capra films, such as You Can’t Take it With You.

Just as Potter wants to liquidate the Bailey Building and Loan in It’s Wonderful Life, the Board of Directors of Union National Bank wants to merge with the New York Trust. Dixon fights against this merger, as George Bailey fights against the liquidation of the building and Loan. Their meeting about the merger and the bank’s practices sounds very similar to the meeting of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan board in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Just as Peter and George Bailey give loans to friends and people whom they trust, Thomas Dickson gives loans based on hunches and first impressions. Both films have mob scenes and crowds, which the main character must wade through in order to unlock the front door of the banking establishment. Each film also has sirens that draw the attention of the mob away from the main character. In both films, the main character attempts to calm the mob with a speech, and they both must keep their respective establishments open until 4 p.m. in order to remain in business.

At the same time, both establishments experience a money shortage and must find a way to survive, which appears in the form of donations from within the organization. If the Union National Bank (an intentional name focusing both on the union of the nation and the need for union of its customers and employees) cannot stay open until 4 p.m., the bank examiner will arrive. This theme will re-appear in It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the bank examiner seems to always be around…typically at the most inopportune times.

When things seem to be at their worst, the employees of Union National Bank begin calling Dickson's friends to ask them for help. This is later revisited when Mary and Uncle Billy rally the residents of Bedford Falls to come to George’s aid in It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile, in both films, the main characters are contemplating suicide, albeit by very different methods.

When scenes and episodes are not being used, phrases and dialogue are being tested – intentionally or unintentionally – on movie-goers. One woman uses the phrase “holy mackerel,” which will be one of George Bailey’s catch phrases. Another phrase that makes its way into both films is the reference to both of the main characters having a “red letter day.” Both characters are facing similar issues, and the connection can be nothing less than intentional.

When Dickson addresses the board of directors about the proposed merger with the New York Trust, he tells them, “I’m not interested in profit. I’m interested in the bank and the depositors. They’re my friends. They’re looking to me for protection and I’m not walking out on them.”

Ironically, this speech in support of his friends and customers is exactly opposite of a similar statement Mr. Potter makes during a meeting with the board of directors of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. During that meeting, George makes a speech about the importance of the establishment, and Potter interrupts him, saying, “I’m not interested in your book. I’m talking about the Building and Loan.”

Another line in American Madness appears to be an early version of a statement Potter will go on to make. In the earlier film, one of the board members tells Dickson, “The depositors you were protecting were the first ones to pounce on you. You thought they were your friends. Why don’t you go out there now and…get some help from them.” At the time this statement is made, the crowd is in an uproar and obtaining help from them is highly unlikely.

Potter will later say in It’s a Wonderful Life, “Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have eight thousand dollars? You know why? Because they’d run you out of town on a rail.”

Another connection to It's a Wonderful Life that I stumbled across on May 11, 2015, is that both films starred Sarah Edwards. She portrayed Mrs. Hatch in It's a Wonderful Life, and a phone gossip in American Madness (uncredited). According to Internet Movie Database, Edwards is also known for her roles in The Shop Around the Corner (starring Jimmy Stewart), and The Bishop's Wife (starting Karolyn Grimes and Bobby Anderson).


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