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Frank Capra
Walter Huston, Pat O'Brien, Kay Johnson, Constance Cummings, Gavin Gordon, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Robert Ellis
Writing Credits:
Robert Riskin

When the board of directors decides to call in any "risky" loans, a Depression-era bank president (Walter Huston) finds himself on the hot seat after having made questionable loans out of generosity, and it only gets hotter after a corrupt employee robs the bank, causing a flood of withdrawals. Only the good will of his loyal underlings and of the grateful community can save his job. An unmistakable Capra melodrama.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 76 min.
Price: $59.95
Release Date: 12/5/2006

• Audio Commentary with Frank Capra Jr. and Author Cathrine Kellison
• “Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… American Madness” Featurette
• Booklet

Available Only as Part of “The Frank Capra Premiere Collection”


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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American Madness: The Premiere Frank Capra Collection (1932)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 21, 2007)

For a look at the work of Frank Capra prior to his emergence as a major Hollywood talent, we head to 1932’s American Madness. This flick follows events at Union National Bank. President Tom Dickson (Walter Huston) makes loans the board thinks are questionable, so they try to influence him. They also want a merger with New York Trust, but Dickson resists this overture as well as their attempts to convince him to offer less risky loans.

We also meet other bank staff. Chief teller Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien) once tried to stick up Dickson but got a job instead. His girlfriend Helen (Constance Cummings) serves as Dickson’s secretary. Cashier Cyril Cluett (Gavin Gordon) lost $50,000 to gangster Dude Finlay (Robert Ellis) in gambling and can’t pay the debt. Finlay offers him a deal whereby Finlay will let him off the hook if he makes it easy for them to rob the joint. In addition, Cluett flirts with Dickson’s wife Phyllis (Kay Johnson) and makes some inroads when she feels ignored by her husband.

All these threads soon intermesh. Matt catches Cluett and Phyllis in mid-smooch so he goes to chat with them after work. While this occurs, Finlay’s gang robs the bank and kills a guard in the process. This sets off an inevitable investigation but also spurs a run on the bank when wild rumors exaggerate events. The movie follows how all these elements develop and conclude.

Though the title makes Madness sound like some Fifties cautionary tale about communism or drugs, instead it fits neatly with the understood Capra themes. Indeed, the film clearly foreshadows 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life with its scenes of an honest man beset by financial problems. The bank run in Madness plays the same part Uncle Billy’s clumsiness creates in Life, as both lead to their films’ heartwarming conclusions.

That’s where most comparisons between Life and Madness end, however, as the former presents a substantially more involving, thoughtful and self-assured project. Madness seems less sure of itself and also relies too heavily on soap opera elements. I think the film could find more interesting ways to stimulate its themes beyond extramarital affairs, former thugs and debts to gangsters. The flick’s essential point that it’s best to follow one’s convictions over the almighty buck doesn’t rely on those components at all, so they feel overwrought and out of place here.

I also think Madness fails to develop its characters in a satisfying manner. All of them remain sketchy at best, as the flick never gives us more than quick hints about their personalities. At barely 76 minutes, the movie rushes through its events and could’ve used more time for introspection and character depth.

By the way, what’s with Cluett’s stenciled eyebrows? They make him look like a drag queen out of costume. Maybe they were fashionable for men in the early Thirties – or maybe Gavin Gordon liked to do drag shows on the side – but they look frightfully odd. It’s hard to see him as a dashing leading man when he looks more like a typical babe of the era.

Despite its flaws, I will say that American Madness offers a reasonably entertaining experience. Some of that comes from its status as an early Capra film; it’s fun to watch it with the knowledge of what would come later. The movie manages to keep us involved, but it can’t fulfil beyond that level.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

American Madness appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite its status as one of Capra’s lesser flicks, Madness merits a strong transfer.

Sharpness looked quite good. Only a smidgen of softness ever interfered, as the majority of the film was nicely concise and detailed. This was a surprisingly accurate visual package. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering materialized, and edge enhancement also seemed absent.

Although I figured source flaws would be a major distraction, they played a minor role. Grain could be slightly heavy, and I noticed occasional specks, marks and a little debris. However, these were pretty insubstantial, especially given the fact this movie was made 75 years ago. Blacks seemed dark and dense, while shadows were clean and smooth. Only some modest print defects kept this from an “A” grade, as it looked much better than most movies from 1932.

Though the monaural audio of American Madness wasn’t quite as strong, it seemed fine for its vintage. Speech occasionally sounded a little muddy and tough to understand, but the lines usually appeared good. Lines lacked edginess and generally sounded concise. Effects played a minor role but seemed clear and acceptably accurate.

Music was an even less consequential factor, as the film lacked much score. What we heard appeared acceptable, though. I noticed some background noise but this didn’t distract. The audio was more than adequate given the flick’s vintage.

A small set of extras comes with Madness. We get an audio commentary from director's son Frank Capra Jr. and author Cathrine Kellison. Both sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. They discuss cast and crew, the era in which the film was made and how it reflects that period, Capra’s directorial style and various techniques, aspects of his career and life, and other elements of the production. Capra also reads some relevant details from his dad’s autobiography.

Young Frank carries the weight here, as Kellison does little more than act as his appreciative audience. She throws in the occasional cast and crew note but doesn’t seem especially well informed. For instance, she appears to view the absence of score as a story-telling choice to add realism to the film; I’m no expert in early Thirties films, but even I know that many movies in 1932 eschewed the active use of music.

Despite Kellison’s lack of usefulness, this turns into a reasonably informative piece. The Capra/Kellison chat for You Can’t Take It With You was a thorough waste of time, but here little Frank throws in more than enough decent details to keep us interested. Inevitably, you’ll hear some stories told elsewhere, and there are few revelations on display. Still, it’s a lively enough chat and one that fills the film’s 76 minutes well.

We also find a featurette called Frank Capra Jr. Remembers… American Madness. In this 25-minute and eight-second piece, Capra dominates, but we get a few notes from Columbia University Associate Professor of Film Richard Pena and Wesleyan University Curator of the Frank Capra Archives Jeanine Basinger. We hear about the movie’s background and development, thoughts about the end result and its reception, themes and how they appear in later films, and some production subjects like sets, pacing and editing.

I very much like Capra’s extended story about the bankers who acted as inspiration for the film, and a few other nice elements appear. Some of the material repeats from the commentary, but there’s enough fresh information here to make “Remembers” a worthwhile program.

As part of “The Premiere Frank Capra Collection”, we get an extensive booklet. This piece covers You Can’t Take It With You along with four other Capra flicks and different aspects of his career and life in the 1930s. It comes with a mix of photos and other archival materials along with good information. It acts as a quality component.

Fans of Frank Capra’s oeuvre will get a kick out of American Madness, as it gives us a look at his earlier days. As a film, however, it’s only sporadically satisfying. It has good parts and keeps us involved but it sputters too often. The DVD presents surprisingly strong picture as well as pretty good audio and a couple of decent extras. Although Madness isn’t a great flick, this is a solid DVD.

Note that this release of American Madness currently appears only as part of “The Premiere Frank Capra Collection”. This set also includes It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a documentary called Frank Capra’s American Dream.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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