Friday, September 2, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for September on TCM

Turner Classic Movies - Heaven on Earth for classic movie fans or a cog in the evolutionary wheel which will see us one day morphed into a wide-bottomed cyclops with one rectangular eye in the middle of our foreheads?

I've been intrigued by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz's task of recommending one movie per month from the schedule for the print schedule. A lot of film fans find it difficult to choose one movie for any sort of purpose. There is the nagging feeling that you are being disloyal to all of the other films you love with equal fervor. Nonetheless, I decided to challenge myself with that very task. No hemming, hawing, or honourable mentions. One movie.

Frank Capra's 1932 release American Madness is scheduled on TCM for Saturday, September 29 at 6:30 pm est. Capra was a very busy director at Columbia in the 1920s and early 30s. Just prior to American Madness his output included the action-adventure romance Dirigible, the social commentary drama The Miracle Woman, the class conscious romance Platinum Blonde and the woman's picture Forbidden. His success with these varied pictures represents Frank Capra's mastery of his calling.

American Madness was among the first collaborations between Capra and talented screenwriter Robert Riskin which would give us such well-remembered titles as Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, Broadway Bill, and Meet John Doe. The goal with American Madness was to meet the Depression head-on and kick it in the pants while addressing the fears as well as the optimistic spirit of everyday people.

Walter Huston stars as a bank president, respected by his workers and often at odds with his Board of Directors. His business success has come from his belief in the character of his customers and the simple idea that money must be put to work if it is to do any good. What has made him a success is considered a great failing by the Directors, too frightened to take chances in an iffy economy and too enamored of an offer of quick profit on a deal which would close out Huston and his brand of banking.

A bank employee played by Gavin Gordon is in debt to local gangsters and can only save himself by becoming the inside man on a robbery. The plan goes awry when a watchman is murdered and blame is placed on an ex-con, Huston's protege played by Pat O'Brien. Gordon, a roue as well as a gambler, uses his boss' wife, lovely Kay Johnson as an alibi further complicating the situation.

Capra really grabs a hold of the pacing in this film with overlapping dialogue and quick cuts. It moves. The grapevine scene which starts with the robbery and from telephone call to telephone call leads to a run on the bank is top-notch. You feel for Huston and Johnson as their personal relationship gets mixed up with banking and legal disaster. Can nothing save Pat O'Brien and his trusting girlfriend played by Constance Cummings? The only distraction in the cast may be Gavin Gordon's drawn-on eyebrows, but the story gathers steam that carries the audience along and makes them easy to overlook (eventually).

American Madness
The run on the bank.

Two other frequent Capra collaborators worked on American Madness with great skill. Architect and Oscar-winning (Lost Horizon) set designer Stephen Goosson, with his incredibly detailed eye, created the bank set that is breathtaking as we take in the lobby, the offices, the safe. It's a perfect setting for the drama and a reminder of the reverence with which our institutions were built. Innovative Hall of Fame cinematographer Joseph Walker works his usual Black and White magic with his hypnotic images.

A few years ago, along with one of my movie-loving sisters, I caught a theatrical screening of American Madness thanks to Cinematheque Ontario. A couple of young fellows were sitting in front of us, a film student and his friend. After the movie, the friend commented that he had only come along out of curiosity, but he became really caught up in the story and wanted to see more movies like it.

I think that whoever coined the phrase Capra-corn has done an injustice to the director. Frank Capra was, first and foremost, a gifted storyteller and one who knew how to tell his stories cinematically. He knew how to move an audience. He did it all with gentle, insightful humor and true affection for all kinds of people.

Timely and engrossing, American Madness is worth watching on TCM this month, whether it be for the first time or a re-visit.

For more suggestions on our favourite channel check out Laura's Miscellaneous Musings for worthy titles on the September line-up on TCM.


  1. Great post - and yet another classic movie I have never seen! Thanks!

  2. I love that there is always another "new" old movie to discover. The 29th is far enough away that you can make plans to catch the movie. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Caftan Woman, I would love to see "American Madness". Your description tells me it is right up my alley. I'll have to find it somewhere else, if possible, since I no longer have TCM(sob). That's how I refer to the channel of the gods now that I don't have it, as one word "TCM(sob". Very good post, as always!

  4. Becky, nooooo!(sob)

    For years TCM was something I could only imagine. It sounded like our beloved "Saturday Night at the Movies" on steroids. I think we've had it on our cable outlet for the past five years and I don't know how I survived without it. That first year, I kept thinking that suddenly the screen would go blank when some sort of mistake had been discovered!

    I hope you're able to catch up with the movie soon. Among other things, I'd love your take on Gavin Gordon's eyebrows.

  5. ROTF -- I'm laughing so hard because I was just writing down American Madness to look up on Netflix, etc., then saw your comment, and found myself writing American Eyebrows! I will definitely look for those!

  6. Becky, I'll never be able to watch the movie again without thinking "American Eyebrows". I can't stop laughing.

  7. Sorry I did that to you! LOL! I am disappointed, but Netflix does not have it, and only little pieces of it are on Youtube. Doggone it! American Eyebrows sounds like a must-see! (Groan!)

  8. Thanks for bringing this to our attention! This film has been on my "gotta see" list for some time now. Thank goodness for the DVR (as long as a hurricane doesn't blow through again!).

  9. I love American Madness and it might ordinarily be my pick ... if I had only one, otherwise it's always getting a heavy circle inside my Now Playing Guide!

    But TCM in September has two must-sees for me: I'll DQ Employees' Entrance on Saturday the 17th because I have a copy and have pretty much worn it out watching, but there's no way I'm missing The Story of Temple Drake on the 15th which I've only previously seen in a choppy YouTube viewing!

    Great idea, wish I could do it without hemming and hawing myself! Looking forward to your October choice!

  10. FlickChick, sometimes a movie needs that extra nudge to get it off our "must-see" list to our "seen it" list. I'll keep my fingers crossed for fair winds and an efficient DVR.

  11. Cliff, when the calendar turned to September I actually giggled thinking "this is Employee's Entrance month". A "new" Warren William movie just for me!

    I don't even hesitate when you recommend something. Looks like I'd better circle "The Story of Temple Drake".

  12. I envy that Employees' Entrance is new for you! Probably not his best, but certainly my favorite Warren William title. Tons of fun.

    You can't get much more pre-code than Temple Drake. Sexy stuff ;)

  13. What an interesting post on a film I haven't yet seen! I also love your idea to spotlight a "pick" (and I admire your restraint choosing just one, grin).

    And thank you very kindly for the mention, too!

    Enjoy a wonderful weekend,

  14. Caftan Woman, from your description of AMERICAN MADNESS, I'd say its plot was all but ripped from today's headlines! The more things change, the more they remain the same. :-) Thanks for bringing AMERICAN MADNESS to my attention; I'll dog-ear that page in my TCM NOW PLAYING GUIDE!

  15. Laura, Dorian - I hope you both have the opportunity to check out "American Madness", and let me know your thoughts.

  16. I'm surprised that this film isn't highlighted more often. As far as I can tell it hasn't even been released on DVD by itself - it was just thrown in with the Frank Capra DVD set.

    Like ClassicBecky, I no longer have TCM. It is the only channel worth watching, but unfortunately, I got tired for so many cable channels I don't watch just for TCM. I wish there was more a la carte service.

    Nice review.

  17. Got to see this. I'm with the a la carte scheme. Let's storm the castle with torches and make them give it to us.

  18. That's the dream, isn't it? I wish they would even just add $10 a month to the basic package to give us TCM. But they aren't stupid - they know exactly what channels are most wanted, and how to get the most money for them! Heartless so and so's!

  19. I've set my video recorder. Thanks for a great recommendation of a movie I've never seen...and I like Capra and Walter Huston!

  20. This is a great movie. I first became aware of it back in the 1970s when scenes of the bank run were featured in the Frank Capra segment of the PBS documentary series "The Men Who Made the Movies."

    I always wanted to see if the rest of the movie equaled the power of those scenes. I finally was able to see the whole movie and was pleased to find the rest of the movie is just as great.

    It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I look forward to re-visiting it.

  21. Hi CW -

    You know that after I read your post I had to go and watch the film. Your review was right on.

    The film is loosely based on the life of Amadeo Giannini who founded the Bank of Italy which became the Bank of America at some point. Giannini would lend money based on instinct and a handshake after the San Francisco earthquake in order for people displaced to be able to buy provisions.

    One of the loans he made later on was to to Harry Cohen and his partners who started Columbia Pictures, the studio that released the film "American Madness"


  22. Robby, Becky - I'm with you. There is a cool channel in Canada called "Silver Screen Classics" (they have all my Hopalong Cassidy movies!), but to add it to the package is impossible. I live for the yearly free preview.

  23. Jacqueline, we're right behind you! Honest.

  24. Rick, Huston does his usual formidable job.

    Kevin, that PBS series introduced me to a lot of interesting movies.

    Hi Dave, that is fascinating background information on Amadeo Giannini. It will certainly inspiring my next viewing of "American Madness". Thanks.

  25. Caftan,and Backs"American Madness "is in the Columbia (Sony) pictures Frank Capra box set



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