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Thursday, March 31, 2011

AMERICAN MADNESS (1932)

Frank Capra was ‘on his game’ long before IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34 brought him Oscar’s Seal-of-Approval, as in this classic Depression-era story about a big city bank that’s run by the forward-thinking Walter Huston. He’s a man who hires his staff & makes loans based on character not collateral; who wants his assets out in the community, not lining the pockets of his ultra-conservative board. But a wayward wife, an employee with a criminal record, an ‘inside’ robbery job and the ensuing run on the bank are about to test him to the limit. Many of the trademark characters & plot twists associated with Capra are already in place here, largely thanks to Robert Riskin’s beautifully dovetailed script carpentry & his way with a quip. Yet withal the period details, the concerns of capitalism at the crossroads are often shockingly contemporary. But it’s Capra’s technical wizardry that truly lights this up. Suddenly, the cobwebs of early Talkie sludge are swept away, replaced with a new dynamic pace in editing, fluid camera work & dialogue that would become the default American standard. (An infidelity subplot holds to the old pace, looking slow & artificial next to the rest of the film.) Capra gets almost magical perfs from a great cast. How’d he do it @ little Columbia Studios? Sharp, funny, modern, fat-free, tough stuff; and physically gorgeous in a mint print/DVD (Premiere Capra @ Columbia) that does real justice to Joseph Walker’s glistening b&w lensing. Great Capra, great Americana, great cultural history. Essential stuff.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Listen up to hear the last names of the ‘bad loans’ the board wants Huston to call in. An Eye-talian, a Hebe & a Mick, in the argot of the day. Audiences would have picked right up on the WASP prejudices Capra & Riskin were highlighting.

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