American Madness (1932): Early Frank Capra, Starring Walter Huston

Released just one year before It Happened One Night, Frank Capra’s 1934 Oscar-winning movie, which made him the most significant American director of the Depression era, American Madness is also a collaborative effort with writer Robert Riskin.

Walter Huston (father of director John Huston) plays bank president Thomas Dickson, a strong idealistic man, who has instituted a lending policy that favors ordinary people.

However, his policies run against those of his board of directors. Dickson’s claim that an increased money supply will help terminate the Depression was perceived as a blow against FDR’s New Deal.

Meanwhile, the criminal Dude Finlay (Robert Ellis) has coerced the head cashier Cluett (Gavin Gordon) into robbery by threatening to reveal Cluett as a gambler.

In a contrived subplot, Dickson’s loving wife Phyllis (Kay Johnson) feels neglected and, upset that Thomas has forgotten their anniversary, she goes out with Cluett.

+-++Complications continue, when, spotted by head teller Matt Brown (Pat O’Brien), the latter goes to Cluett’s apartment and convinces Phyllis to leave with him.

Held responsible for locking the vault, Matt is assumed to side with the robbers, which leads to his arrested. The robbery creates panic, and the depositors rush to the bank, demanding their money back.

Dickson fails to convince them otherwise, and subsequently, the goes bankrupt, devoid of any money. The board of directors now feel that they have power over Dickson to force his resignation.

Capra shot the largely single-set tale within the confines of a bank-size, manipulating with great inventiveness his camera (cinematography is by Joseph Walker).

Walter Huston gives a powerful performance that ranks alongside his work in Wyler’s Dodsworth and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as the best of his career.

A zeitgeist movie, the aptly titled “American Madness” captures vividly the country’s desperation and hysteria in the early years of the Depression.


Columbia Pictures
Running time: 75 Minutes.
Directed By: Frank Capra
Written By: Robert Riskin


Walter Huston as Thomas Dickson
Pat O’Brien as Matt Brown
Kay Johnson as Mrs. Dickson
Constance Cummings as Helen
Gavin Gordon as Cyril Cluett
Robert Ellis as Dude Finlay
Jeanne Sorel as Cluett’s secretary
Walter Walker as Schultz
Berton Churchill as O’Brien