You’ve probably never heard the name Amadeo Giannini. You’ve almost certainly heard about The Bank of America. With 210,516 employees, $256.2 billion dollars in equity, and $2.185 trillion in total assets, it’s the very definition of a multinational corporation. Yet when Giannini founded The Bank of America in 1904 as the Bank of Italy, it was little more than a small immigrant business housed in a converted saloon. How did it ever grow into such a behemoth?
According to Frank Capra, The Bank of America is great because The Bank of Italy was good. American Madness, filmed during the last year of the Hoover administration at the very height of the Great Depression, is straight up propaganda for corporate paternalism. It’s also a cinematic masterpiece. If you want to see just how good Hollywood was in the 1930s, head over the Google Play and stream American Madness for $2.99. Capra packs more entertainment into eighty six minutes than today’s Hollywood can do in a whole season.
American Madness opens at the beginning of the workday at the Union National Bank. A group of bank tellers are waiting at the vault for Matt Brown, the head cashier played by Pat O’Brien. The tellers, or “cashiers” as bank tellers were known in 1932, are all white men in sharp suits. The secretaries and receptionists are all women. Thomas Dickson, the President of the Union National Bank played by Walter Huston, is a benevolent patriarch who cares about his employees as if they were his children. This bank is not only a corporation. It’s a family, the model of small town, conservative America transplanted to the big city. When the cashiers tease Matt Brown by going out of their way not to laugh at his jokes, it’s all in fun. He’s not only the head cashier. He’s their older brother. Everybody has a place, and everybody has a future. Who wouldn’t want to work at the Union National Bank? Matt Brown is more than just a good employee. If he’s especially loyal to Thomas Dickson, that’s because Dickson did more than hire him. He saved his life. Brown, an ex-convict who’s done time in jail for some unspecified crime, is now the man who locks up the safe at night, and opens it back up on the morning, the prodigal son the company trusts with hundreds of thousands of dollars in depositor money. Thomas Dickson’s trust, as we learn, is not misplaced. There’s a snake in the Garden of Eden that is the Union National Bank, but it’s certainly not Matt Brown.
After Matt Brown distributes the day’s cash to his fellow bank tellers, Capra introduces us to the rest of the Union National Bank’s family. There’s Helen, Matt’s fiancee played by Constance Cummings. There’s a hilariously nasal voiced blond receptionist played by Polly Walter. There’s Oscar, a gangly young cashier played by the famous character actor Sterling Holloway. There are the banks regular customers. Above all there’s Thomas Dickson himself, the forerunner of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life and Al Stephenson from The Best Years of Our Lives, the banker with a heart of gold. A bank, Stephenson argues to the Union National Bank’s board of directors — who believe that he’s been far too liberal in lending out the bank’s money and who are trying to organize a coup that will force him to retire — is about more than precious metals, or figures on a ledger. Money represents the social contract. It’s an expression of the confidence that we have in one another. Without that confidence, it’s just worthless paper. What’s more, he continues, the main reason for the Great Depression is under consumption. If the banks clamp down on credit now it will destroy what’s left of the economy.
We also meet Cyril Cluett, the bank’s Vice President, an oil dandy, a womanizer, and the movie’s villain. After Helen notices three shady looking men take Cluett into his office, we learn that Cluett is a habitual gambler in debt to a loan shark named Dude Finlay for $50,000. If he agrees to serve as the inside man for a bank robbery, they tell him, they’ll let him off the hook. If he doesn’t, they’ll break his legs, or perhaps worse. All he has to do, they explain, is to disable the bank’s alarm system, and program the safe to open, not at nine in the morning, but at midnight. Finlay’s boys will do the rest. The terrified Cluett, not wanting to end up floating face down in the river with a couple of bullet holes in the back of his head, agrees. He also finds a convenient alibi in Mrs. Phyllis Dickson, Thomas Dickson’s neglected wife.
Frank Capra is often thought of as being a leftist filmmaker, that benevolent capitalists like George Bailey and Thomas Dickson are dramatic representations of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. If you consider the plot of American Madness more closely, however, you realize that Capra is actually a right-wing, family values conservative, that what threatens the moral order in American Madness is not economic injustice, but adultery, the erosion of Thomas Dickson’s authority in the eyes of his employees and his depositors. Thomas Dickson deeply loves his wife. He also loves his job, so much so that he’s arranged to speak at a conference in Philadelphia on the night of their wedding anniversary. Phyllis Dickson, in turn, deeply loves her husband, and has no intention of being unfaithful to him. She’s also bored enough to engage in a little flirtation with the company dandy, just enough to reassure herself that men still find her attraction. When Matt Brown catches Cluett crowding Mrs. Dickson into the corner of his office and trying to put his arms around her, however, he thinks the worst, that they’re already having an affair.
Matt Brown’s suspicion is more than confirmed later that evening when he shows up at Cluett’s apartment and sees them together. Cluett, who had earlier managed to trick Matt into letting him into the vault long enough to reset the timer to midnight, has also managed to persuade Mrs. Dickson to go to the theater, then to join him at his place for a drink, not only to give him an alibi, but also perhaps to put one over on the kindly Thomas Dickson, to undermine the Union National Bank family. It works. Finlay’s boys rob the vault and murder a security guard. Gunfire stops the clock at ten minutes after midnight. Matt Brown, who had hoped to have a “man to man” talk with Cluett, but who had instead wound up walking Mrs. Dickson back home, can’t, or to be more accurate won’t, account for his whereabouts after midnight –Brown is so loyal to Thomas Dickson that he’s willing to go to the electric chair in order to protect Phyllis Dickson — and winds up getting blamed for the bank robbery and the murder. Word of the robbery gets out. The amount of cash stolen is inflated from $50,000 dollars to $100,000 dollars to well over $1,000,000 dollars, and there’s a run on the bank. Thomas Dickson returns, not only to find his most trusted employee facing the death penalty, but a crowd of thousands of depositors jammed into the lobby of the Union National Bank trying to close their accounts.
Frank Capra’s (and Franklin Roosevelt’s) corporate paternalism disarmed the working class. It seduced my grandparents and great grandparents into giving up their radicalism and pledging their loyalty to American capitalism. I’m glad they didn’t live to see the inevitable result. The social contract that existed from 1933 to 2008 between Thomas Dickson and Matt Brown, between the bourgeoisie and the working class, loyalty in exchange for a job, obedience in exchange for food and shelter, had a fatal flaw. What if the bourgeoisie decided not to honor it? What if the ruling class is ultimately more like Cyril Cluett then Thomas Dickson? What if the people who run the banks are all a bunch of corrupt gamblers willing to let the working-class take the fall when they screw up?
American Madness has a happy ending. When Helen tells the police that she had noticed Cyril Cluett’s meeting with Dude Finlay the day before, they put two and two together, and figure out who really disabled the vault’s security. Cluett goes to jail. The National Union Bank is saved, not by its board of directors, and not by the federal government, but by its depositors. Matt Brown and the bank’s loyal employees organize a counterattack, call in so many new depositors that Dickson manages to find a new line of credit, and the public’s confidence in the National Union Bank is restored. The next day Thomas Dickson, the benevolent patriarch, is back in charge at the head of his big happy family. He “orders” Matt and Helen to go down to city hall and get a marriage license, a “command” they’re more than happy to obey. He apologizes to his wife. The nasal voiced blond receptionist goes back to her old routine. “National Union Bank. Please hold.” Once again, everybody has a future and everybody has a place. All is right with the world.
But that was 1932, and it was a movie. In reality, in 2008, in spite of how the working class came together through their elected representative Barack Obama to save the banks from themselves, the banks didn’t honor their end of the bargain. Credit dried up. There were no more good jobs for loyal ex-cons or anybody else. The Cyril Cluetts of the world took the money and ran, and Thomas Dickson is nowhere to be seen.