Wednesday, May 27, 2009


A summer at the Paramount is a pretty neat thing. You can see new prints of old films, ranging in class from Alien 3 to Lola Montes in the short course of three and half months. I don't take this for granted. I don't even mind the jacked-up ticket price this year because, like Greg and Marilyn, I'm lucky to live in a town with a strong sense of film preservation and history, a town where you're able to kick it like your grandparents did and catch Irene Dunne's merry mug projected up on a long n' tall screen. Here, we get the chance to look up at beauty's giant face instead of down at ground or eye level on an inferior TV screen.

The thing about old movies, old American made movies, is that they remind you of how new or country still is. Go ahead and thump Frank Capra for whatever you'd like to, but the man had a mind to keep his eye on the driving social issues of the day and to then turn them into simple, cheery entertainment. Take American Madness. Its human truths about an economically depressed 1932 are validated today as we face tough cash-flow issues ourselves. Eh, they're validated any time. When are we not concerned about finances? Granted, American Madness was made pre-FDIC, so scenes of a frantic public running full frenzy for the first free teller to withdrawal funds can come off a smidge goofy (though cinematically pleasing in overhead camera shots), but the sidewalk sentiment still rings true.

Walter Huston plays the "George Bailey" in this brief, 81-minute Capra pic. No, Thomas Dickson didn't sacrifice his hearing by saving a kid from an icy pond, but he's the banking equivalent of a good Samaritan, a jolly and generous branch manager too good to be true. So good, that he will lend out a loan without much collateral on the other end. (In this way, actually, Huston more closely resembles Jim Carrey's "Carl" from last year's Yes Man.) But don't you just know that Dickson's thrifty lending is gonna pay itself back when the proper time comes?

American Madness' quickly delivered, universal message works because it's on a infinite spin cycle of sorts. Capra's film is almost symmetrical, the ending reprising the beginning as events come to a comfortable close. But there is some darkness here. There is crime, and there is death, and there is a slightly uncharacteristic black humor to Capra's handling of it all.

In fact, the one scene that stood me up and stood out amongst the predictable idealistic pleasures was the darkest place I've even seen Capra go to (though I'm certainly not a well-versed Capra devotee). The sequence involves Huston, guilt, a gun, and a silhouette by the office drapes. I won't say more as for wanting to keep it special for anyone else who will see it, but the scene deserved a sad round of applause mid-film, for sure. Perhaps this moment was the result of American Madness being a pre-code film. Regardless, it felt otherworldly compared to my frame of reference for movies of this time, a sweet surprise that I probably wouldn't have experienced if not for the Paramount.


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