Film Forum’s double-feature of Man’s Castle and American Madness (playing February 7—9) offers an easy, quick way to watch two rarely-screened, hard-to-find 30s films in one sitting. It’s also a chance to contemplate two different kinds of emotional intensity from two very different believers in the power of overwhelming emotion: Borzage and Capra, Frank. To be blunt, we’re also dealing with two flawed films that make for an emotionally grueling double-feature, but it’s worth the effort.
American Madness, from 1932, is embryonic Capra: American Madness’s template would be directly used (and improved upon) in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where a folksy man underestimated by his opponents is vindicated at the very moment where his emotional strength and sanity is about to crack. Unlike the infamously ideologically incoherent Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there’s at least some basis in reality to what happens here. As Joseph McBride’s valuable if bizarrely hostile biography notes, screenwriter Robert Riskin at least partially based his script on Amadeo Peter Giannini’s Bank of Italy, which morphed into the Bank of America in 1928, and whose employees really did make loans “on character” (as Walter Huston’s Tom Dixon does in the movie). The Bank of Italy accepted film negatives as collateral and gave Columbia $100,000 in 1919 to start the company up for no real reason. Safe to say Giannini didn’t build his whole bank on this “principle” (as Dixon rationalizes each and every loan), but he was canny enough to have the bank dub itself “The Bank for Just Plain Folks.”
Capra’s alleged populism has never been a simple issue to decode: he was a die-hard Republican, anti-FDR, flirted with Fascist admiration and wasn’t averse to letting film historians group him as a liberal, or anti-all-ideology. That’s fine, because Capra’s emotional instincts as a filmmaker have also been grossly simplified: there’s still people who think Capra was nothing more than a brute sentimentalist, chipping away at audience’s intellects with ham-handed manipulation. (As a suspicious Graham Greene wrote about You Can’t Take It with You, “We may groan and blush as he cuts his way remorselessly through all finer values to the fallible human heart, but infallibly he makes his appeal.”) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington shift from well-timed comedy (few directors got such good ensemble playing) to an almost unbearable series of horrible events, redeemed at the last second.
Capra appeals to both grim pessimism and secret optimism, but, more importantly, he still hasn’t been fully appreciated as a master technician. American Madness’s deep-focus photography isn’t exactly Rules of the Game, but it’s not that far off either. The film opens during a bank’s morning routine, as employees crowd around the vault and wait for it to be opened; at a certain point, the dialogue reaches Altman-levels of indecipherable babble, energy drawing from the communal buzz rather than the dialogue. The fast-paced tracking shots that follow deserve comparison with Kubrick et al. As it happens, the script is one of Riskin’s weaker efforts from this time: the previous year’s Platinum Blonde (the secret gem of Capra’s catalogue, showing Wed. Feb. 11 and under no circumstances to be missed) has sharper dialogue and performances, while the same year’s Virtue is snappier. In its early passages, American Madness has the ponderousness of the institution it takes place in. The problem may be that there’s no strong antagonist: where Deeds, Smith and George Bailey oppose more or less concrete public and individual opposition, Dixon contends with Cyril Cluett (Gavin Gordon), an unworthy bank employee who helps set up a robbery and pretends to seduce Dixon’s wife in order to cover his own ass; he doesn’t represent anything so much as weakness, and Capra signals his contempt for him with some overly-obvious make-up. The ostensible affair sucks up endless screen time.
What you come to see, ultimately, is the climactic rush on the bank, a supremely impressive feat of crowd control, with hundreds of the panic-stricken trying to withdraw their savings after rumor spreads that the robbery has deprived the bank of $5 million, not $50,000. It’s a masterful sequence—the crowd looks like a seriously dangerous place to be in and must have been hell to control—and it’s worth sitting through the rest of the film for. As Ray Carney notes in his invaluable Capra book American Vision, the ability to navigate complex public spaces elegantly is highly prized in Capra’s work, but even more so the ability to manage other people’s movements. He writes:
“The similarity in appearance between a cashier’s window at a bank and a ticket booth at a movie theater … is quite striking evidence of Capra’s probably unconscious linking of the two realms of performance. He, Dixon, and George Bailey (who is also a banker) are all in the job of the orderly processing of lines of money-clutching customers, giving them interest on their investment, and specifically in getting them to part cheerfully with their money and not suddenly ask for it back again.”
Movement is control; Capra’s later films, when Deeds and Smith alternate between deftness in their old worlds and surprising competence in their new spheres, then suddenly turn immobile and trapped in their crises, are more interesting at least in part because of that tension. (Dixon only loses it for about a grand total of two minutes.) In any case, Capra’s control of the large crowd is brilliant. The rest of the film teeters, unable to commit to the full strength of emotional uplift and crisis he’d come to master. As a model for the later common men vs. institutions sagas, though, American Madness is pretty essential for anyone interested in Capra.
I find Frank Borzage fascinating as one of those cult figures who seems poised, sooner rather than later, for full acceptance into the mainstream canon. It helps, of course, that one of his most prominent advocates is Armond White, who enjoys using him as a stick to vigorously beat on the head of anyone who likes Billy Wilder. As White opined when talking to Steven Boone:
“One of the great American filmmakers is one most critics don’t know and never talk about—they’re not even curious about. This guy Frank Borzage. Made movies in the 20s and his peak was in the 30s, when he won two Academy Awards for Best Director. His greatest films are usually about the spiritual struggles of working-class people. Film critics couldn’t care less about Frank Borzage. They prefer to make reference to cynical filmmakers, less talented filmmakers, like Billy Wilder, for instance. Even though he’s from a different period, really, Billy Wilder is a totem for so many awful film critics.”
Man’s Castle is my second attempt at understanding Borzage after being defeated by the tonally schizophrenic History Is Made at Night. Man’s Castle is nothing if not consistent: there’s Bill (Spencer Tracy), a man’s man who dreams of nothing more than noodly Kerouac rambles on the train, and his waif Trina (Loretta Young), who remains fiercely, mindlessly devoted after Bill takes her in and gives her a parodic “home” in a Hooverville shanty-town in Central Park. Bill’s a big, understandable bundle of repressed frustration; he can’t do anything nice for Trina without first treating her as brusquely and cruelly as possible, which makes her even more grateful for whatever favor follows. What you get is a queasily recognizable portrait of a recognizable unhealthy relationship with a woman who needs a guy far more than he needs her, which makes him feel perpetually guilty and exasperated. I’ve heard Borzage described as a terminal romantic (or Romantic, really), where huge emotional forces trump obstacles. I saw that in History, but this is frankly uncomfortable, raising all manner of tensions the finale can’t even come close to resolving plausibly. There are moments of overpowering “romanticism” that, once again, I just can’t get behind: there’s a really jarring moment where Borzage cuts from a two-shot of Tracy and Young together to a close-up on Young, who hasn’t moved but who now has an expressive light shining down on her face for a beatific close-up. I’m sorry, but I can’t sacrifice even rudimentary continuity for this kind of effect. But when Borzage sticks to the pathological, I can’t really look away. Take that as you will; the battle for understanding continues.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.