American Madness, like many Frank Capra films, is about a decent little guy going up against the overwhelming forces of cynicism. While the outcomes in these films can be a little far-fetched, especially where they depend on the kindness and honour of the general public, there is more worth in them than mere entertaining escapism.
In the real world, small people who are decent to others get trampled into the ground all the time. They’re used, taken advantage of… they get invited on holidays for the express purpose of getting unceremoniously dumped. Perhaps because it’s an early, rough template for the Capra triumph against adversity film, American Madness is more obvious with its message – surround yourself with people who are reliable, worthwhile, decent and loving. Be generous with your time, trust in them, gamble on them and they will come through for you when you need them. This time around the comings and goings are never more than diverting and the film doesn’t hold together as well as those that followed. Capra believed in this tale and this paid off in later iterations like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.
American Madness is old, a little creaky and overly positive in its closing act. What makes it worthwhile is that it understands the importance and appeal of a simple, timeless message that will be as true in a thousand years as it was in 1932. There were probably countless other films released in the very same year that focused only on the present, just as there are today. Such films can be so inward-looking and trend-driven that their worth diminishes with every passing year. Even something trying to push boundaries by promoting the cause du jour dates quickly if its values are nothing more than film-flam virtue signalling. American Madness is sincere and it won’t mess you around. The similar Capra films that built on it were much better. Perhaps because it’s not as dramatic as the others, this one is missing one important element: the fact that redemption is always possible for the bad guy. Rather than dwelling on the negative flip side of these films’ universal truth (that insincere, cynical, unreliable, selfish people should be avoided at all costs), they often show that it’s never too late to turn yourself around. Even if those who mess everyone they meet around don’t die alone and cold, do the people gathered around them care a jot what happens to them?