Drama

Constance Cummings Saves an American Bank

Constance Cummings... Image: Chronique du Cinephile Stakhanoviste
Constance Cummings will protect your investment. Image: Chronique du Cinephile Stakhanoviste

Here’s a depressing activity: Do an online search of the term “bank run”.

In doing so, you’ll likely come across this cheerful tidbit on Investopedia:

A bank run occurs when a large number of customers of a bank or another financial institution withdraw their deposits simultaneously due to concerns about the bank’s solvency. As more people withdraw their funds, the probability of default increases, thereby prompting more people to withdraw their deposits.

This sort of thing happened a lot during the early 1930s. According to history.com, there were more than 1,300 American bank failures in 1930 alone. (!)

A bank run is the challenge Walter Huston faces in the 1932 drama American Madness. Huston plays the president of a bank that is robbed, then besieged by depositors anxious to withdraw their money.

The film gives us an almost breathtaking montage of the origins of this panic. A telephone operator tells a friend that $100,000 was stolen from the bank. As the story spreads, the amount jumps to $250,000, then $500,000, and soon it becomes several million dollars, stolen by Huston himself.

Director Frank Capra gives us a non-sentimental view of the bank run in action. By placing the camera in one position (similar to that of a security camera), we see people steadily entering the bank until the area is crowded with disgruntled customers.

It feels like we’re watching a tank filling with water, and soon the water is spilling over the sides.

A run on the bank. Image: Film Forum
A run on the bank. Image: Film Forum

Do you see the woman in the dark dress in the photo above, facing the camera? She’s Constance Cummings and, although no one knows it yet, she will be pivotal in saving this Situation.

Cummings plays Huston’s secretary, a smart, resourceful young woman who’s in love with fellow employee (Pat O’Brien). Her desk is stationed outside Huston’s second-floor office, overlooking the main floor of the bank. We can tell by this staging she’s a trusted employee who watches for dangerous waters.

She also watches for dangerous characters. When a trio of suspicious men enter the bank and conspicuously pause to watch a large stack of bills being counted, she makes a Note To Self which is helpful later.

An employee like Cummings’ character is valuable in any organization. She’s a loyal aide who knows when and with whom she can safely share news.

For example, when Huston becomes despondent, due to the day’s madness, she tracks down boyfriend O’Brien and tells him she’s worried about the boss. “He isn’t trying any more,” she explains. Her concern leads to a plan to restore investor confidence.

Naturally, this type of employee is usually unacknowledged by those in high-profile leadership positions, such as the board of directors. In the middle of all this grim business, the directors brush past Cummings as though she isn’t really there, as though she were wholly unimportant.

It would seem popular film history has treated Cummings, the actress, the same way.

The radiant and talented Constance Cummings (1910-2005). Image: Quixotando
The radiant Constance Cummings (1910-2005). Image: Quixotando

Today, Constance Cummings is not a familiar name outside of film or theatre circles.

She began her career on the stage as a teenager, and if imdb.com is to be believed, she was discovered by producer Samuel Goldwyn while she was appearing on Broadway.

Goldwyn brought her to Hollywood where she made an astonishing 20 films between 1931-34. However, she never really jived with Hollywood, so she and her husband, writer and director Benn Levy, moved to England where she starred in British films and became a celebrated  theatre actress. Her most notable stage successes include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Long Day’s Journey into Night.

You can see that talent in American Madness. It’s not a big role – the film primarily belongs to Huston and O’Brien – but it is a critical one. Cummings is so charismatic, she makes each of her scenes more dynamic just by her presence.

She really is the type of actress who makes you believe her character can save the day – along with an American bank.

American Madness: Walter Huston, Pat O’Brien, Kay Johnson, Constance Cummings. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Robert Riskin. Columbia Pictures Corp., 1932, B&W, 75 mins.

This post is part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: Constance Cummings hosted by Journeys in Classic Film. Click HERE to see the fab entries.

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18 thoughts on “Constance Cummings Saves an American Bank

  1. A great account, Ruth: you’ve set me athirst to see the movie.

    Constance Cummings is not a familiar name outside of film or theatre circles

    I’d not really thought about it, but of course you’re right. She may be a household name in my own particular household, but Pam and I are perhaps unusual. (I’ll ask you not to rephrase that statement.) It’s odd that she should have fallen a bit from view, because she’s been quite splendid in everything I’ve seen of hers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful article, Ruth. I agree completely about Constance Cummings. I’m glad, however, that being brushed over meant we were lucky enough to have her over here on our stages. And now I have to see the film which is unknown to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks to this post, I will be DVRing as many of Constance Cummings’ films as I can. Like Mark Stevens in DARK CORNER earlier this SUTS, I’ve no idea why she wasn’t in more films and isn’t better known.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am as unfamiliar with this movie as I am with Ms Cummings, I’m afraid, Ruth. Thanks to your comment, however, I have made a note to tune into TCM Wednesday night. “Night After Night” will be playing. She’s starring along with George Raft and Mae West, although you probably already knew that.. 🙂
    Not a bad way to spend a Wednesday night, Thanks for the heads up.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve learned about so many actors and actresses from you that I never would have known about, Ruth. I am very grateful to you for that! I will keep my eyes open for Constance Cummings films and try to watch on the 24th. Loved your comparison of water filling up a tank to the bank run and your observation of how Capra filmed the run. Putting this one on my list! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This film has a lot of Frank Capra “touches”, which means it’s already terrific. However, Constance Cummings’ performance really makes it a memorable movie. I think you’d really like this one.

      Like

  6. This is so not amusing yet your first line had me laughing out loud: “Here’s a depressing activity: Do an online search of the term ‘bank run’.” (Always makes me think of It’s a Wonderful Life.)

    As for being a familiar name, I must admit I’d never heard of her. But that’s not saying too much since I haven’t heard of quite a few movies you review. And that’s one of the best things about your blog. That and the fact that your reviews are fabulous. And funny. Moving on. Thanks for sharing this film and introducing Constance Cummings. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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