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