Sunday, November 23, 2008


In this Frank Capra Depression-era film, which is a kind of forerunner to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, there are four main plotlines to follow: 1) bank president Walter Huston, a folksy, likeable fellow who gives loans rather freely based on what he perceives as people's "character," is being pressured by his board of directors to approve a merger with another bank, despite the fact the Huston's bank is still in good shape; 2) Huston's wife (Kay Johnson) is faithful but upset at how much time he is spending taking care of bank business; 3) Pat O'Brien, a reformed burglar (this is a rather vague plot point), is the chief teller and has the full confidence of Huston, and is also dating Huston's secretary (Constance Cummings); 4) head cashier Gavin Gordon has run up some rather big gambling debts and is approached by a gangster to help arrange an after-hours robbery. How all the storylines converge: in order to establish an alibi, Gordon sweet-talks Johnson, left alone on her wedding anniversary, into a night on the town, ending up in his apartment. O'Brien thinks they're having an affair and goes to Gordon's that night to try and break it up. The gangsters pull off the robbery, with a watchman shot dead, and O'Brien falls under suspicion but won't tell the cops where he was for fear of upsetting Huston. Wild rumors about the robbery and the potential failure of the bank cause hundreds of depositors to stream in that afternoon to take their money out, which would, of course, lead to a real bank failure. Can Huston save the bank, his marriage, and O'Brien's reputation?

If you've seen It's a Wonderful Life (and who hasn't?), you'll know Huston's (and Capra's) faith in the essential goodness of people saves him in the end. There is no angelic intervention here, though there is a brief moment when it looks like Huston is considering suicide. There are two strikingly-shot sequences involving the telephone rumor-mongering and the hordes of customers swarming inside the bank, desperate for their money. There is maybe one plot line too many; though I like O'Brien and Cummings quite a bit here, their romance feels tacked-on, perhaps at the expense of developing the character of Huston's wife. The film is well-paced and has a couple of nice throwaway scenes at the beginning and end involving the staff of tellers and their relationship with O'Brien. Edwin Maxwell does a nice job as Huston's nemesis, the kind of role which Edward Arnold and Lionel Barrymore would hone to perfection in later Capra films, and Sterling Holloway, the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh, makes his sound film debut here as a teller. The DVD print is excellent. In honor of our country's current economic crisis, which I don't think can be solved by the "little" investors out there (though I'd like to see angels give it a shot), I'll review another bank crisis movie tomorrow. [DVD]

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