Sunday, 22 May 2016

AMERICAN MADNESS: BANKERS AS MOVIE VILLAINS

In the 14 May Guardian Review, Lionel Shriver wrote a piece titled 'On The Money', about our 'newfound' fascination with bankers as 'the perfect villains'. Coincidentally enough, Lionel Shriver has a new novel coming out, which she described as 'an economic dystopia', and which she linked to a number of other fictional works arising out of the 2008 financial collapse. Later, she says, 'bankers and their ilk have never had an easy time of it in drama', and that the 'sole positive portrayal I could dig up of a cinematic character in the money business is Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey',  then pointing out the tremendous banker-villain of Its A Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter, played by her namesake Lionel Barrymore. That this works somewhat against her thesis of banker villains as a modern trend in literature, it does manage to lead her to films, where including Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps again begs the point of the original Wall Street coming during a different period of banking perfidy.

Inconsistencies aside, it was an interesting piece, but her mention of It's A Wonderful Life reminded me of something she's missed. A couple of things, actually. So I wrote a letter to the Review, which follows in my original version, before I cut it back on the unlikely chance the G might print it:

Had Lionel Shriver, in her interesting essay, searched a little further back into Frank Capra's films she would have found another banker hero. In the aptly-titled American Madness (1932), Walter Huston plays Thomas Dickson, a prototype George Bailey who staves off a run on his bank after his protege is accused of stealing from it. He makes virtually the same appeal to reason and community over panic and greed that George makes in It's A Wonderful Life, in a scene framed and shot in much the same way, only moreso: the panic and greed seemed more frightening and real in 1932.

It might also be worth pointing out that banker villains have thrived in westerns since the early silents ('If you don't give me the deed to your ranch'). One of the the greatest is in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) where Henry Gatewood (played with pompous self-regard by Burton Churchill), who has robbed his own bank, constitutes a one-man argument for The New Deal's banking regulations, like Glass-Steagall, and for George Bailey's idea for coping with banking crisis; if anything, he's a more loathsome figure than Mr. Potter. John Ford saw no reason to give Gatewood any redemption at the end.

2 comments :

jamesreadsbooks.com said...

I'd argue this goes back to Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Much of the plot revolves around loans and what happens if you can't repay them.

Michael Carlson said...

There is that--though she was talking about institutionalised banking in an American context