Mister’s Deeds Go to Frown

While often likened to cinematic twins, Leo McCarey and Frank Capra (to me) are light years apart.  Capra, who by his own admission, created what he dubbed “CapraCorn,” is too often bogged down by treacle; McCarey’s stuff smacks of life lessons in hypocrisy.  True, both began in silent comedy, but Capra, as his star rose, seemed to forget everything visual, while McCarey could zap an inventive sight gag into a sophisticated story line with a snap of his fingers.  And, yeah, they were both right wing nut jobs (with, McCarey responsible for two of the most embarrassing entries in ANY auteur canon, My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps), but, when in full bloom, Leo shined.  Nothing proves my point more than the recent Blu-Ray release of his shamefully ignored 1948 comedy GOOD SAM, now available through Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

GOOD SAM, for those acquainted with it, is frequently (and unfairly unfavorably) matched with Capra’s (in my opinion) overrated It’s a Wonderful Life (Oy, here comes the hate mail!).  Each flick concerns the downfall (by no fault of his own) of an upstanding do-gooder, whose one character flaw is his very philanthropic nature.  For Capra, this is tinged with whimsy; for McCarey, reality.

The comparisons continue.  McCarey copped one of Capra’s favorite leading men, Gary Cooper, to play the lead, and even cast Wonderful Life’s Todd Karns to play a key supporting role.  But, narratively speaking, that’s where the similarities end.  Cooper’s wife is, like SAM itself, the vastly underrated actress Ann Sheridan – a snarky, perfect companion, and a far cry from goody-goody Donna Reed (don’t get me wrong, I love Donna Reed).

Sam, the man – one Sam Clayton – is literally a good Sam, as in “Samaritan,” a tag that the populace of his town can eagerly verify, since they take advantage of him at every opportunity.  He and his spouse, Lu, live an ideal (supposedly) middle class-plus life, along with their two young children Lulu and Butch.  Sam is one of the heads of sales at the berg’s big department store, and can never stop helping people.  His disgruntled boss, H.C., ever on the verge of a heart attack, can’t berate him, as Sam’s innate goodness always seems to pay off (spending an inordinate amount of time with an elderly lady looking for knitting needles turns into a windfall for the store when Sam’s patience is reciprocated by her later furnishing an entire home from the store’s appliance and furniture departments as a wedding present for her marriageable sprout).

Sam is so benevolent that his family is inadvertently placed on the back-burner when someone in need requires assistance (money loans, shelter, transport, etc.).  A horrible next door family takes his car when theirs won’t start, and practically wrecks it (Sam graciously repairs both vehicles); a slut-shamed coworker is given room and board in the Clayton home when her married lover ditches her.  A no-account brother-in-law that even his sister (Sheridan) can’t stand turns a brief stay into a seemingly permanent residence.  Perfect strangers, too, get the Sam treatment: citizens running to catch a rush hour bus turn out to be heading toward a store before it closes, but not before Clayton practically lies down in the street to stop the vehicle.

And so it goes.

Sam, however, is no Capra doofus.  He’s a smart, dude who knows exactly what he’s doing.  In a beautifully written, acted and directed sequence, Cooper quietly and with dignity, tells Sheridan that he understands that some folks might consider him an easy touch, but, while many have traditional hobbies and extra-curricular interests, helping people is what he enjoys.  It’s his jones.   In an unexpected bolt of modernity, the local pastor, during a Sunday sermon, chides the majority of “fake Christians” as opposed to the slim array of those rare individuals who really care.

Like Wonderful Life, Sam’s world comes crashing down during a snow-blitzed Christmas.  He’s about to lose the dream home his wife has wanted, likely his marriage…and, as for all those friends and neighbors he’s helped throughout the years…well, “better you, than me.”  Sam’s recourse is to drown his sorrows at the local bar, attempting to become a mean drunk – but even this fails, as he gives his clothes to a homeless alcoholic.  No angels’ shoulders to cry on here, just unappreciative disgruntled post-war Americans.

McCarey truly delivers the goods in GOOD SAM, a worthy (and, in my opinion, superior) follow-up to his mammoth back-to-back blockbusters Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.  A final side-by-side to Capra, like Wonderful Life, GOOD SAM was an independent production, released and distributed through RKO.  It probably did better than Life (due to the participation of Cooper and Sheridan; Jimmy Stewart was post-war box office poison until 1950), but then was promptly forgotten.  I first encountered it, in a truncated re-issue form, on TV in the mid-1960s, and, by accident (I thought it was the small-screen debut of the 1964 Jack Lemmon comedy Good Neighbor Sam, a TV Guide misprint listing).  The cut version was pretty much the only game in town, until a subsequent cinematic excavation restored the pic to its full 114-minute running time (which this edition is).

This dialog and situations (by credited screenwriter Ken Enlund, from a story by McCarey and John D. Klorer) are sharp and hilarious.  “Are you an idiot?,” asks one of Sam’s precocious urchins of their wastrel uncle.  A later scene of Mr. Nelson, an obnoxious repair man ogling Sam’s beautiful wife (after inviting himself to dinner), is equal parts painful and riotous (Nelson’s gross impression of his battleaxe better half’s constant asthma would be an awful moment, if not in McCarey’s deft hands).  The supporting cast is brilliant, and features Edmund Lowe, William Frawley, Clinton Sundberg, Dick Ross, Minerva Urecal, Ray Collins, Bobby Dolan, Jr., Lora Lee Michael, Joan Lorring, Louise Beavers, Matt Moore, Irving Bacon, Ida Moore, Almira Sessions, Dick Wessel, and an early appearance by Ruth Roman.

GOOD SAM was photographed by the excellent d.p. George Barnes, mostly heralded for his Technicolor work (The Spanish Main, Samson and Delilah, War of the Worlds), but primarily known for his exemplary black-and-white cinematography on Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  While this 1080p Blu-Ray looks and sounds pretty good, it certainly could benefit from a full-scale restoration (an improbability, considering its current stature). An appropriate score by Robert Emmett Dolan (borrowed from Paramount) appends the visuals.

One of Cooper’s and Sheridan’s best performances, GOOD SAM is, for me, the perfect Christmas flick to be duly trotted out every Yuletide, and with a way more practical mantra than Capra’s:  every time a (door) bell rings, run like hell!

GOOD SAM.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF804.  SRP: $29.95.

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