One shot of Good Sam features Gary Cooper standing in the middle of two women. One cries in misery while the other laughs her head off, and they seem about equally at the edge of delirium. This moment defines the whole movie, which balances comedy, pathos, and irony so freely within each scene that you don’t know how the movie expects you to react. This ambiguity of affect marks the cinema of Leo McCarey. He’s so fascinated by observing the nuances of human reactions, and how the emotions of different characters feed and counterpoint each other, that he lets scenes run on quite long; you get the feeling he’d just as soon they never end. Were he active but few decades later, he might have been John Cassavetes.
Cooper and Ann Sheridan are excellently matched as Sam and Lucille Clayton, a middle-class American couple with two children in a rented house. They’re saving to buy a home, and Sam has a good job as a department store manager, but he keeps lending money, time, and hospitality to others in need, and this creates friction and exasperation. Lucille feels Sam is imposed upon, and she becomes furious when he makes important decisions without her (calling him a “sneaking samaritan”). Their scenes of tension and confrontation are as uncomfortable as their scenes of sexual chemistry are electric, though their sex life is interrupted at all times. The movie’s dominant tones are discomfort and frustration, which makes Good Sam anything but a feel-good hit.
Cooper’s well-meaning, abashed, yet stubborn Sam is a variant of his roles in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Ball of Fire, and Casanova Brown. As in Frank Capra‘s It’s a Wonderful Life and Meet John Doe, the story touches on suicidal despair, with a supporting character (Joan Lorring) taking pills after an affair with a married man. Also like Good Sam, the Capra films have Christmas themes. Capra’s films are forceful and wind up with characters giving speeches to represent “the common man”, while McCarey’s analysis is more diffuse and subtle. It’s Lucille who most clearly channels the audience, while Sam’s specifically Christian goodness is presented as unusual, almost pathological, and possibly doomed.
Lucille represents the viewer’s common-sense impulses, along the lines of “charity begins at home” and “God helps those who help themselves”, though these bromides are never quoted (nor is “no good deed goes unpunished”). Her issues are also partly recognized as the issues of “the housewife” who’s expected to forbear and do the cooking while her husband makes the serious decisions. In a cathartic moment, she calls her husband stupid and tells him to shut up, and most of the audience is probably glad to hear it. Part of the movie’s teasing agenda is to draw these feelings out and balance or undermine them with examples where Sam’s patience and virtue are rewarded.
The general opinion of this film may be represented by Leonard Maltin’s description as an “almost complete misfire”, especially if you’re looking for hilarity or the kind of unambiguous yuletide sentiment in It’s a Wonderful Life. McCarey’s disorienting vision of life as ironic while skating near despair doesn’t offer a tidy generic handle or let you know how to “read” each scene. Bosley Crowther called this “a mischievous sort of satire” and thought “the principal danger in this picture is that people will take it seriously as a nobly intended tribute to the Good Samaritan type.” I think the message is that these people suffer because being good is a burden and perhaps should be, though karma finally happens even if it’s not your goal. In other words, Sam is right, but what happens to him is closer to reality than Shirley Temple’s sunshine and optimism.
Maltin says some prints run 128 minutes. Olive Films’ mostly good 114-minute print shows a few abrupt fade-outs and shaky transitions (and one or two odd artificial zooms). The lapses are most notable during the long climactic cross-cuts between Sam’s epic scenes of getting drunk (with William Frawley as the bartender) and snippets of family and friends at home. McCarey’s loping rhythms and digressive style are being wrestled into disorderly shape. We’d like to see the untouched version.