Sog.: Leo McCarey, John Klorer. Scen.: Ken Englund. F.: George Barnes. M.: James McKay. Scgf.: John B. Goodman. Mus.: Robert Emmett Dolan. Int.: Gary Cooper (Sam Clayton), Ann Sheridan (Lu Clayton), Ray Collins (reverendo Daniels), Edmund Lowe (H.C. Borden), Joan Lorring (Shirley Mae), Clinton Sundberg (Nelson), Minerva Urecal (Mrs. Nelson), Louise Beavers (Chloe), Ruth Roman (Ruthie), William Frawley (Tom). Prod.: Rainbow Productions · 35mm. Bn. D.: 115’.
Good Sam is the last of McCarey’s religious films, and perhaps the most troubled. Another series of loosely linked episodes, centered on the trials and tribulations of a middle-class, suburban family of the type that was coming to define postwar America (and soon, postwar American television comedy), Good Sam has corners as grim and shadowy as Frank Capra’s nearly contemporaneous It’s a Wonderful Life, including a Christmas Eve climax that finds the saintly hero broke, drunk, and contemplating suicide.
Said to be the closest of McCarey’s protagonists to his own personality, Sam Clayton (Gary Cooper) is a modern day Good Samaritan, who discovers that living by a code of Christian charity in the world of 1948 is to invite an endless parade of freeloaders and deadbeats to take advantage of his generosity. It’s up to his wife, Lu (Ann Sheridan, warm, womanly and practical) to keep their household functioning, up to the point where Sam gives away the down payment on the dream house she’s been yearning for.
Just as the film poses an irresolvable question – is it possible to live a good life in the world as we know it? – so does the film have difficulty reaching resolution. McCarey shot and tested several different endings before settling on the climax as we have it – an extended, meandering sequence that involves a McCareyesque mixture of heavy drinking, group singing and stealth spirituality (in the form of a marching Salvation Army band), leading up to a definitive laughing-through-tears moment.
NB: A substantially different, 130 minute cut of the film also exists, which gives much freer play to McCarey’s improvisational genius. Included are a magnificent sequence in which the family watches home movies and attempts a game of jacks, and a flashback in which Lu explains how she and Sam met. One can only hope that this version will someday be restored and made available for public screening.