August 26, 2014
“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!” -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam
In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation – Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.
McCarey went independent after directing Going My Way for Paramount. He formed Rainbow Productions to make The Bells of Mary’s, which was distributed by RKO. He had valuable experience with an independent artist early on. His first job in Hollywood was as an assistant to Tod Browning. McCarey recalled, “From film to film, I had the opportunity to propose ideas because the scenarios we were shooting were all original. It was a unique apprenticeship working with a man who wrote, directed, and edited his films himself.” The Bells of St. Mary’s grossed even more money than Going My Way, and sits at number fifty-one on the all time list (adjusted for inflation), one spot above The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. McCarey secured the same beneficial arrangement for Good Sam – a Rainbow Production released through RKO.
Good Sam originated with McCarey’s wife Stella. “I was working with Sinclair Lewis on another story and that’s when my wife told me, ‘Why don’t you make a picture about yourself? You’re always doing the most unbelievable things trying to help others.’” McCarey shared the story credit with John Klorer, with the script attributed to Ken Englund, who co-wrote Danny Kaye’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty the year before, another comic tale of a guy too kind to fit into corporate society.
Gary Cooper was going to play Sam Clayton from the start, and he is superb as the reticent nice guy (similar to his Professor in Ball of Fire). On their off days on the Good Sam shoot, Cooper and McCarey were friendly witnesses for HUAC (you can find their testimony here). Good Sam is their comic depiction of the value of religion to American life, of how it looked to them without people living by the Golden Rule. In such a world, saintliness becomes a joke. In his testimony, McCarey joked about why Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s weren’t hits in Russia:
McCarey: Well, I think I have a character in there that they do not like.
Mr. Stripling: Bing Crosby?
McCarey: No; God.
McCarey originally had Jean Arthur in mind for the part of Lucille, though she was unable to take the part. He had run into Ann Sheridan at the Kentucky Derby, who was eager to shed the label of “The Oomph Girl”. She had more than oomph to offer. Sheridan recalled their encounter in Modern Screen: “McCarey’s one of my idols; when I was a stock girl at Paramount he was a big shot there, and I’d always yearned to work with him. I have this mental picture of McCarey in Kentucky. He was standing up and lifting a julep glass when I came into his line of vision. ‘Annie’, he hollered, ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, I hollered back. ‘Let’s do a movie together’, he said. I said, “You’re on”, and kept walking”
McCarey recounts the same meeting in a different issue of Modern Screen, in an article entitled, “My Love Affair with Ann Sheridan”. He was “struck for the nine-hundredth time with what a smick-smack, forthright, clear-eyed, redheaded, realistic gal this Annie Sheridan is.” McCarey claims that after she read the script she said she’d do it for nothing. Warner Brothers loaned her to Rainbow Productions after she agreed to add an extra picture to her WB deal. Though these articles were likely massaged by RKO PR, Sheridan’s excitement at playing a woman without “oomph” palpates off the screen. She is spectacular as Lucille: acidic, absurdist and reluctantly loving. McCarey came up through the slapsticks honing reaction shots, from Charley Chase and Max Davidson to Laurel and Hardy, mastering the art of looking askance at the world crumbling around you. Ann Sheridan has a barrage of exasperated looks to deal with Sam’s gullibility/generosity.
Early on Sam invites a mechanic over for breakfast – and ends up paying for his neighbor’s repairs. Sheridan is a marvel of amusement and disdain. Upon the mechanic’s entrance she stares at Cooper mischievously, lowering her head and rolling her eyes up, backed by a disbelieving smirk – entertained by the absurdity of her cluttered life. Then the mechanic hands her dirty plates to clear, and the humor turns to contempt. Her eyebrows shoot down and her jaw drops in disbelief. Then a quick recovery into thick, dripping sarcasm. She asks for “the Crunchies too please” in a fake-civilized tone with a plasticine smile. Her hands full of plates, she raises her left arm so the cereal box can be shoved in her armpit – a perfect picture of overburdened domesticity. Staring needles at him, she says “Thank you” in a sing-song voice, and absconds with the dishes. This all happens in fifteen seconds, packing hilarity into every frame.
Her tour-de-force occurs about forty-five minutes in, when the deluge of needy humanity finally breaks her down. But not into tears – she expresses her defeat in an explosive laughter jag. Sheridan consistently shows how Lucille knows how to distance herself – to treat her life as a performance. The inciting incident is the capper to a day of good deeds with bad results. Sam had let his neighbors borrow his car over the weekend. It turns out they got into an accident, and the victim is suing. As Sam is the owner of the car, he will be the subject of the suit. When Sam comes home from work, he is ready to apologize to Lucille for all the hassles he brings home to her, oblivious to the fact that the neighbors are sitting in the living room. Sam’s apology, and his rare criticisms of others, send Lucille into convulsions. “No more Nelsons ruining our dinner, no more Butlers ruining our car”, he says, as Sheridan subtly shakes her head “no”, ramping up the joke she is about to play on him. When he calls Butler a “Four-eyed four-flusher”, she begins to break, the right side of her mouth curling up into a smile, soon followed by the left. She muffles a laugh through her nose. Soon she cracks and then, the torrent. Sam can’t understand why his sweet talk is making her laugh, so he asks, “Does my love border on the ridiculous?” Through choked chuckles she says, “Yes, in a way, yes.” It’s an uproarious scene that emerges out of everyday frustrations.
Sam’s generosity keeps backfiring, and eventually he’s squandered the entire nest egg, making it impossible for them to buy Lucille’s dream home. It is Sam’s turn to snap, and he hits the bottle. An alkie wanders into a bar, looking for a drink. The bartender wants to throw him out, but Sam still believes that “all he needs is a helping hand”. The drunk responds, “I can’t remember when I heard a more stupid remark. You’re not really helping me, all you’re doing is boosting your own ego. …You can afford to be condescending.” The idea that altruism is equivalent to self-love sends him into a spiral. He switches clothes with the bum, and seems ready for obliterate himself. A Salvation Army marching band agrees to take him home – the first kind act he’s received all day. This would be a bittersweet, complicated ending, a man of shaken faith receiving a salve.
However, McCarey and RKO opted for a miraculously happy closer that erases the satiric depiction of self-serving materialist United States of the previous two hours. It clumsily channels the communal spirit of the It’s a Wonderful Life finale, but McCarey was always better with couples than communities. As Robin Wood pointed out, he rarely even has time for families (Sam and Lucille have kids, although you’d barely know it). This particular miracle rings false, making Good Sam one of the only times McCarey places his faith in God above that of his characters. In his greatest work, they are intertwined, as in the transcendent, sanctified union of Love Affair, or the unspoken affection of a priest and a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.
The January 17, 1948 Showman’s Trade Newsreel reported that McCarey “decided upon an entirely new ending”, and that “preview audiences will be given their choice of two finishes”. What is not known is the content of the alternate ending, or what process led to McCarey re-shooting those pivotal sequences. There is some archival work to be done here, or perhaps a lucky discovery in some old subbasement.