I first encountered this film three years ago and liked it very much at first, but unlike other favorites on our Christmas watch list, I have found my fondness for it dwindling on each re-viewing. It has become one of those films I would like to like, because it has a wonderful creative team: Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, The Awful Truth etc.), Gary Cooper, Ann Sheridan and a long list of wonderful character actors. They all certainly knew how to make good movies, and good Christmas movies, too: consider The Bells of St. Mary’s, Meet John Doe and The Man Who Came to Dinner. So why doesn’t Good Sam succeed? I think it’s the screenplay, whose weaknesses come into focus if you compare this film to It’s a Wonderful Life, with which it shares not only the central concept of a good man (Sam Clayton) facing a life-changing crisis on Christmas Eve but also at least three character actors. Clayton, unlike George Bailey, has no dark underside: we know little about his early life and get no sense that his life has had any frustrations or unfulfilled dreams. He is a simple, good man, where George Bailey is a complex, good man. As a result, Clayton’s Christmas Eve crisis is not a dark night of the soul, such as we see in It’s a Wonderful Life, but a silly drunk scene that bears no connection to what we have seen of his past character. That lack of connectivity points to another weakness of the film: it has many funny scenes, but there is no substance holding them together. Good Sam is well worth watching, but as a lesson in what’s missing and what keeps it from being a perennial favorite.
Sam Clayton (Gary Cooper) is the general manager of the local department store and has a reputation as a man devoted to “loving thy neighbor” with no practical limits. He lends money to people down on their luck, and they never pay him back. His wife (Ann Sheridan) is frustrated that her husband’s extreme charity has kept them from owning a home for which they have been saving for years. She finds her dream home and is ready to move in, when she discovers that Sam has lent the money to former neighbors to buy a small business and build their own home. When the neighbors miraculously repay the loan enabling the Claytons to buy their dream home, she loses her cynicism and tries to follow Sam’s charitable lead. All seems to be heading to a wonderful Christmas in their new home, when Sam is robbed of thousands of dollars for a charitable dinner, and he must use the house fund to repay the loss. After the banker refuses to loan him money so his wife can have her dream, Sam sinks into despair and drowns his sorrows at a local bar. At the last minute the banker relents, and Sam is reunited with his family and friends.
The movie begins during the Christmas shopping season at Sam’s department store and culminates on Christmas Eve.
Ray Collins (Rev. Daniels) may be best known as Lieutenant Tragg on TV’s Perry Mason, but he had a long, distinguished career in many fine films, including Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947).
Edmund Lowe (H.C. Borden) may look familiar as Dr. Talbot in Dinner at Eight (1933). His long career began in vaudeville and extended through many character roles in films and television.
Joan Lorring (Shirley Mae) had roles in several interesting films, such as The Lost Moment (1947), The Corn is Green (1945) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944). She starred in a short-lived TV series Norby (1955).
Clinton Sundberg (Nelson, the mechanic) has a long list of film credits, including Song of the Thin Man (1947), Good News (1947) and In the Good Old Summertime (1949), the musical re-make of The Shop Around the Corner.
Minerva Urecal (Mrs. Nelson) appeared in Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). She played Nurse Dunphy in Harvey (1950).
Louise Beavers (Chloe) was seen earlier in Holiday Inn (1942). We discussed her distinguished career in the post for that classic.
Netta Packer (Mrs. Butler) appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Tom, Dick and Harry (1941).
Florence Auer (woman on bus) has been seen in It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947), where she played one of the gossipy women in the restaurant Michel’s.
Oliver Blake (the turkey salesman) appeared in The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Saboteur (1942), Casablanca (1942), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and as the bartender in Brigadoon (1954).
Ida Moore (knitting lady) has been seen in two of our Christmas films, including The Lemon Drop Kid and Double Dynamite.
Todd Karns (Joe Adams) plays Harry Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He was the son of the fine character actor Roscoe Karns, who appeared in It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday.
William Frawley (Tom the bartender) has been seen in two other films on our Christmas list: Miracle on 34th Street and The Lemon Drop Kid.
Harry Hayden (banker) has also appeared in several of our Christmas films, including Double Dynamite, Miracle on 34th Street, and O. Henry’s Full House.
Irving Bacon (drunk tramp) has appeared in five other of our Christmas films: Bachelor Mother, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Meet John Doe and O. Henry’s Full House.
Almira Sessions (landlady) was also one of the gossipy restaurant ladies in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). She played Potter’s secretary in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and had a role in Sullivan’s Travels (1941),
Dick Wessel (bus driver) had a long career in films and television. Among his movie credits are The Strawberry Blonde (1941), Penny Serenade (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Harvey (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951)
Dick Wessel appeared with Fred Astaire in The Belle of New York (1952).
Todd Karns and Oliver Blake appeared with Astaire in Let’s Dance (1950).
Clinton Sundberg appeared with Astaire in Easter Parade (1948) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949),
Edmund Lowe appeared on stage with Fred and Adele Astaire at the Actors Equity benefit on May 5, 1920, at the Metropolitan Opera House.
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
We love the idea, the actors and many of the comic scenes. We would love to love it more.
WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM
Turner Classic Movies shows Good Sam irregularly. Look for it next year, perhaps.