There's a small but adamant minority out there that positively loathes Frank Capra's otherwise beloved holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946). I have one friend, for instance, who hates the film so much he always refers to it as "It's a Wonderful %$#*ing Life." I happen to like it myself, warts and all, but regardless it would be interesting to know just how many of these Wonderful Life-haters have subjected themselves to Good Sam (1948), a truly terrible variation of the same basic concept.
Like Capra's film, Leo McCarey's Good Sam is about an ordinary, middle-aged man forever putting the needs of friends, co-workers, and the community ahead of his own financial security and comfort. There's no guardian angel or other fantasy elements in Good Sam but both films climax with the hero facing a crisis when a large sum of money goes missing, threatening financial ruin and causing the hero to question his compulsive martyrdom. Indeed, the former may have directly inspired the latter as it's practically an unacknowledged remake with myriad similarities. For instance, Todd Karnes, who played Jimmy Stewart's kid brother, Harry Bailey, in It's a Wonderful Life, turns up here in a very similar part, a young man asking the hero to make a huge sacrifice so that he might take advantage of a great business opportunity and, later, to start a family in a new home.
But Good Sam has all of the weaknesses (by a factor of ten) and none of the strengths of It's a Wonderful Life. Its comedy scenes aren't funny but some of its supposedly serious, dramatic scenes are. Intended romantic interludes between Coop and co-star Ann Sheridan (on loan from Warner Bros.) instead have a prickly tension not intended. But more than anything the film is so thoroughly conceptually wrongheaded, like a train wreck it's almost fascinating to watch for its parade of bad creative choices. Even the filmmakers seem to have realized they had a turkey on their hands, as the picture shows signs of much post-production tinkering.
Good Sam was an independent work from McCarey's Rainbow Productions and originally distributed through RKO, though today it's part of the Paramount library and released to Blu-ray via Olive Films. The transfer sources what looks like a composite of elements; parts of reels are in fairly good shape, others less so.
Emboldened by a "do unto others" Sunday sermon by Rev. Daniels (Ray Collins), department store manager Sam Clayton (Gary Cooper) offers the Butlers (Matt Moore and Netta Packer), next-door neighbors, use of the Clayton automobile when the Butler's own car won't start. The film's unintended but sledgehammered message: no good deed goes unpunished.
First the ingrate Butlers pressure Sam and his wife, Lu (Ann Sheridan), to look after their dog, call a mechanic for the car (Sam is forced to pay the bill, which the Butlers can't repay), then brazenly call to announce that they plan on keeping the Clayton's automobile until Tuesday, leaving Sam no means to get to work, no way to take his two kids (Lora Lee Michel and Bobby Dolan, Jr.) to school. Later the Butlers return home to inform the Claytons they've completely wrecked the car in an accident and that the other driver involved is suing Sam for damages to his car.
Problems mount. The mechanic, already having wormed a free breakfast out of Sam and Lu, later turns up unannounced with his hatchet-faced wife (Minerva Urecal) to freeload a dinner as well. That's on top of the burden of six-month houseguest Claude (Dick Ross), Lu's deadbeat brother. Sam invites yet another free boarder when Shirley Mae (Joan Lorring), a music department clerk, attempts suicide after her married lover breaks up with her, leaving Shirley Mae homeless.
Sarcastic Lu puts up with all this hoping that at least she'll eventually be able to move into her dream house, unaware that do-gooder Sam has already loaned their entire nest egg to the Adamses (Todd Karnes & Carol Stevens), a young couple once so broke they considered having an abortion when she became pregnant. Instead, thanks to Sam's help, they're running a thriving gas station.
And on and on and on. What's obvious even from this brief synopsis is just how wrong-headed Good Sam is. Most of the people Sam too graciously helps out of jam after jam simply aren't worth saving. They continually take advantage of his generosity, greedily and unhesitatingly accepting every offer of help and more. Often they show him no appreciation at all, even going so far as to blame Sam for their own misadventures in the wake of his selflessness. Where in It's a Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey was a problem-solver willing to throw his time and money at good, likeable people he regarded as sound investments, Sam is simply a sucker, a sap, an easy touch for pushy people lining up to cash in. He never questions his extreme altruism except very briefly and unbelievably near the end; he's really worried only about how his wife's going to take the latest bad news.
Capra's film exposed for the first time Stewart's psychologically darker, postwar potential. In Wonderful Life George Bailey is romantic and even silly at times, but also experiences brutal periods of self-loathing, cynicism, and even suicidal behavior. Conversely, Gary Cooper's Sam Clayton is little more than a simpleton, a painfully noble distillation of Coop's usual screen persona and earlier characters he had played for Capra. Any beginning screenwriting course will inform you that saints are awfully hard to write for, and Sam Clayton exemplifies this. His character fundamentally changes not at all from beginning to end.
It's to the underrated Ann Sheridan's credit that she makes her understandably resentful, fed-up character bearable. Her sarcasm, meant to be funny and not the passive-aggressive anger it comes off as, is bizarrely conceived. Scenes between husband and wife clearly meant to be sweetly charming instead leave the audience wondering why Lu hasn't taken an axe to her irresponsible husband.
Deservedly, Good Sam was a critical and commercial flop, something the filmmakers likely were aware. A version running approximately 12 minutes longer than this 114-minute Blu-ray reportedly was prepared and possibly even released for a time. The IMDb lists an unusually large number of cast members whose scenes were deleted entirely or perhaps from the longer cut. In the 114-minute edit, some characters appear or disappear rather abruptly, and there are numerous instances where the image has been zoomed-in with an optical printer to create artificial medium and close shots from a single master shot. Further suggesting the filmmakers were well aware of the film's many problems is that while principal photography ended in October 1947, additional scenes were shot the following January, and later still preview audiences supposedly voted on the better of two alternate endings. Good Sam wasn't released to paying audiences until September 1948.
Video & Audio
The black-and-white, 1.37:1 video transfer of Good Sam appears to source composite elements, the movie varying in terms of picture and sound quality from fairly good to just fair, though the entire movie is certainly watchable. The mono audio, with no accompanying English or other subtitles, is a bit muffled here and there, though otherwise fine. No Extra Features.
Considering the talent involved, Good Sam is one of the great cinematic duds of the 1940s. It's so bad that it's almost fascinating, but general audiences beware. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.