"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" L. P. Hartley. The go-between.
I thought of this great opening line from “The Go-Between” the other night as I sat down to watch one of my favorite childhood movies “Good Sam”, which I had seen on one of those programs of my youth that would show movies from the 30’s and 40’s and thought to myself the past is a childhood movie, they look differently there.
Made in 1948 by Leo McCarey on the cusp of post war prosperity and the coming of the cold war, the film starred two great performers of Hollywood’s golden years Gary Cooper and Ann Sheridan (this may have been the first time I had seen Sheridan, and I fell madly in love forever and a day with her) as Mr. And Mrs. Sam Clayton of any town USA. Cooper tall, lanky and still good-looking plays good Sam who is an executive- manager in a large department store with a hands on approach to his job and is treasured by his employees and customers alike. He is kind and helpful with a heart of gold, to the dismay of his wife. Sam thinks nothing of lending his car to his neighbors so they can get away for a weekend (never mind the neighbor would qualify as being legally blind), He lends a lot of money to a young couple so they can open a gas station, lets his lazy brother in law live with them, and takes in a troubled young employee of his store played by the talented Joan Lorring.
Some of the golden moments that I loved as a kid are still hilarious like the scene where Sam holds up a bus so a woman who is running to catch it, can get aboard. The bus driver played by Dick Wessel is annoyed by the delay and the woman played by the marvelous Florence Auer get into a heated argument, with Florence getting the last laugh when she discovers he’s bald and his name is Melvin Z. Wutzberger announcing all of this in a loud voice to the crowded bus, as Wessel does a slow burn.
I also love the scene in the department store where the great Ida Moore appears befuddled asking for street directions and of course good natured Sam takes the time to draw her a detailed map, much to the chagrin of the store’s president played by Edmund Lowe. Also in the packed character actor laden cast are Almira Sessions, William Frawley, Minerva Uracal, Louise Beavers, Ray Collins, Irving Bacon and in a very small role a very young Ruth Roman. There are also two of the most natural and realistic portrayals of children I’ve seen in a movie.
McCarey Knew movie comedy having directed the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, W.C. Fields, and Harold Lloyd. Some of his classic films are “The Awful Truth” for which he won his first directing Oscar, made the same year as his sublime “Make Way For Tomorrow” which McCarey thought he should have won the Oscar for instead of “Truth” and “Ruggles Of Red Gap” with the great Charles Laughton giving a surprising comedic performance.
But he also had a long sentimental streak and this is apparent in “Good Sam”. The film opens on a Sunday morning church service and its happy ending arrives on Christmas Eve which made me think of Frank Capra. This streak could also be seen in his famous and popular “Going My Way”, which I still cannot bring myself to watch because of my distaste for the Catholic church and Bing Crosby. This 1944 film won many Oscars including best picture and best actor and was McCarey’s final best directing award.
As time went on he became more right wing and conservative becoming a member of the notorious The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) which was founded by him and other Hollywood conservatives who wanted to defend the film industry against Communist infiltration. He was also a friendly witness at the political witch hunt hearings held by Un-American Activities Committee in Congress where he named names of supposed Communist supporters working in Hollywood. As his film career dwindled he made one more popular success, 1957’s “An Affair To Remember” which was a remake of his hit romantic film of 1939 “Love Affair.” Brightly colored and cinemascoped it starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as the doomed but eventually happy lovers and made many a woman (and probably some men) weep copious tears but is not a favorite of mine, it’s way too sentimental to me even for McCarey and 1950’s standards.