Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Blues : Leo McCarey's GOOD SAM(1948)

“People don't always like to admit this, but holidays are often periods when lives become unmoored and destabilized … And it's important to bear in mind that it's both members of the marriage who become unmoored and destabilized, even though we see much more of the husband than we do of the wife. The Christmas trees and decor that we see everywhere only serve to underline the disequilibrium.”

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, in consideration of Eyes Wide Shut as an underrated Christmas film.

“Is he a good father?” asks Revered Daniel(Ray Collins), “Do his children suffer by his actions?”

“Oh no,” replies Lucille ‘Lou’ Clayton(Ann Sheridan), “He’s a good father all right!”

“Is he a good husband?”

“Well, he’s got a blonde from the store on our bed right now, if that’s what you mean!” She adds, “Oh no, no it’s perfectly harmless! She just tried to commit suicide, so he brought her in!”

Sam Clayton as played by Gary Cooper has a single major quality - his refusal to be afraid of being ridiculous. This strength is a necessary survival tool since his genuine compassion and consideration for his fellow citizens does not ennoble him as it does George Bailey (James Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life!) or takes him to the tragic depths of modern sainthood (Ingrid Bergman’s Irene Girard in Europa ’51) or take him on a personal spiritual journey to derive meaning and purpose out of his existence (Takashi Shimura’s Watanabe-san in Ikiru). McCarey’s film is about the purpose and meaning of helping your fellow man on an everyday basis (which explains why the reconciliation and resolution at the end of the film lacks the heartfelt uplift of the Capra masterpiece.) Like these films, Good Sam explores a theme of post-war society, the isolation and compartmentalization of life to the point that genuine compassion and communal feeling seems difficult if not impossible.

Sam Clayton is a general manager at the H. C. Borden & Co. Department store. His earnest qualities make him an object of irritation for his boss and a talented salesman whose helpfulness garners a loyal clientele, whose decency also makes him a favourite among his colleagues. Sam earns well but lives beneath his means. He lives in a small house with cramped interiors with his wife and children in addition to houserooming his brother-in-law Claude who as a returning war veteran hasn’t yet fitted well into his civilian identity. In its amazing first half which is set almost entirely in the Claytons home, the film creates one of the most convincing domestic living spaces in American cinema. Good Sam is first and foremost a film about marriage about the small frictions that are part of such relationships. The first half of the film revolving around the domestic spaces of households, therefore also around Lucille Clayton(Ann Sheridan – her finest performance). She married a man who did not care to be ridiculous and so he doesn’t think twice of helping his fellow man. Lou Clayton on the other hand is critical and at times derisive about her husband’s goodness. One striking moment is in the opening Church sermon. Sam Clayton is asked to participate in carrying the round of collections. Lou is apprehensive and then resigned. Her children note brightly that their father is too tall to perform such a function. The manner in which this gag builds and plays out is a tribute to McCarey’s gifts as a master of comedic timing. The tone is even and restrained. The actors play their parts with great seriousness.

Sam passes the collection down the same row in which his family is seated. Lucille fixes him with a look of sardonic expectation. Then he passes down to the aisle and moves to the left of the frame. The camera tracks in softly as the Clayton family stare towards the altar in unison with the rest of the congregration.

Then without a cut-in, we observe the reactions of the children and the congregation to sounds in the background.

Lou Clayton of course knew what would happen and stares ahead beatifically, completely indifferent to the ruckus caused by her Sam. McCarey’s elegant touch allows him to create laughter out of a reaction shot to a gag, thereby doing away with any need of showing the gag itself. He repeats this again when in the following scene, Sam helps a comically henpecked couple by offering his vehicle. The expected mishap with the borrowed wheels happens offscreen with similar use of sound, the strategy in both cases inviting and insisting the spectator to identify with the sardonic good nature of Lou Clayton rather than Sam. Ann Sheridan’s performance creates a genuine portrait of a housewife whose chief quality is not just her capacity for nurturing and understanding but a quotidian practicality accumulated through constant burden of responsibilities of managing a house. Her chief hindrance in these matters is her husband who doesn’t think twice before parting away with his sole means of transportation to work and who is willing to fund a couple’s gas station so that they can have a baby even if saps into life savings his wife was keeping away for a bigger and more spacious house. If superficially the conflict of Good Sam is between altruistic and materialistic motives as Sam himself notes at one point than it is to McCarey’s credit that he creates ambivalence by making Lou the figure the audience is most at ease to identify with. She has more lines of dialogue than Gary Cooper (who it must be admitted is not the kind of actor who needs to talk a great deal) and we initially judge and view the target of her hostility and sarcasm through her eyes.

The small house in which the Claytons live in is too claustrophobic for poor Lou. Every time she and Sam make intimate gestures there is always sound from another room drifting into their space. The rooms are too near each other and privacy is all but gone from their lives. Their bedroom is also where their young daughter sleeps in.

The little girl watches in keen interest as her parents flirt effortlessly. When she makes her presence felt, Sam puts her to sleep behind the screen reading a hastily improvised version of Cinderella as he’s distracted by the sight of his wife in a nightie.

And who can blame him. Of course they are interrupted again - A girl who works at the Department store, a mistress cast aside by her wealthy boyfriend, turns up at Sam’s house after taking several sleeping pills. She turns up a Sam’s door after he counselled her about her depression. She is the blonde in her husband’s bed she describes to the Reverend. Her sole companion in these matters is Chloe (Louise Beavers, excellent), the black maid who helps her manage an overcrowded home and who shares the same exasperation of Sam Clayton’s zealous charitable quality.

As in The Reckless Moment, the level of shared work and responsibilities creates, up to a point, camaraderie between two women of different races.

The structure adopted by the film is the ways in which Lou Clayton sees and accepts her husband’s kind ways as superior to her selfish desires. This is made complicated because at the heart of Lou’s “selfishness” is a desire for her identity which she seeks to express in a space of her choosing – the new house which she wishes to use her savings to buy for Christmas, which also manifests briefly in a desire to return to her old job which would mean shifting to Europe. The latter practical option is clamped down by her husband while the former choice makes him uncomfortable. The new house which the Claytons visit is a spacious beautiful suburban home. Each room is maintained precisely and beautifully and it’s undoubtedly a great home to invite and host guests. In comparison to the Claytons smaller house though, it’s cold and isolated, lacking the noise of activity and life. Yet when Lou stands before the dressing table of the home, she says, “this is paradise!”

The whiteness of the surroundings and the light filling the room all but dares us to disagree. Especially cast in relief against the fade-in to the dressing room of the old house in the next shot. The new Clayton home is created out of living magazines rather than shared experiences and accumulated memories. It is a new house replacing an old home. The fact that this new home comes out of the repayment of one of many loans offered generously by Sam to the people who came to him for help over the years is especially ironic. And it is in this final movement of Good Sam that we come to identify with Sam himself.

His deadpan refusal to let life and society ridicule him are tested to the hilt when he is robbed of money he was carrying to the bank. He is robbed in a darkly comic gag by a waif girl, not very different from the store clerk who he brought to his home. Since he paid for the dinner of the employees with the money he would be spending on the house and since his repeated loan giving has made him a liable client from the bank, Sam can’t buy a new house. Unfortunately when he rushes home to tell his wife the bad news he finds out that his furniture has been sold to the Salvation Army.

The bank manager’s useless, almost mocking commiserating offer of a drink, “Well Sam…here’s hoping somehow you have a merry Christmas!” devolves into an absurd finale. Where in It's A Wonderful Life!, the events that drive George Bailey to contemplate suicide are painful and anguished, the finale of McCarey’s film denies such grandeur to Sam, seeing it merely as an inevitable obstacle that life would cast in his way. Lou meanwhile is all ready to establish her new home. She rehearses a special welcome with her children and Chloe.

Framed theatrically, it casts Lou as a director establishing her new home which is also the ideal suburban dream home of the middle class. It also drastically alters the dimensions in her relationships with the “cast” who sing an absurd ditty, “Now that we have a better home, we’ll be better too!”

Sam meanwhile is at an Irish pub run by Tom Moore(William Frawley) getting drunk under the aegis of the bartender. Cooper is astounding in his evocation of the annihilating oblivion that makes alcohol so attractive. The rapidity with which Good Sam descends into squalor is merely the other extreme end of his sobriety, his calm and gentle demeanour. The genuine companionship which Moore the Bartender provides him also makes his Christmas Day binge in keeping with the Holiday spirit. This is taken to the logical conclusion when a homeless bum enters the bar and provokes and questions Sam’s goodness, daring Sam to exchange clothes with him. Sam, in a drunken haze offers to find him a bed and returns to the bar wearing the bum’s clothes. Good Sam returns to the bar in shocking squalor, summoning up Franz Biberkopf in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz as he resolves to be the meanest man in the world.

He proves it first by dislodging Frawley’s wig and then kicking up a tray of collections from a Salvation Army volunteer. In a remarkable moment, Frawley sings Sam to go home and he’s marched by the Salvation Army to his new home. In the meanwhile the usual mechanizations of the Hollywood finale have taken place unbeknownst to Sam. The bank manager taken by Sam’s generosity and good will agrees to loan the funds for the new house against his bank policy(in today’s economy, he could be killed for pulling such stunts). Lou, aggrieved that Sam believed that she valued her new home more than him is chastened and worried where he might be. Luckily the Salvation Army drums arrive and Sam is barely able to walk to the front porch. But he has it in him to strike up one more song. “Let me call you sweetheart…I’m in love with you.” Lou helps him with the words of the song, thrilled and exhausted that Sam has returned.

In Eyes Wide Shut, both members of the marriage are unmoored and destabilized even if as Rosenbaum says we see more of the husband than the wife. McCarey gives equal attention to both husband and wife in his film - where Sam is stable and moored in the beginning while Lou is tense and upset. At the end she is firm and stable while Sam is barely able to articulate his drunken proclamation of love, it is her identity that has prevailed over his. Success and social mobility have come Sam’s way. He does have a Merry Christmas indeed, only he’s too drunk to put two words together.