Mad Men & Women: Good Neighbor Sam (1964)

GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM (1964)

To view Good Neighbor Sam click here.

In case you haven’t noticed, FilmStruck is spotlighting the lovely Romy Schneider with their Icons: Romy Schneider theme that brings together 17 of her films made between 1955 and 1980. A few of the highlights include Sissi (1955), which rocketed the Austrian actress to stardom, Boccaccio ’70 (1962), The Trial (1963) and That Most Important Thing: Love (1975) discussed by my fellow Streamline contributor Nathaniel Thompson last week. Today, I would like to draw your attention to Good Neighbor Sam (1964), a light-hearted 1960s sex farce that satirizes the wacky world of advertising. Good Neighbor Sam is notable for providing Schneider with her first starring role in Hollywood and it was also one of many films that inspired the critically acclaimed Mad Men (2007-2015) series.

Based on a novel by Jack Finney (5 Against the House, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Time and Again), the film tells the story of Sam Bissell (Jack Lemmon), a low-level executive working at a San Francisco ad agency who suddenly gets the opportunity to manage one of the company’s major accounts thanks to his wholesome image as a “good neighbor” and loving family man with a devoted wife (Dorothy Provine). Things get complicated when his wife’s attractive friend (Romy Schneider) moves in next-door and asks if Sam will pose as her husband so she can acquire a $15 million inheritance. Sam agrees to do it with his wife’s encouragement but the situation soon dissolves into chaos.

This Swinging Sixties comedy of manners was directed by David “Bud” Swift who started his career as an office clerk at Walt Disney Studios and eventually became an assistant animator. He had a hand in the production of Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Peter Pan (1953) before he began directing and writing live action films for the studio. Today, he’s probably best remembered for his work on Pollyanna (1960) and Parent Trap (1961) but he also directed, wrote and produced some very funny films for Columbia Pictures including Love is a Ball (1963), Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Good Neighbor Sam was Swift’s sixth film and second with Jack Lemmon who had also starred in Under the Yum Yum Tree.

GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM (1964)

Lemmon was reportedly unhappy with the films he made with Swift, calling them “pure fluff puffs” and claiming he “hated them.” Swift was no Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot [1959], The Apartment [1960], The Fortune Cookie [1966]), but he was a sharp satirist who enjoyed lampooning suburbia and white-collar America while exposing the lecherous side of office politics. Much like Frank Tashlin (Susan Slept Here [1955], Artists and Models [1955], Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? [1957]), Swift’s comedies reflect his cartoon sensibility and experience as a Disney animator. In Good Neighbor Sam the jokes are punchy and provocative and they incorporate ample sexual innuendos and bedroom humor. The film is also loaded with clever sight gags including a madcap driving excursion through the winding and rolling streets of San Francisco. The most revealing stunt involves Jack Lemmon teaming up with Romy Schneider to deface billboards all across the city. Using cans of colorful paints, the two turn looming advertisements featuring their likenesses into pop art caricatures that mock consumerism.

Coincidentally (or not?), their antics are reminiscent of Mark Pauline, a Bay Area performance artist and provocateur who founded, SRL (Survival Research Laboratories) in San Francisco. Pauline is known for defacing billboards to the delight of amused spectators and designing unusual large-scale machines or robots that resemble the “junk sculptures” created by Jack Lemmon’s character. I don’t know if the film (or book)  inspired Pauline’s industrial art but I’m not alone in my observation. Jeff Stafford made mention of some similarities in his write-up of the film for the TCM website.

GOOD NEIGHBOR SAM (1964)

There’s very little opportunity for any of the characters in Good Neighbor Sam to make an impression while Jack Lemmon is running away with every scene. He may have been unhappy with the film but Lemmon is perfectly cast as Sam and the role earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor. Schneider’s role is more restrained but she’s luminous as the stunning Janet. She shimmers and sashays across the screen but her sex appeal is tempered with a sweet, unassuming charm. In her best moments, Schneider joins Lemmon’s antics with complete abandon. Besides vandalizing billboards, the two share a wonderfully funny dance sequence while generously swigging cocktails as Dorothy Provine (also very funny here) looks on in frustration. Also, keep an eye out for Edward G. Robinson playing a sanctimonious dairy owner (gently riffing on his bad-boy gangster image) as well as the recently deceased Mike Connors who makes a brief but memorable appearance as Schneider’s ex-husband.

Good Neighbor Sam runs too long at 130 minutes and the tangled mess of a plot ties together much too neatly in the end but it’s such a fun ride that you can forgive the few speed bumps that it hits along the way. Come for the abundant laughs, including one of my favorite running gags involving Hertz Rent a Car based on an actual television commercial produced in 1964, but stay for the beautiful Bay Area locations and mid-century aesthetic. This clever period piece that gently jeers at suburban sensibilities while thumbing its nose at corporate America should appeal to Mad Men fans as well as anyone who can appreciate David Swift’s particular brand of humor.

Kimberly Lindbergs

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