Businessman Samuel Fulton (Charles Coburn) is an elderly millionaire who has nobody to leave his fortune to when he dies, which may be soon according to his doctor if he doesn’t start eating, drinking, exercising correctly and limit himself to one cigar a day. That isn’t the devil may care attitude that made him so comfortable financially, so in one last gesture he decides to track down the family of the woman he loved many years ago, but who turned down his offer of marriage. He feels if he had wed her, this family would have been his, so what better excuse to leave them all that money in his will? But he has to work out if he is doing the right thing first, so hatches an elaborate plan…
The nineteen-fifties saw director Douglas Sirk undertake an intense workload, so much so that the pressure took a toll on his health and nearly killed him, therefore he never made another feature after the end of the decade. Although dismissed as pure soap by most at the time, when the French critics took to his depiction of American life, and not always flattering ones either, it began a gradual move towards making Sirk a very big influence among a host of directors who came after, and his cult by now is well established, especially among those who love subtext and hidden themes in their movies. But what are we to make of a little piece of fluff like Has Anybody Seen My Gal, a nostalglic comedy in the vein of Meet Me in St Louis?
It wasn’t the only one he made, either, as he was contracted to helm three of these by Universal, and they are rather neglected by Sirk fans, but if the other two have slipped into obscurity, this effort is better regarded thanks to a sparkling cast, an air of light confection, and a hint of an undercurrent of anxiety about American society. And also, it should be noted, because it featured James Dean, some three years before he would star with Rock Hudson in Giant; he only appears for a few seconds, but it’s a lot of fun to see him playing laidback and humorous, and has ensured the curious have checked this film out if only for what amounts to a bit part. Hudson was seeing his career take off too, but he wasn’t really the main attraction here.
That task went to Coburn, here essaying a roguish role by all accounts very much like his own personality, as he more or less played every time he appeared; as a character actor in the Golden Age of Hollywood, he may not have been called on to stretch his talents too far, but audiences didn’t want to see his Lear, they wanted him as the old codger with the monocle who would make them laugh and perhaps give them pause for thought as well should he turn more serious. He was undoubtedly the star of the show as Samuel moves in with the family he wishes to bequeath his earnings to (under the not at all suspicious name of John Smith), bluffing that they wanted a lodger so he will fit the bill, paying his way thanks to a career as an artist, no matter that anyone could see he’s never lifted a paintbrush in his life.
That said, Coburn didn’t get it all his own way, as he had a rival who attempted to upstage him in the form of the little girl Samuel forges a friendship with. She was the Blaisdell family’s youngest daughter Roberta, played by Gigi Perreau, the French-American child star here doing her best Margaret O'Brien impersonation, a bright presence in a film that could easily have turned grimmer when her mother (Lynn Bari) is changed for the worse by the hundred thousand dollars Samuel anonymously offers them. There was a moral here that wishing for wealth was all very well, but it might be more than you can handle, fairly subversive in the Sirk manner yet remaining shiny enough in its conservative values of home and hearth to slot into any number of Hollywood family movies. Piper Laurie played the eldest daughter whose mother disapproves all the more of boyfriend Hudson (rather testy) when he is poor and they are nouveau riche, and even got to sing a little as this toyed with being a musical, and it all ended with a heartwarming affirmation of the values at what better time than Christmas. Slight, maybe, but it had its charms.