Short Ends and Leader

'My Son John' (1952)

American trouble


My Son John

Director: Leo McCarey
Cast: Robert Walker, Lillian Gish
Distributor: Olive Films
Year: 1952
USDVD release date: 2012-08-21

After making a reputation in frantic comedies (highlight: Duck Soup ) and more sophisticated ones (Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth ), writer-director-producer Leo McCarey evolved an output that swings from comedy to sentiment and melodrama, even juggling tonal ambiguity within scenes. His early high point was the 1937 Love Affair, more famous as his own remake, An Affair to Remember. McCarey can be especially strong with ambiguous family dynamics in which people are embarrassed by those they love; his great example is Make Way for Tomorrow, about which Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich it would "make a stone cry".

Another example is My Son John, a postwar suburban study that's part of the 1950s wave of anti-Communist propaganda films. Now that it's on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films, we can take a look at this much maligned anti-Red screed, in which a courageous and self-effacing all-American mother (Lillian Gish in constant high mannerism cum naturalism) and her strident husband (Dean Jagger in constant bellow) come to suspect that their oldest son (Robert Walker, inconstant), employed by the State Department in Washington DC, may be a Communist.

Clearly it's uncomfortable to watch, but often deliberately so. The first half is full of ambiguity and tension as the father is established as a short-tempered blowhard with violent tendencies that get him into trouble. He's a literal blowhard; the first thing he does is blow the car horn and shout for mother to finish getting ready for church, which causes a neighbor lady to come out and castigate him for waking her baby. He's established right away as an overbearing, oppressive figure who trumpets a conservative religious fundmentalism and political intolerance. If McCarey is really presenting him as a typical midwestern paterfamilias, that's a very interesting analysis of the problem he's presenting.

Later Dad is so wound up about John hanging out with a "highbrow professor" that he crashes into Van Heflin's car and refuses to admit responsibility, which behavior his wife supports and enables. But we also find out Van's there to investigate John and work his way into the family's confidence, so did he slow his car down on purpose as Dad accused? Meanwhile, Mother is a "strong" woman who is clearly presented as "spoiling" and depending on her eldest, while the two healthy and hearty younger boys (jocks who signed up for the military) can't get away fast enough. This is more ambiguity that's swept under the rug of political troubles.

There's unrelieved tension between Jagger and Walker in very long, talky scenes that seem to be cut down from even longer versions, to judge by some of the editing. However, some editing and script problems are created by the fact that Walker died during filming, so we have the curious spectacle of his character taking center stage in the last act while hardly being on screen. People talk to him on the phone in Bob Newhart routines. "What's that? Y-you say you're selling out to the Commies?" (The brief silent clips of him used here are lifted from Strangers on a Train.) In a mordant irony, his character does indeed deliver his final speech from beyond the grave.

McCarey got an Oscar nomination for this story, but it's probably his movie with the worst reputation. He graced us with another anti-Commie drama of dire repute, Satan Never Sleeps, but I have yet to plumb its mercies. Maybe My Son John is sufficiently ambiguous to serve as a Rorschach blot as time goes on, but I can't help thinking that McCarey is using the conventions of a topical (and hysterical) issue to dig into a web of personal motives of love and resentment within a supposedly typical American family in a way that undermines as much as it underlines.

I'm not the only one who perceives it. In a piece for Slant, Dan Callahan singles out the telling details of Hayes' Indian head-dress and the moment when Jagger tumbles downstairs, and he quotes from James Harvey's Romantic Comedy that "we are all helpless not to betray these parents". In another blog, Robert Krauter mentions the criticism of Robert Warshow and Robin Wood. Audiences (apparently not a large one) must have walked out befuddled, and that could be one source of its hostile reception; viewers like everything spelled out clearly, especially propaganda.

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