I am not sure how fine the line is between message picture and propaganda, but however narrow or wide that border, the 1952 movie My Son John crosses it. I also can't speak to how accurate it depicts the everyday life of an early 1950s Christian family, but Leo McCarey's film at least feels real, and I would wager even if some of it is exaggerated, it does hold up a mirror to a certain way of thinking prevalent at the time of production. It's well meaning in its efforts to rouse our feeling for God and country, but it's far too out of proportion to do much good.
There is actually about half a quality drama in My Son John. The script, co-written by McCarey (An Affair to Remember, Make Way for Tomorrow), tells the story of the Jefferson clan. Lucille and Dan (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger) have raised three boys on the Bible and Lucille's home cooking. Dan is a teacher and a veteran, and the two youngest boys have just left home to fight in the Korean War. The oldest son, John (Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train), is a politician who visits far too little for his mother's tastes. He misses seeing his younger siblings off, and when he does finally come home, he is distracted and somewhat condescending. John resents his father's simplistic patriotism and his mother's persistent nostalgia. From his point of view, both of them still treat him like a little kid. Ironically, this makes him kind of act like one.
If there is one thing McCarey gets right, it's showing how out of place one can feel when visiting family who have different political beliefs than you do. As the liberal child of Christian Republicans myself, Robert Walker's portrayal of John was far too familiar. The back cover copy on the Blu-Ray box describes John as arrogant, but I think that's its own level of propaganda, a copywriter backing up the product's jingoistic message. John isn't arrogant so much as he is agitated. He doesn't know how to be himself around his parents, and so he is on guard at all times, while also desperate to be able to express himself. He often looks like he's ready to crawl out of his skin or to scream from the sheer boredom of home confinement. It's in this half of the movie that My Son John is actually kind of good. John and his mom have honest talks about the meaning of charity and how democracy affords for intellectual and philosophical differences. Though a busybody overly reliant on homilies, Lucille makes a good faith effort to understand her little boy and bridge the gap between son and father. Both sides of the argument get their due (to a point), and even though the old man is closed-minded, he is presented as sympathetic.
The level of performance in My Son John is exceptional. The movie could easily be used as a master class in acting. Walker, Hayes, and Jagger all have a natural way with each other, and McCarey lets the dialogue drive them, favoring decent-length takes and allowing for imperfections that lend the delivery a surprising authenticity. Too bad the complexity of the characters eventually gives way to one-dimensional sloganeering. Lucille in particular is required to hit the God stuff pretty hard, while Dan rattles on about liberty and the Ten Commandments. McCarey shies away from engaging John's counterpoints with any real depth lest his movie look like it might support the dirty red's agenda.
Storywise, My Son John also makes a wrong turn when it leaves the Jefferson home. Van Heflin co-stars here as an FBI agent looking to expose John as a Communist. Though he plays the part with as much calculation and reserve as the rest, there is something phony about the way he leans on Lucille. His part is clearly designed to be the mouthpiece for the "real" America. One shudders at the thought of certain pockets of contemporary discourse discovering and adopting the film as part of its attempt to glorify a falsely rendered image of the "good old days."
My Son John's sputtering out can't be laid entirely at McCarey's feet. Fate was to play a harsh role in the film's production. Robert Walker died unexpectedly before filming was completed, forcing a quick rewrite and some clever editing using clips from Strangers on a Train to fill out the last scenes. It's pretty obvious when the change occurs. John is suddenly very pensive and verrrrrrry quiet. Who knows, it's entirely possible that the character's retreat from the dark side might have been convincing had the actor been able to see it through and deliver the emotional weight required for the transformation to have any resonance. Instead, the film's final reel is patronizing and preachy.