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The early Cold War era saw a dramatic shift in the political content of Hollywood filmmaking. By 1952 the post-war wave of socially conscious films about race relations and economic inequality had all disappeared, if only because the talent that had created them had been blacklisted and driven from the industry. In their place came reactionary thrillers about Communist infiltrators and their American fellow travelers. Independent mogul Sam Goldwyn's I Want You preached of the need for America to send its boys to fight Communists in Korea. RKO owner Howard Hughes decided that his finished but unreleased The Whip Hand, a spy thriller about a fantastic Nazi conspiracy, was politically incorrect. With a limited number of alterations, the nefarious Nazis easily became insidious Communists. Although frequently discussed now, few of these pictures were popular at the box office. Today they play as odd curiosities, evidence of the fear and confusion of the time.
Standing alone is Leo McCarey's controversial, extremist My Son John. Once the grand master of the screwball comedy, McCarey made one '30s classic after another: Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap, The Awful Truth, Love Affair). His superb Make Way for Tomorrow is a courageously heartfelt drama about an elderly couple forced by their children to split up in their old age. But by 1951 McCarey's driving interest was pro-Catholic, anti-Communist politics. Produced with the media-savvy priest Father James Keller, the short subject You Can Change the World shows Hollywood celebrities holding an informal 'neighborhood meeting' to pool their energies against the 'negative forces' at work in America. No specifics are mentioned, but Loretta Young, Jack Benny, William Holden, John Wayne and others all decide that the "1% that wants to destroy America" can be countered, if we all just encourage people to ... do what exactly? The little show carries an almost sinister aspect. Could actor William Holden be participating to clear his name of political suspicion, or as insurance against future snooping by the unpredictable blacklisters?
In My Son John Myles Connolly and Leo McCarey's Oscar-nominated story brings the Red Scare into the American home. Aging Lucille and Dan Jefferson (Helen Hayes & Dean Jagger) proudly send their sons Chuck and Ben (Richard Jaeckel & James Young) off to fight in Korea. But they harbor grave doubts about their third son, John (Robert Walker). Not only has John abandoned his conservative church upbringing, he works for the Federal government in Washington (presumably the State Department), and now seems a changed man, an untrustworthy 'intellectual highbrow'. Urbane and condescending, John says nothing outright yet his reactions belittle Dan's emotional fervor for the American Legion. That's enough for Dan to suspect John of being a Communist. Already in weak health, Lucille is disturbed when John evades her attempts to make him affirm the family's core beliefs. She becomes agitated when a stranger they meet turns out to be Agent Stedman of the F.B.I. (Van Heflin) seeking to link John to a ring of spies. Lucille wants to believe that John is loyal, but she keeps catching her son in little lies and evasions.
McCarey clearly had a heartfelt message to impart in My Son John but it is difficult to imagine a more awkward movie. As if ghost-written by J. Edgar Hoover, the story shows America, Mom, God and Apple pie threatened by Communism. John Jefferson's exact activities are never shown and the stalwart Van Heflin's Agent Stedman won't discuss them: "We're the F.B.I. -- we gather information, we don't give it out." Stedman sympathizes with the stricken Mrs. Jefferson, but lectures her that the right thing to do is to inform on her own son. Dean Jagger's Dan Jefferson boorishly demands that his grown, independent son fully account for his personal politics. Dan's Red Radar is functioning as well: John works in that corrupt place Washington and would rather hang out with an intellectual professor friend than stay at home with Ma and Pa. John questions fundamental church values and makes snide remarks about the American Legion. If that's not the profile of a Commie, what is?
The great Helen Hayes was primarily a star of the stage and hadn't made a movie in seventeen years. As the emotional Lucille, Hayes' performance is initially fascinating but soon seems overly emphatic. It doesn't help that the frequently outrageous script hands Hayes so many impossible moments. Lucille constantly implores John to stop being insincere, to let his true goodness out. She knows by instinct that he's gone bad in some way, and we see her suffer like a penitent on a pilgrimage. Lucille's conservative values and insular self-identity seem like something from the 19th century. At one point she hefts her large Bible and cookbook in her outstretched hands, and proudly proclaims that they contain everything she needs to know to be a good woman.
In the middle section of the film are two wildly misjudged scenes that may have been improvised on the spot by director McCarey. Dan comes home drunk from the Legion meeting to confront Lucille, who has waited up for him. Director McCarey plays it for comedy, complete with the gag of a lamp that Dan almost destroys, and a series of pratfalls down the stairs. In another scene My Son John earns the prize for the most awful 'big drama' moment of the Cold War. Lucille uses football imagery to encourage John to 'get on the right team' and score a big touchdown for the side of good. The esteemed Ms. Hayes sells it like prime Shakespeare, and the effect is mind-numbing. It's as if Lucille were possessed by a jingoistic Knute Rockne.
My Son John distills the popular image of the dreaded Communist foe during the early years of the Cold War. Robert Walker's traitor represents everything conservatives despise. John is an elitist intellectual who looks down his nose at his parents' values. He foolishly dismisses Dan's exaggerated patriotism and his mother's devotion to the church. Yet another snide remark puts Father O'Dowd, the family's priest (Frank McHugh) on his guard. John explains his political views to his mother as if speaking to a child, saying that he simply wants to 'change things' to help the poor and make the world a better place. But he giggles when Lucille implores him to affirm the values of love and family. From that point on John's goose is cooked -- he's doomed not because he's a Commie, but because he crosses Mom.
John's parents will not grant him the right to choose his own opinions about issues of God and politics. Dan physically attacks John at one point for the crime of ideological disobedience, literally smacking him on the forehead with a Bible. He also remarks more than once that Commies need to be killed, plain and simple. The dialogue insists that John has been changed or transformed by contact with dangerous ideas, that he's now an alien being with a malevolent agenda, like something out of a science fiction film. My Son John portrays the F.B.I.'s counter-espionage agents as patriotic social counselors. Only they understand the depth of Lucille's torment. Agent Stedman and his assistant Bedford (Todd Karns of It's a Wonderful Life) are portrayed as sympathetic to John, and treat him as if he were an innocent victim of possession by the Devil. They implore him to cooperate and name names.
Star Robert Walker died unexpectedly just before filming wrapped on the big speech scene, and the editorial patch job to explain why John missed his speaking engagement is nothing short of disastrous. McCarey's editors concocted a truly bizarre editorial plan. Not long before the finish, choppy scenes and oddly integrated images of Robert Walker begin cropping up. When Lucille and Stedman talk with John on the phone, his side of the conversation isn't heard. One sequence shows John riding in a taxi with a strange determined look on his face, and a final scene sees him framed strangely in the shattered window of a crashed automobile. All of these Robert Walker images are outtakes from the actor's previous hit movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. In one shot John Jefferson lights up with the Hitchcock film's key prop, a cigarette lighter: we can clearly see the little crossed tennis rackets embossed on it. Part of an actual dialogue line from Train is re-used as well. None of this material is well integrated, and the film ends in editorial desperation.
McCarey's editorial revisions deleted earlier sequences as well. The original cast list includes several actors whose characters are mentioned, but that were cut from the film. John apparently visits his old professor (Erskine Sanford or David Bond), a scene that might have told us more about the nature of John's activities. Was it perhaps an opportunity to accuse America's academics of political disloyalty? Also eliminated were scenes in which Stedman may have taken Lucille to visit the captured spy Ruth Carlin (Irene Winston) in her jail cell. In the completed film we only see Carlin's photo in a newspaper.
One of the final images in the film has an empty podium lit from above by a heavenly light, as John Jefferson's voice condemns higher education as a poisonous influence on the human spirit. Thus anti-Communism is linked directly with a narrow definition of God and a condemnation of academia as anti-American. Considering that its issues of national security, religious fervor and political hysteria are today more acute than ever, My Son John cannot be regarded as just a quaint relic of the Cold War. The audience that identifies with its message is larger and more vocal than ever.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of the previously difficult-to-see My Son John resurrects this bizarre chapter in American moviemaking in a picture-perfect HD presentation. Harry Stradling's B&W cinematography provides a good match between exteriors in Virginia and Washington, D.C., and interior sets back in Hollywood. The clarity of the images allows us to see the special effects used to cobble the false ending with outtakes from Strangers on a Train.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Son John Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.