My Son John
|My Son John|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Leo McCarey|
|Produced by||Leo McCarey|
|Written by||Myles Connolly and Leo McCarey,
adapted by John Lee Mahin
|Music by||Robert Emmett Dolan|
|Edited by||Marvin Coil|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
My Son John is a 1952 American drama film, starring Robert Walker as a man whose parents suspect he may be working as a Communist spy. It was directed by Leo McCarey. One of the last films produced as part of Hollywood's contribution to McCarthyism, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, possibly an attempt by Hollywood to signal its loyalty to red-baiting officials in Washington.
Paramount built interest in the project by reporting the casting of each role, beginning with the news that Helen Hayes was considering it for her return to film after more than 15 years. The details of the story were kept secret while it was first described in one news report as "a contemporary drama about the relationship between a mother and son, described by McCarey as 'highly emotional but with much humor'". Despite McCarey's "close-mouthed silence" for two months and a public warning to Hayes not to discuss the plot, it was reported that "word has gotten around Hollywood with the authority such wisps of information always have that the son ... is a traitor to his country–an agent of Communist espionage." Daily Variety reported that Hayes, mirroring certain current events, would shoot her son in the film and be tried for his murder. Ten days into shooting, the plot's unknowns continued to garner press coverage. McCarey denied it was the Alger Hiss story and said it had a "happy ending". He offered this:
It's about a mother and father who struggled and slaved. They had no education. They put all their money into higher education for their sons. But one of the kids gets too bright. It poses the problem–how bright can you get?
He takes up a lot of things including atheism. The mother knows only two books–her Bible and her cookbook. But who's brighter in the end-- the mother or the son?
It's such a fragile little point, but so is nuclear fission. It's not bad sometimes to have a small point and get the most out of it.
Hayes denied that the film's "message" attracted her to the project: "I just like the character and the story. I am deadly set against messages as the prime factor for taking a part. But I do feel the picture is a very exciting comment on a certain phase of our living today".
In April 1952, just after the film opened, Bosley Crowther noted that My Son John provided an ironic contrast to all the public outcry about Communist subversion in the film industry on the part of the American Legion and the Catholic War Veterans. He wrote:
Amid all this turmoil, an irony is that one of the latest films from Hollywood, My Son John, is a passionate endorsement of the relentless pursuit of American Communists to the extent that the acceptance of "guilt by association" is espoused. Helen Hayes is the star of this picture as a mother who condemns her own son when she learns that he has been consorting with a girl who is charged with being a spy. The irony is that the sort of cultural vigilantism that is currently being forced on Hollywood is made heroic in the person of Dean Jagger, who plays an American Legionnaire.
It was the last film role of Robert Walker. It was reported that he died less than a week after completing work on the film, though in fact McCarey had to alter the film's ending because of Walker's unfilmed sequences and insert a shot of Walker from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train.
A month after the film opened, the Catholic Press Association awarded McCarey its 1952 Literary Prize for "exemplification of Christian, Catholic principles", citing his work on My Son John and other films.
In uniform, Chuck and Ben Jefferson, strapping blonds who played high school football, attend Sunday Mass with their parents before leaving for army service in Korea. Their older brother, John sends regrets that he can not join their farewell dinner because of his work for the federal government in Washington.
A week later, John visits his parents, his devoutly Catholic mother Lucille and American Legionnaire father Dan. In conversation with them and their parish priest, John uses humor to make provocative statements and his attitude is resented. He spends hours with one of his college professors leaving his parents feeling short-changed. John makes sarcastic remarks about the Legion and his father questions his loyalty. After a visit from the FBI, John assures his mother of his loyalty by swearing on her Bible, but John and his father argue. His mother tells John to "think with your heart, not your head". When John leaves a key behind when he returns to his job in Washington, DC, his mother, while trying to return the key to him, learns it is for the apartment of a female spy. Mother enters the apartment and confronts John, who confesses to having an affair. She refuses to accept his assurances of loyalty and begs him to confess, and declares that he deserves to be punished. The FBI agent tells him he should "use whatever free will you have. Give up. Name names." John escapes, repents his actions, and decides to turn himself in, but is killed by Communist agents before he can do so. The FBI finds his tape-recorded confession and play it at his college's commencement exercises.
- Helen Hayes as Lucille Jefferson
- Van Heflin as Stedman, FBI agent
- Dean Jagger as Dan Jefferson
- Robert Walker as John Jefferson, son of Dan and Lucille
- Minor Watson as Dr. Carver
- Frank McHugh as Father O'Dowd
- Richard Jaeckel as Chuck Jefferson, younger brother to John Jefferson
- James Young as Ben Jefferson, younger brother to John Jefferson
Reception and reputation
Bosley Crowther wrote that the film represented its time perfectly in that it "corresponds with the present public ferment of angry resentment and fear", that it is "a picture so strongly dedicated to the purpose of the American anti-Communist purge that it seethes with the sort of emotionalism and illogic that is characteristic of so much thinking these days". He wrote that allowing a mother to condemn her son based on flimsy evidence shows the film's "hot emotional nature" and that its endorsement of bigotry and argument for religious conformity would "cause a thoughtful person to feel a shudder of apprehension". While praising all the actors, he regretted the film's "snide anti-intellectual stance". Other critics have also underscored the cultural attitudes behind the film's politics. In the New York Herald Tribune, Ogden Reid, later a Congressman, wrote: "McCarey's picture of how America ought to be is so frightening, so speciously argued, so full of warnings against an intelligent solution to the problem that it boomerangs upon its own cause." The New Yorker said the film advised the public to "cut out thinking, obey their superiors blindly, regard all political suspects as guilty without trial, revel in joy through strength, and pay more attention to football". Others have appreciated that the film locates the ideological conflict within a complex set of family relations, with father and son competing for the same woman's affection, but noted that John is not just intellectual, but "an unathletic, sexually ambiguous intellectual", both "sullen" and "slick". Others have interpreted John's character as homosexual.
In response to negative reviews from the New York critics, the Catholic Press Institute unanimously endorsed a resolution praising it and Senator Karl Mundt entered a statement into the Congressional Record calling it "undoubtedly the greatest and most stirring pro-American motion picture of the last decade". McCarey told the magazine Motion Picture that he felt mistreated and hurt.
Patricia Bosworth, writing in 1992 about a festival of blacklist-era films, characterized My Son John as "hysterical", "the anti-Communist movie to end all anti-Communist movies". An assessment of McCarey's extraordinary sympathy for his characters found that the director had lost that feeling by the 1950s or at least failed to have maintained it consistently. In My Son John, writes Stuart Klawans in the New York Times, "gentleness itself had become a sin". In his view, McCarey's "exquisitely sensitive" handling of the mother-son relationship in the first part of the film was undercut by Myles Connolly, a screenwriter known for writing many a "bullying speech" for Frank Capra. Klawans hears Connolly's tone in the film's finale, a commencement address warning the young against liberalism. J. Hoberman also noted the film's dual personality, writing that it "aspires to the warmth of a domestic comedy while remaining tendentious to the core, relentlessly unfunny and starkly melodramatic".
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