A scathing indictment against the invasion of American principles – the infestation of Communism upon our shores – Leo McCarthy’s…errr, McCarey’s ridiculously offensive 1952 cinematic diatribe MY SON JOHN extolls its anti-Red rhetoric on Blu-Ray and DVD, courtesy of Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
The outrageous rants in this admittedly technically expertly-made drama cannot be taken seriously for a moment; yet MY SON JOHN is fascinating, as it remains a virulent documentation of what many in the U.S. felt during the volatile political climate of the late-1940s/early-1950s. As a time-capsule piece, the movie is invaluable; it’s also a bit unnerving. How could anyone actually believe this stuff? How could a major studio, an A-list director, a fine cast…ever embark on such vitriolic bile? The disturbing answer lies not only as a shameful reminder of history past, but the uncomfortable possibility of history repeating itself. Over sixty years later, MY SON JOHN could easily be a contemporary example of wish fulfillment on the parts of certain factions in the current Republican Party.
Leo McCarey, undeniably a great director, had not had a hit movie since 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. His unbridled devotion to the lowlife inhabitants of HUAC is public record; yet it’s still hard for many comedy buffs to fathom how the director of so many classic Hal Roach Laurel & Hardy shorts, the Marx Brothers 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup (how did he ever come to terms with their name?), Six of a Kind and the ultra-sophisticated The Awful Truth could spew out this nonsense – let alone believe it. Perhaps bitterness (his last work, 1948’s Good Sam, bellyflopped, even with the participation of Gary Cooper and Ann Sheridan); who knows? His fear of Communist infiltration was legendary, and, using the tools at his disposal, McCarey was hellbent to do something about it…to, in no uncertain terms, (dare I say?) inform the public of the dangers not only in their midst, but, in many cases, right next door.
MY SON JOHN chronicles a crucial period in the lives of the all-American Jefferson family. Good church-going folk, mama and papa live an idyllic middle-class life in a small nameless U.S. hamlet. Two of their three sons (Richard Jaeckel and James Young) are 1950s dreams-come-true: football jocks, who, when we first see them, are tossing the pigskin around on the Sunday morning before they anxiously and happily head for Korea (lest the Reds violently overtake our terra firma). It’s the absent third son, John, who poses the dilemma. Suspiciously non-sports oriented (“You never DID like football…” remarks his ashamed mother), John excelled in college, believes that faith can co-exist with science and works in Washington as a member of a liberal organization dedicated to giving every American a fair shake. His rabid right wing father knows that anyone who “…uses ten dollar words…” in place of the good ole “ten cent…” variety (coded language for subversive behavior) is immediately a danger to future of the country.
Soon their fears are realized when the Jeffersons are placed under surveillance by a stalwart FBI special agent – intent upon helping their wayward offspring back on the straight and narrow.
This would all be kinda funny – like a real Leo McCarey comedy – if it wasn’t so naively loathsome…and it wasn’t an exception to the rule. I need not tell you that by 1949 Hollywood was held in a grip of terror by HUAC and its main inquisitor Senator Joe McCarthy. The studios ransacked their writing departments – eschewing suspected lefties, a practice which soon extended to performers, directors and producers…many forever ruined, others forced to inform upon their coworkers to ensure future employment. It was, to put it mildly, a nasty time.
A plethora of anti-Rooskie propaganda works were announced by the majority of the studios. William Wellman started the red ball express rolling with The Iron Curtain; Warners spat out I Was a Communist for the FBI; followed by John Wayne’s mega-budgeted Hawaiian-filmed Commie (block)buster Big Jim McLain; even modest Republic squeezed out The Red Menace. But it wasn’t all compliance; earlier, Nick Ray courageously bucked the wrath of Howard Hughes by refusing to direct RKO’s I Married a Communist. Sam Fuller wrote and directed the only authentic gem in the bunch with his terrific noir Pickup on South Street, which focused more on slimy crook Richard Widmark’s accidentally hooking up with the Reds. When questioned by head investigators on whether he knows what this is all about, Widmark, exhibiting his patented sneer, defiantly replies, “Who cares?” Even The 3 Stooges got into the act with Commotion on the Ocean.
Paramount, who had amazing luck by signing now-independent directors like William Wyler and George Stevens, welcomed McCarey with open arms. John Lee Mahin adapted an original story which was then scripted by McCarey and Myles Connolly. The cast was 1952 top-of-the-line: the concerned parents were Dean Jagger, whose malignant real-life hatred of all things Russian made his on-screen characterization seem tame by comparison. An arguably fine actor, Jagger, whose resemblance to Eisenhower assured him work throughout the decade, proudly strutted his stuff – no more evident that when contracted to star in Hammer Films 1956 sci-fi thriller X – the Unknown. Upon his arrival in the UK, he was told that the picture was to be helmed by blacklisted ex-pat Joseph Losey. Jagger flew into a rage – threatening to take the next plane back to the States unless Losey was removed (he was). Mother Jefferson was thought to be the coup d’etat of the piece: Helen Hayes, absent from the screen for nearly twenty years. Hayes, impressively heralded as The First Lady of the American Theatre (until it was discovered that it was she herself who bestowed that title), jumped on-board at the get-go – citing the superb screenplay as the main carrot. Frank McHugh, a McCarey hold-over from Going My Way, signed on as (what else?) the local priest; an incredibly embarrassed Van Heflin appears as the FBI enforcer, and Robert Walker, fresh from his spectacular turn in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, was pegged for the title gig.
It’s not that surprising that McCarey misses the boat on what Communism really is – confusing it with liberalism. What is alarming is that he fails to understand the basics of democracy. Jagger, the personification of Americanism, makes it clear that non-conformity must be dealt with via brute force. A nightmarish demigod of the American Legion, Jagger delights in storm-trooping around the house singing, “If You Don’t Love Your Uncle Sammy.” His desire to talk sense to his abnormal son John is encouraged by Walker, but, when Jagger can’t get his way, erupts into bestial rage – thrashing his soft-spoken idealist progeny into a near-pulp.
Equally unnerving is McCarey’s misunderstanding of post-war screen acting. His take on Stanislavsky, The Method and other then in vogue techniques was to allow his cast to improvise wildly. This was mostly relegated toward Hayes and Jagger, who at the dangling of a participle go bat-shit crazy, making cutesy-poo small talk to the point of one’s wanting to bash their heads in with a hammer and sickle (albeit one made in the USA). Hayes especially is grating, equating “naturalism” (yet another ism polluted in this movie) with addled-brained moronity. She dithers about spouting sing-song platitudes befitting an incurable inmate in Harvey…or one of those nitwit sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace…or Beryl Mercer in The Public Enemy. Take your pick. One can almost see McCarey & Co. delighting in Hayes’ “spontaneous” histrionics as the formerly-respected thesp twitters to and fro, exhibits grimaces that could only construed as facial tics, and giggles uncontrollably as if she swallowed a French tickler. She looks like an idiot (at one point Hayes goes so far off the groove that it appears to genuinely startle Heflin while concurrently irritate Walker who announces out that the demented woman should be committed, a decision with which whoever’s left in the audience would unabashedly concur).
In the movie’s most telling scene, Walker swears to Hayes upon the Holy Bible that he is not a Communist. Hayes, tearful, listening to her son’s beliefs, admits, “I believe in those things too.” It is then later revealed that this touching moment meant nothing because Commies scoff at religion and, thus, his swearing was an outright lie. “Everyone has a purpose in life – even Judas” snidely remarks a character. This is underlined by the unintentional hilarity of Walker’s choking-for-air response to a family rosary, a convulsive reaction worthy of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. Later when an executed coworker’s apartment key is found in John’s suit, events deteriorate for the worst. The woman in question, insidiously named Ruth to suggest Jewishness, is ample proof that Walker is as red as a Rose(nberg). Walker logically explains the key with an admission that they were lovers, disavowing any knowledge that the woman was involved in a plot to overthrow the United States. In fact, watching Walker in action likewise suggests nothing remotely subversive in his “daily working” activities. But, alas, the crimson dye has been cast. And, by the way, what are two single people doing having sex in the first place?!
Conspicuously scarifyin’ are the nonchalant asides to “routine loyalty checks” and a hair-raising salutation of “See ya in the bomb shelters.” The ultimate revulsion comes again via Jagger’s too-close-for-comfort impersonation, prominently at his refusal to accept the existence of R & D and science. As John valiantly attempts some compromise, Jagger blurts out that so-called scientific discoveries were only possible because “God put them there for us TO discover!” This is followed by the shock of learning that Jagger is a school teacher, embittered by certain types (more coded language) within the Board of Education who want to remove him for constantly bringing up the Lord and Jesus in his lesson plans. Again, this would be merely borderline revolting if it didn’t parallel the exact thoughts of current GOP House leaders – and I don’t just mean Michele Bachmann, Steve King (or the mercifully excreted Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock); Google such “luminaries” as Paul Broun (a standing member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology!), Dana Rohrabacher and Two-Gun “Screwy” Louie Gohmert if you think I’m kidding.
Who knows how many drafts the script went through before what actually got filmed was shot…There are so many avenues unexplored and left hanging…so many reported different endings that, to this day, one doesn’t know whether Walker’s character originally “got religion,” was liquidated by his party, killed by the feds, became a kid’s TV show host, invented Beef-A-Roni…it’s all so unresolved and up in the air. But that’s not necessarily all McCarey’s fault. Weeks before the end of production, star Robert Walker suddenly up and died (see my previous article/review: http://snaptwig.com/review/koo-koo-on-a-choo-choo?cid=db_articles&no_cache=1359126550).
Paramount, to say the least, was thrown into a panic; ditto McCarey. Walker still had some pivotal sequences left to be shot, including the finale.
The events leading up to Walker’s death are particularly tragic, dark and unpleasant. In 1948, on the rebound from a disastrous break-up with Jennifer Jones, his life hit its blackest moment when he apparently found love again, this time in the arms of Barbara Ford, director John Ford’s daughter, herself an accredited film editor. The pair headed for the altar – but the marriage hit the skids within five weeks after their clandestine wedding. Ford wasn’t exactly the perfect mate for hard-drinking Walker, being an alcoholic herself, and one night, not long after their nuptials, she was ushered aboard his father’s yacht The Araner by her mother and close friend Joanne Dru, clothes torn and face bruised and bloodied. Ward Bond responded by pounding his fist into his palm, “Ya want us to take care of this, Pappy?” This jolted the momentarily stunned Ford back to reality, who replied, “What?! NO!” Ford’s attorney had the union stealthily annulled with such secrecy that, to this day, few are aware it ever existed although a terse comment by Louella Parsons did make her column: “John and Mary Ford have their little girl home with them again, but I know they are just as unhappy about the separation as they were when Barbara and Bob married without inviting them to the wedding.”
After a stint at The Menninger Clinic in 1949, the actor felt well enough to continue his film career, finally scoring the role of a lifetime in Strangers on a Train. All seemed to be going well, but shortly after Strangers wrapped, Walker relapsed, consuming inordinately large amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs.
From here on, Walker’s decline spiraled downward with great rapidity. While constantly insisting that he was apolitical, the powers that be, thought otherwise. The fact that he hung out with such dubious types as Judy Holliday was proof enough to arouse suspicions – plus the fact that he wore glasses, a telltale accessory for being too smart for one’s britches. It’s said that MY SON JOHN was a loyalty oath job – one that he HAD to take to counter balance his supposed leftist leanings (not an unusual “suggestion” made and enforced during this horrendous era). More fuel to this fire is evidenced by a series of publicity photographs of Walker with his two small sons on-set, both boys adorned in scout uniforms. It doesn’t get more apple pie than that. It is known that he hated making the movie, considering the material and dialogue banal; it negated all the progress he had striven for in the Hitchcock picture. He looks awful in it – in many scenes so bloated and puffy that the actor is almost unrecognizable, absolute signs of heavy drinking. Some still term Walker’s death a suicide.
A serendipitous break of sorts emerged due to the partial locale of MY SON JOHN, namely Washington, D.C. Walker’s triumph picture, Strangers on a Train, had been set in the nation’s capital. A frenzied McCarey contacted Warner Bros. and Alfred Hitchcock asking if it were possible to borrow Walker inserts (some with D.C. monuments in the background) that could be used to cover needed scenes. Both Warners and Hitchcock unequivocally agreed. McCarey then went to the actor’s former alma mater, MGM, to inquire if he additionally could access cut-a-ways of the star from his most recent Metro works (they also acquiesced to McCarey’s requests).
The director hurriedly rewrote an alternate conclusion that would effectively utilize these patchwork quilt shots of Walker. This mostly comprised silent close-ups of the actor inside a phone booth which then cut to Heflin on the other end, furthering the narrative along with such inspired bon mots as “So you want to turn yourself in?”…that kind of stuff). Some of these tend to be a bit sloppy (Walker in a taxi clearly looking at the “From A to G” cigarette lighter from the Hitchcock picture). The action-packed new ending had the evil Commies gun down Walker in a cab – gangster-style – at which point, McCarey cut to Walker from the carousel capper in Strangers. Does he have the written confession he told Heflin he composed, revealing active agents in the U.S.? “I haven’t got it,” groans John – the actual line/image used to lie to the detectives at the climax of the Hitchcock thriller, but here indicating that the Reds got there first.
The last sequence of MY SON JOHN takes place at a progressive university where Walker was to deliver a graduation address (we know it’s progressive because there is a sprinkling of cap-and-gowned African-American faces in the audience). McCarey initially filmed Heflin reading John’s recovered “I recant” speech (which had been transcribed to tape). This was deleted in favor of a laborious long take of a holy light hitting an empty pulpit with an actor doing a Walker impression on the soundtrack.
Paramount needn’t have bothered. For all this manic last-minute retooling, MY SON JOHN opened to mainly tepid reviews and, generally, lousy business (nevertheless it received a Best Writing, Motion Picture Story Oscar nomination for McCarey – not so big a deal when one realizes that this was the same ceremony that awarded The Greatest Show on Earth Best Picture). Die hard McCarey fans defend the movie, citing Jagger’s stupidity as the director’s mocking of JOHN‘s outrageous themes, primarily a running (or actually falling) gag of the drunken rightie plummeting down a staircase not once but TWICE (reminiscent of Oliver Hardy in Brats). Not unlike Mr. Jefferson himself, it doesn’t wash. Besides, a lot had happened from JOHN‘s inception to release – namely the American public’s slow but growing disapproval with witch hunting.
While blacklisting still prevailed, no one was all that interested in seeing anti-Commie movies anymore, either here nor abroad. This mini-genre proved to be a flash-in-the-pan, not unlike 3-D a year later (but, of course, with much more devastating results for the hundreds persecuted within the industry). RKO and Howard Hughes quietly retitled I Married a Communist, The Woman on Pier 13; Fuller’s brilliant Pickup on South Street hit the European market with all references to Communism removed; it was now an anti-drug movie. John Wayne’s Big Jim McLain similarly underwent a narrative metamorphosis. The overseas posters had the Duke and costar Nancy Olson engulfed in smoky fumes swirling around the new moniker Marijuana.
McCarey remained big-screen dormant for nearly five years, finally re-emerging with a smash hit for Fox, the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr romance An Affair to Remember – a remake of his own 1939 success Love Affair. He followed this with one his most underrated works, the 1959 Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward comedy Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys. But he wouldn’t let well enough alone. He forever damaged his brand by ending his professional career in 1962 with the atrocious Red Chinese monstrosity Satan Never Sleeps, probably the director’s worst movie, virtually unwatchable.
The Blu-Ray of MY SON JOHN looks okay, perfectly acceptable but never destined to be a showcase of the crystal-clear format. Some shots are as murky as the scenario; that said, Harry Stradling’s B&W photography is impressive enough (there’s no way that JOHN will ever get a shot-by-shot restoration) to justify the cinematic riddle equivalent of being black and white and red all over.. The mono audio is fine with Robert Emmett Dolan’s old-fashioned score perhaps being the only suitable aspect of the quaint out-of-step trappings.
All-in-all MY SON JOHN is a curio that would unquestionably be recommended viewing for history buffs were it not seemingly longer than Stalin’s Five-Year Plan (clocking in at a dreary shifting-in-the-seat 122 minutes). Still, admirers of McCarey, Walker, Heflin or Hayes might want to add it to their libraries with the ironic stipulation that it goes down much better when preceded by a flagon of vodka.
MY SON JOHN. Black and white. Full screen [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. UPC # 887090041805; CAT # OF418. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC # 887090041706; CAT # OF417. SRP: $24.95.
Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment