My Son John is a time capsule of anti-Communist hysteria conceived and directed by Leo McCarey, better known for helming the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), and also a Best Director winner for the Cary Grant–Irene Dunne screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937). That anyone associated with the gleeful anarchy of Duck Soup could be responsible for a solemn, suffocating propaganda piece like My Son John is hard to fathom.
But McCarey became more conservative during WWII, and also began to stamp his work with overt Catholicism, as in his two hits with Bing Crosby, Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). By the early 1950s, McCarey was a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and My Son John was his passion project.
Today it’s instructive to note how The Awful Truth has lost none of its power to charm, and the mischief of Duck Soup stays forever fresh, whereas pious crap like My Son John sank to the bottom of the cinematic ocean upon release, and has largely stayed there. And yet, as much as any of McCarey’s better-known works, if ever a feature deserved to be included in the Smithsonian’s list of historically significant American films, it’s My Son John. As Elliott Stein wrote in The Village Voice circa 2002, “Whatever it thinks it’s saying, My Son John has more to say about American ‘50s hysteria than any other film ever made.”
Lucille and Dan Jefferson (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger) are middle-aged and as middle American as they come, as devoted to the local American Legion Hall as their local church. When we meet them they’re taking their two college-age sons to church services one last time, before the boys have to report for duty — they’re shipping out to fight in the Korean War, though the conflict is never cited by name. The two sons are blond football heroes who apparently have never had an unkind thought in their lives. Significantly missing from the farewell dinner is the Jeffersons’ oldest son John, whose unspecified but vaguely important job in D.C. has kept him from returning home for nearly a year.
The movie allows us plenty of time to absorb the folksy routines of life chez Jefferson. (That surname is the first tipoff as to how subtle McCarey is going to be here.) A few days later, John turns up unexpectedly. Played by Robert Walker, fresh from his turn as Farley Granger’s psychotic alter ego in Strangers on a Train, John is everything the rest of his family is not: an academic star in his youth, a fast-track success story with that D.C. job, not to mention urbane, snappy and snappish, possessed of an impatient, critical temperament — and not least, effete as hell, by the standards of this milieu. (Walker makes every line reading sound like an insinuation.)
In short, John is not a ‘real’ American. The movie will be painfully didactic about this. Watching the movie today, you can’t help noticing how many of the traits that render John suspect in 1952 are just as vilified by right-wing pundits today: his association with academia, his cosmopolitanism, his critical thinking, his lack of a family, and of course, his lack of piety. All of those things mark him as foreign, other. Some things about American life have changed very little in 60 years.
The plot hinges on whether John is a Commie spy, but throughout the movie it’s impossible not to think that the real monstrous secret being uncovered here is that John could be gay. We eventually learn that he has a relationship with a woman who’s been arrested for treason, but the script also makes sure to include a scene where he sneers at the very idea of procreation.
As he spends a few days at home, John is smug, snide and bored. The only person he wants to see in town is an old college professor; John stands up his parents for dinner to spend long hours in conversation with the prof. The tension in the Jefferson household ratchets up to the point where John’s father Dan actually thumps him on the head with a Bible, and his exasperated mother makes him swear on the same volume that he’s not a Communist.
In the interest of realism or some vague notion of even-handedness, the script makes Ma and Pa Jefferson a little dotty, and Dean Jagger’s performance leaves little doubt that the dad is a bit of an old fool, but a well-meaning, patriotic fellow nonetheless. But in aiming for naturalism (by the standards of a 1950s studio flick, the locations are self-consciously ordinary, with a hint of the homely), McCarey in fact achieved the opposite: everything about these scenes rings so false that My Son John, despite its soporific pace, becomes fascinatingly odd. All the performances are overdone, and no one is more bizarrely over the top than Helen Hayes as the mother.
The performances aren’t helped by the dialogue, which consists of leaden speechifying on behalf of God and country on one hand, and John’s condescending liberal-minded polemics on the other. What really sinks the scenario is that neither McCarey nor his co-writers Myles Connolly and John Lee Mahin seem to have had the slightest idea of how a man like John would talk or act, especially in this setting. John comes off not as a real person but as a compendium of every trait McCarey didn’t like, or imagined he didn’t like, about pointy-headed intellectuals.
John is even more implausible as a character when you consider that he is indeed (spoiler alert!) a Communist spy and traitor. He doesn’t exactly do a good job of hiding it; this ostensible twist is so obvious that for a while I assumed it had to be a red herring, no pun intended. But the movie really is as predictable and heavy-handed, not to mention ponderous, as I feared it would be during the first 20 minutes or so.
The film ends with an audiotape of John’s remorseful confession being played at a college graduation (worst commencement speaker ever). A shaft of light shines down on the empty podium, and we listen to one last sententious speech in a movie full of them. It boggles the mind now, but McCarey was a 1953 Best Writing nominee for his story for My Son John. Critics writing about the movie today speculate that the nomination may have been a bid on Hollywood’s part to reassure Washington that Tinseltown wasn’t riddled with Commie dupes.
McCarey’s career would later rebound with An Affair to Remember (1957), and I doubt anyone watching that movie — or Duck Soup, or The Awful Truth — today cares one whit about the director’s politics.
Apart from its unabashed anxiety about perceived threats to heartland values, My Son John has an added morbid curiosity value. Robert Walker died during filming, leaving director McCarey in the unenviable position of having to work around the absence of one of his three leads for the remaining scenes.
When you watch the movie, it’s impossible not to notice something very odd going on. About midway through, a couple of bizarre edits liven up a talky, humdrum scene in the Jefferson household — jump cuts of John in mid-conversation that are so out of place for 1950s Hollywood that you realize either McCarey was groping his way toward the Nouvelle Vague or something went very wrong with the footage. As the story lumbers toward its climax, the viewer can’t help becoming naggingly aware of awkward cutaways and how often we see “John” in silhouette, from the rear, etc.; at one pivotal moment, his escape from the FBI is shown by a single leg slipping out a window.
There’s a car chase where McCarey had to resort to using visibly incongruous footage from Strangers on a Train to show us John in the back seat of a taxi — and a minute later, McCarey achieves an unwitting Cubist effect by using the same Strangers footage matted into a side-view mirror, for an impossible perspective. John’s taxi crashes at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, and McCarey appropriates more borrowed footage to show the traitor’s dying moments. If you notice that John’s raspy final words don’t sound like him, that’s because McCarey dubbed them in his own voice.