Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Son John (1952) - Talky and Preachy, a Deadly Combination,

My Son John movieloversreviews.filminspector.com Film poster
"My Son John" (1952).

As a film, Leo McCarey's "My Son John" (1952) is not very good. As a moral/political tale, you may think it the best film ever made - or the worst. That is up to you. There are some good (not great) performances and a weird ending that has to be seen to be believed. Do you want to see the depths of American paranoia about Communism? If yes, "My Son John" indeed is the film for you!

My Son John movieloversreviews.filminspector.com Helen Hayes
Helen Hayes, as the title implies, is the center of "My Son John."

Leo McCarey by this point had created a solid career as a filmmaker, beginning in the silent film era. Among his other triumphs were "Going My Way" (1944) and "The Bells of St. Mary's" (1945). Among other things, he had created the comedy act of Laurel and Hardy. Evidently, at this point he was ready to make some real statements in his films rather than just entertain, and "My Son John" is the result. I usually don't like to review the politics of a film, because every film has a political viewpoint, however subtle, and I have an open mind. But I do make note of political slant when it is the obvious point of a film. "My Son John" is not subtle at all, and it is a political exercise. "My Son John" takes a while to get in gear, but once it does, it hits the viewer over the head with its anti-Communist message. Which is not a terrible thing, messages at least stimulate the mind and make one think - very few complain about overtly liberal political messages. Message films are not inherently bad unless they go to extremes (and this film does creep in that direction). But, regardless of the politics espoused, what is terrible is for a message film to be dull and lifeless, and that pretty much sums up "My Son John."

My Son John movieloversreviews.filminspector.com Helen Hayes
Helen Hayes, Dean Jagger and Robert Walker.

The plot is excruciatingly simple. A normal small-town family (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger) has a son, John (Robert Walker), who works for the government in some fairly high-level capacity (that is never specified). Over time, clues emerge that cause his family and others to suspect that he may in fact have turned Communist. Not only that, he may be passing government secrets to the Kremlin. Everybody is upset with this and suffused with grief, even, supposedly, an FBI man investigating John played by Van Heflin.

My Son John movieloversreviews.filminspector.com lobby card
"My Son John" lobby card.

The problem is that very little happens in the film. So much time is spent in showing the family going to church and doing this and that to establish its All-American bona fides (the father even sings patriotic songs when drunk, and two younger sons are pointedly shown to be football players, which was not the case with that Black Sheep John) that there is very little action. At one point there is a minor traffic accident and one perks up, thinking maybe something is about to happen - then everybody shrugs it off and the gloomy talking resumes.

My Son John movieloversreviews.filminspector.com
Helen Hayes is all over "My Son John."

Helen Hayes does her usual over-acting - she is a stage legend where showy acting works, but it doesn't translate well here - while Dean Jagger is simply embarrassing as the somewhat simple father. Robert Walker is an enigma as the son, made to look smooth and sophisticated in comparison to the rest of his family, and thus, presumably, weird and prone to foreign recruitment with his fancy-pants attitudes. The film also is very dark - even the outdoor scenes are dark, with the indoor scenes just dreadfully difficult to look at. Perhaps that was a conscious decision, to make a film about a dark subject matter physically dark, but it simply makes the end product difficult to stomach.

My Son John movieloversreviews.filminspector.com theater
Showings of "My Son John" were patriotic events.

Not an enjoyable film. Who in the early 1950s would want to go see a film that shows their son or brother may be a spy - it's just not very light entertainment, kind of like making a documentary about cancer that passes itself off as fiction. I don't recommend this except to film students and people interested in the post-War Red Scare days.


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