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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

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

As a FILM, this is not very good.  As a moral tale, you may think it the best film ever made.  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, this is indeed the film for you!

I 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. It 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. But what is terrible is for a message film to be dull and lifeless, and that pretty much sums up "My Son John."

The plot is excruciatingly simple. A normal small-town family has a son, John, who works for the government in some fairly high-level capacity. Over time, clues emerge that cause his family and others to suspect that he may in fact be Communist who is 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.

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.

Helen Hayes does her usual over-acting - she may be a stage legend, 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.

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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