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With: Helen Hayes, Van Heflin, Dean Jagger, Robert Walker, Minor Watson, Frank McHugh, Richard Jaeckel, James Young
Written by: Leo McCarey, Myles Connolly, John Lee Mahin
Directed by: Leo McCarey
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 122
Date: 04/08/1952

My Son John (1952)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Commie Dearest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Leo McCarey had a great and strange career. He began in two-reel silent-era comedies, working with Laurel and Hardy, among others. He directed the Marx Brothers' best movie, Duck Soup (1933), for which most critics employ the word "anarchy." Four years later, he won a Best Director Oscar for a practically perfect screwball comedy, The Awful Truth (1937). The very same year he made a drastically uncommercial, but powerfully moving drama about old age: Make Way for Tomorrow. In the 1940s he won another Best Director Oscar for a feel-good comedy/drama, Going My Way (1944). Its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), remains one of the most successful movies of all time. He rounded things out with a late-entry goopy romance, An Affair to Remember (1957), which likewise remains a favorite.

So in other words, this was a director who could, and did, make just about any kind of movie. My Son John is one of the stranger ones, and seems to have come from a very different place than the others. While many artists and filmmakers were victims of Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, and while many others were angered and appalled by them, still others bought into the fear of a commie takeover. McCarey was apparently one of the latter. My Son John tells the story of what happens when a grown son, an intellectual, returns home to his family, acting... strange.

Lucille (Helen Hayes) and Dan Jefferson (Dean Jagger) are the proud parents of three grown boys. Two of them were athletes and are now shipping off to fight in Korea. The third, John (Robert Walker), works in Washington. John is invited to a farewell dinner for his brothers, but fails to turn up. He instead comes a bit later, and Lucille and Dan are perplexed by some of his offhand comments, as well as a strange phone call he receives while there. He departs as suddenly as he arrived. Another man, Steadman (Van Heflin) begins visiting, initially to settle a fender-bender he had with Dan, but eventually to ask questions about John. Eventually Lucille goes to Washington to find out more.

As the critic Dave Kehr points out, McCarey seems more interested in his characters than in the political content of My Son John, which makes the movie work. It's a story of a mother trying to find out what's wrong with her son, not because of what he's doing but because she wants to help him. In one crucial scene, John tries to get his mother to understand by equating his values with those of the Bible. She replies that decency and kindness are values that she can subscribe to. The movie is swathed in very thoughtful shades of gray almost throughout. McCarey only drops the ball for the movie's blatant ending, which includes a speech for a class of college grads, warning them about being seduced by evil organizations.

McCarey's staging is nearly faultless, using mostly interiors to relate his characters to one another. Walker is as twitchy as usual, and Heflin adds a thick slice of warmth, but it's Hayes that steals the movie. She was just past fifty here, and somehow manages a combination of matronly cuteness. She shows off a bit, but her babbling seems to come from a genuine place of deep love. And when she registers shock, it hurts. She's the all-American mother, and she can break your heart. It's odd that she didn't receive an Oscar nomination for this, when the movie did not go entirely unnoticed by the voters: it received a single nomination for McCarey's screenplay. But Hayes had won in 1932 for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and would win again for -- get this -- Airport (1970).

It seemed unlikely that this oddball would ever get a DVD release, but kudos once again to Olive Films for their bare-bones DVD and Blu-ray releases. The black and white picture shines, although there are no extras.
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