February 2, 2010
Last Wednesday, TCM presented the first television screening of Leo McCarey’s My Son John in decades. It screened as part of the “Shadows of Russia” series, which tracked Hollywood’s depiction of the country from Tsarist times through Soviet rule. Programmed by the NY Post’s Lou Lumenick and the Self-Styled Siren‘s Farran Smith Nehme, it offered a wonderful chance to catch up with McCarey’s underrated rarity. The reason for its obscurity lies in its politics. Produced during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee (for which McCarey was a friendly witness), it is strongly anti-communist, and has been dismissed in many corners as mere McCarthy-era hysteria. As Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, the film is generally presented in a condescending manner: “typically introduced with an apologetic chuckle signifying, ‘Nowadays, of course, we can laugh at this.’” The usually sage Robert Osborne adopted this attitude in his introduction to the telecast, referring to it as an embarrassment, and our own astute Morlock Jeff emphasizes the “hysteria” over its other virtues in his article on the movie. I have to respectfully disagree with my colleagues.
To reduce the film to a kitschy red scare product ignores the complex dynamics occurring in the family unit. Dean Jagger plays the father, Dan Jefferson, an earnest American Legion member who can’t conceive of a world outside his small-town newspaper. He’s an ingratiating buffoon with a quick temper and a taste for the beer barrel at the Legion hall, likeable enough until he starts singing nativist jingles and tossing his son across the room. He is an intentionally ridiculous character, as McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich in Who The Devil Made It?, as unbending in his conservative beliefs as John is with his communist ones. Personally, McCarey may have gravitated more to the father’s view, but his artistic temperament, which cherished improvisation and spontaneity, would never allow a such a monolithic man to be a hero (hence Renoir’s famous quote that McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director). Instead he is thrown through a series of farcical scenes – the song, a drunken rant, an absurd whack of the bible – that display his child-like pettiness and his inability to adapt to the times. His paranoia is proven accurate, but this does not alter the boorish nature of his character. His wife Lucille is the one who uncovers her son’s secret, and is the true dramatic center of the film.
Lucille, played spiritedly by Helen Hayes after a 17 year absence from the screen, is the pragmatic one, calming Dan’s fears, enduring his rages, and attempting to understand John’s point of view. She is patient with her husband but also fiercely independent, evidenced when she secretly dumps the pills he foists on her for her “anxiety”. She coddles him like an impudent pup, with a condescending kind of love. He provides the bombast, but she is in control of the relationship. Hayes’ performance is a bit of a high wire act, managing swings from manic energy to swooning depression with a few broad strokes – her darting eyes and sing-song voice ease the way down to the tragic conclusion. I think she succeeds wonderfully, evincing a rock-ribbed faith in God (in the eyes), paired with a mischievous sense of humor (her staccato laugh).
There is an especially moving scene where John is describing the world’s duty to help raise up the poor, and she finds a connection to Catholicism’s similar tenets to tend to those living in poverty. The joy in her face at this empathetic moment is beautiful and devastating , because she has yet to understand the basic incompatibility of their world views, and hence their imminent separation (and also because of the intensity of McCarey’s close-ups). Her inability to transcend the barrier between these ideologies turns her into the central tragic figure of the film, and is why Dave Kehr calls it McCarey’s most “emotionally demanding movie after Love Affair“. Her capitulation to Dan, when she tells him he was right about their son, is another scene of devious power, with Lucille’s ashen face on a different plane from Dan’s obliging attempts at apology for his drunken antics the night before. It is a drama of generational feuding and familial fissure more than anything else, as Martin Scorsese has also noted.
John is played by the incredible Robert Walker with icy disdain, a callow kind of condescension that college boys convey upon returning home from their first few philosophy classes (I recognized a bit of myself in him). It ended up as his final performance. Walker died near the end of the shoot, necessitating a total rewrite of the final sequences, and some awkward matte work which included some shots from the final carousel sequence in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It is these final scenes that have marred the reputation of My Son John more than anything else, as John’s dramatic turn away from communism had to be cobbled together out of scraps of old footage and stand-ins, rendering this already difficult arc impossible to pull off. Without an actor to improvise off of, the subtleties of McCarey’s character work fall away, the family drama fades into the background, and McCarey’s staunch anti-communism dominates, turning the last act into more of the straight propaganda film its critcs claim it is. But it still contains echoes of the emotionally wrenching work that came before, in the few shots of Helen Hayes’ eyes.
McCarey claims it could have been his best film if Walker had survived, perhaps an impossible claim with The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow on his resume, but it lies at the center of his thematic world – at the nexus of personal freedom and familial responsibility that winds through his greatest work. It may not be his best film, but it is an essential one.