If you are a post-WW2 baby boomer, you are probably familiar with the term ‘the Red Scare,’ which refers to a time in the late forties-early fifties when anti-communist sentiment in the U.S. was at its height (The “red” refers to the color of the Soviet flag). This Cold War era paranoia was not just reflected in American politics and daily news stories but he popular culture as well, especially movies. Some of the more famous examples are the Howard Hughes’ produced noir I Married a Communist (1949 aka The Woman on Pier 13), the 1951 tabloid-style expose I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. and John Wayne as an undercover commie hunter in Big Jim McLain (1952). Yet, of all the cinematic depictions of Communist infiltration in America, few are as blatant or as infamous as My Son John (1952), which was released when the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was at the height of its power and Senator Joseph McCarthy was still fanning the flames of a political witch hunt that had already taken its toll on the entertainment industry.
The film was not only an unexpected choice of material for the celebrated Leo McCarey, who was best known for his comedies (Duck Soup , Ruggles of Red Gap , The Awful Truth ) and poignant dramas (Make Way for Tomorrow , Going My Way , The Bells of St. Mary’s ), but it also marked the return of Helen Hayes to the screen after a hiatus of almost two decades.
My Son John was also highly anticipated due to the presence of Robert Walker in the title role. The actor, whose career and personal life had suffered since his divorce from Jennifer Jones in 1945, appeared to have recovered from a nervous breakdown and conquered his alcoholism. He was reaping unanimous critical praise at the time for his electrifying performance in the recently released Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Strangers on a Train (1951).
In spite of all this stellar talent which featured a screenplay by McCarey and John Lee Mahin (Red Dust , Captains Courageous ), and a production team that included cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. (A Streetcar Named Desire ,My Fair Lady ), My Son John was lambasted by many critics upon its release and dismissed as McCarey’s greatest folly. Based on the surviving evidence, however, it is not hard to understand its reception. A patriotic rant served up as a suspenseful drama, the film alternates between the dogmatic and the hysterical and depicts the title character as something as insidious as a vampire or alien parasite (a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956).
McCarey’s ultra-conservative sensibilities were actually no secret to those who knew him well and had become more pronounced in the late forties. In fact, prior to My Son John, McCarey worked with Father James Keller, a writer and founder of a Catholic sect called the “Christophers,” to produce a series of short films that would address a “war on evil influences.” Although only one short was actually produced, it was a religious sermon against the rise of communism entitled You Can Change the World (1951) and featured such guest stars as William Holden, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Irene Dunne.
The short subject was merely a warm-up for My Son John. Set in a small town not far from the nation’s capitol, the film tells the story of the Jeffersons, an all-American family whose lives are thrown into turmoil when John (Robert Walker), the eldest son and a government worker in D.C., is suspected of being a communist agent by the F.B.I. At first, Lucille (Helen Hayes) and Dan (Dean Jagger) are clueless about their son’s secret activities but during a recent visit from him they become aware of a change in his personality; he seems more argumentative, condescending, and even mocks them openly at times. It isn’t until Stedman (Van Heflin), a federal agent investigating John Jefferson, shows up and slowly ingratiates himself into the Jefferson home that events escalate quickly.
Once Stedman has revealed his true identity and mission to Lucille, she panics and, with the protective instincts of a mother, rallies to her son’s side, intent on protecting him despite mounting accusations. It is only when she forces herself to verify an important piece of evidence against him–the key to the apartment of a known subversive–that she finally learns the devastating truth. Yet, even in the darkest hour, John gets a final shot at redemption.
Prior to production on My Son John, Robert Walker was excited about the possibility of working with Helen Hayes and Leo McCarey, even though he thought the screenplay for the movie was overwrought propaganda. Unlike many of his fellow actors in the industry Walker was neither liberal nor conservative and would probably classify himself as apolitical.
As for Hayes, her reason for doing the film was due to the encouragement of her husband, playwright/screenwriter Charles MacArthur, who, at this stage of his life, had become an incurable alcoholic. “I wanted to refuse,” Hayes recalled in her autobiography My Life in Three Acts, “having finished with the movies more than twenty years before, but Charlie insisted I accept. McCarey was a fine director, he said. It was a good script, and a few months in California would do me good. Jim [her adopted son] went with me, and we rented a house in Beverly Hills. We waited for Charlie to join us, but he never did. I think he was glad to have me out of the way. He knew it was torture for me to watch him destroy himself; he couldn’t live with my need to help when he knew he was beyond helping himself.”
It wasn’t until filming began on My Son John that real problems developed, both on and off the set. For one thing, McCarey was fond of improvising on the set and would often depart from the script, forcing his cast to ad lib and learn new dialogue on the spot. Walker, in particular, became increasingly annoyed at McCarey’s impromptu brainstorm sessions and rabid message-mongering, which sometimes became so extreme he couldn’t take it seriously. “Corny, comic-strip symbolism” is how Walker described the film to a family friend.
McCarey, on the other hand, was convinced he was making an important American film and conducted the production under great secrecy, utilizing FBI agents, former Communists and government officials as advisors on the movie. Many scenes were shot in and around Washington, D.C. including the National Airport, Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and nearby suburb of Manassas, Virginia, which served as the main characters’ home town.
Although principal filming of My Son John was completed by June of 1951, McCarey continued to tinker with the footage and planned to add some additional scenes. In preparation for the scene in which John reads a prepared speech/confession about his misguided ideals to the graduating class at his former alma mater, Walker recorded the dialogue on a tape recorder at Paramount Studios on August 25th but when it came time to film the scene on August 28th, he was stricken ill at home and died.
Although details about the exact cause of death have always been murky, Walker, who had recently returned from a stay at the Menninger Clinic (a psychiatric hospital), began to display erratic, agitated behavior. His housekeeper immediately summoned his psychiatrist Dr. Hacker to the house and he was soon joined by an associate, Dr. Silver. To calm Walker down, they gave him an injection of sodium amytal. “Many times before, we had given him a similar treatment,” Dr. Silver stated, “and he always reacted successfully and well, by falling asleep and waking relieved and refreshed. In this instance, however, the patient soon showed signs of respiratory failure.” They were not able to revive the actor.
Walker’s unexpected death forced McCarey to revamp the ending of My Son John. [Spoiler alert] First, he decided to have John murdered by unidentified subversives while on his way to the graduation ceremony. Using a double for Walker in long shots, he was able to borrow footage of Walker from Strangers on a Train for shots requiring him to be seen in a cab and in a phone booth, talking to Heflin. For the movie’s final shot of Walker, “a close-up showing Walker muttering a few words and dying was taken from Hitchcock’s final merry-go-round scene,” according to AFI notes. “The Hitchcock footage was then matted into new footage of a wrecked taxicab, and McCarey dubbed Walker’s last words.”
McCarey also filmed Van Heflin delivering John’s alma mater speech to a crowd of 900 extras at the Wilshire-Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles but later decided the scene would be more effective with John’s pre-recorded speech broadcast from the empty, spotlighted lectern as the students listened. All of these changes are blatantly conspicuous in the completed film and contribute to the film’s already heightened sense of alienation and paranoia.
Typical of most critical assessments of My Son John was Bosley Crowther’s review for The New York Times who called it “a picture so strongly dedicated to the purposes of the American anti-Communist purge that it seethes with the sort of emotionalism and illogic that is characteristic of so much thinking these days.” He went on to comment that, “There are some other things about this picture that may cause a thoughtful person to feel a shudder of apprehension at the militance and dogmatism it reveals –its snide attitude toward intellectuals, its obvious pitch for religious conformity and its eventual whole-hearted endorsement of its Legionnaire’s bigotry.”
McCarey was so upset by the negative reviews of New York City film critics that he visited the city to publicly protest that he had been “insulted as an artist.” At the same time, My Son John was well received and endorsed by such conservative groups as the American Legion and the Catholic Institute of the Press. It even managed to snag a Best Writing/Story Oscar nomination for McCarey.
In some ways, the film signaled the end of this terrible period in American culture and politics. Joseph McCarthy’s fall from grace and popularity would begin with his unfavorable behavior at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings and HUAC would be rendered impotent by the end of the fifties when former President Harry S. Truman called it the “most un-American thing in the country today.” (The committee wasn’t officially abolished until 1975).
McCarey would go on to make the immensely popular tearjerker, An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of his earlier 1939 Love Affair, but My Son John is surely his oddest and most disturbed film and wouldn’t look at all out of place on a double feature with a David Lynch movie.
In recent years, deconstructive readings of the movie by film scholars offer an entirely different take on My Son John, depicting it as a nightmare vision of social conformity, one in which the family unit is so suffocating and repressive that the viewer ends up sympathizing and identifying with Walker’s rebellious idealist. In the end, God, Country, Mom and Apple Pie represent something much more menacing than the shadowy world of commie boogiemen that McCarey has conjured up.
My Son John was released on DVD and in a multi-format (DVD/Blu-Ray) with no extra features by Olive Films in August 2012 and is still available from some online sellers.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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