My Son John (1952)

My Son John (1952)

“What’s happened to my boy?”

Synopsis:
A devoutly Catholic couple (Dean Jagger and Helen Hayes) are happy to visit with their two Korea-bound sons (Richard Jaeckel and James Young), but distressed when their third son, John (Robert Walker), shows up late and appears to reject his family’s morals. Could a stranger (Van Heflin) Jagger and Hayes meet during a fender-bender actually be investigating Walker for subversive activities?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cold War
  • Dean Jagger Films
  • Helen Hayes Films
  • Leo McCarey Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Richard Jaeckel Films
  • Robert Walker Films
  • Small Town America
  • Spies
  • Suffering Mothers
  • Van Heflin Films

Review:
Leo McCarey — best known for helming a variety of audience favorites, including Duck Soup (1933), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939) [as well as its remake An Affair to Remember (1957)], and Going My Way (1944) — also directed this Cold War-era curiosity, notorious for being Robert Walker’s last film before his premature death at just 32 years old. It’s too bad things went awry for this flick, given it starts off with a surprisingly powerful punch, nicely highlighting the tensions that can arise between parents and their grown children when their political and/or religious views have diverged:

— a phenomenon that’s never gone away, and is perhaps at a current zenith. Hayes’ performance (her first on-screen in nearly two decades) is heartwarming and natural; indeed, all the actors were apparently asked to improvise, with a resulting authenticity that feels rare in a film of this kind (though apparently it drove Walker crazy; see TCM’s detailed article for more information on this and other aspects of the film’s production).

Unfortunately, the storyline about the Red Scare as an omnipresent force in the hearts and minds of small-town America suffers from lack of clarity and/or credibility in a couple of key areas — primarily the “coincidence” between Heflin’s “accidental” meeting with Hayes and Jagger and his true identity, as well as Walker’s critical involvement with an unseen female character shown only in a newspaper article. Meanwhile, the kludging in of footage of Walker from Strangers on a Train (1951) is decidedly jarring, as are (laughably so) the final moments taking place in a university hall. Again, this is too bad, since the film otherwise possesses some enduring power as a tale of generational divides, parental suffering, and Communist hysteria.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Helen Hayes as Lucille Jefferson
  • Harry Stradling’s cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look for Hayes’ performance and for its historical noteworthiness. Listed as a Camp Classic (!) in the back of Peary’s book.

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One thought on “My Son John (1952)

  1. First viewing. Skip it. It’s almost impossibly dull… as well as heavy-handed, static and dripping with murky / misguided patriotism.

    Of course, I’m mostly not a fan of McCarey films – and the TCM article enlightened me a bit more re: why. I was unaware that he was ultra-conservative but that doesn’t surprise me. His films often smack of the ├╝ber-sobriety and pompousness of a right-wing sympathizer. (His frankly boring and adoringly sentimental glorification of the Catholic church doesn’t win him any points with me either.) In the case of this particular film, I agree with Walker’s gut reaction about the script being “overwrought propaganda”. (Walker’s character is meant to legitimize the terror of Joseph McCarthy.)

    This is – understandably – a largely forgotten film.

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