A Response to My Son John

Moira Finnie, one of the contributing writers here, wrote a long and fascinating comment in response to my post on My Son John below. It is a searching and heartfelt take that goes into detail about the conflicting emotions and ideas the film dredges up, and one that captures the multiplicity of positions it places the viewer in regards to its politics and narrative. It’s a hard movie to pin down, and I think Moira does an exemplary job of explaining just how slippery of an object it is. Here are her words in full, which I thought deserved their own post, and to which I hope to add my response in the coming days. -R. Emmet Sweeney

Hi RES,
You’ve made an excellent and challenging argument for seeing MY SON JOHN as an essential part of Leo McCarey’s career, even if it is a bit disturbing– like seeing a fondly remembered uncle fall asleep with his face in the stuffing at Thanksgiving after drinking too much elderberry wine.

I was thinking about writing about this powerful movie too, but not having seen this film since childhood, I was surprised at how compelling the film was in certain ways, almost reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill and William Inge’s more acidic portraits of families that refuse to face certain realities, though in this case it is seen through one of the most distorted lenses of the McCarthy era.

The tension in the family members, particularly the mother, was evident from the first scene when Dean Jagger’s father fumes about her dawdling before church. Helen Hayes, an actress whose level of tension on film was always in too high a key for me, (except for her performance in Anastasia), did a great job creating a professional mother hen whose constant movements, brooding and fussing may have led her husband to describe her as “an angel from heaven”, but also made it impossible for any of the men in her household to be regarded as adults.

Everything that is said or done in the household seems to have a double meaning, with that subtext acknowledging the issues under the furniture and in those dark corners of the house. I was amused and repelled by Dean Jagger’s mindless and buffoonish jingoism, and I kept diving for the remote to turn the sound down when he went ballistic every five minutes. I kept asking myself: “this guy was a teacher??” Where? The John Birch Elementary School?

While I can see that Helen Hayes‘ mother was meant as the emotional fulcrum of this dysfunctional family, her cloying performance and her devastation after her discovery of her son’s complicity in treason were undercut by the overly melodramatic crack-up she suffered. I understand that McCarey may have been making a none too subtle point about the condescending attitudes of the men around her toward women, the destruction of her personality when the truth was brought to light about her son was, I felt, the one lesson that this morally overwrought film made most forcefully: menopause and stress apparently lead to madness–at least in the ’50s. Btw, Hayes claimed that the script she was contractually obligated to shoot was completely different from the one that she had read when she first agreed to make this film.

I did feel that all the Jeffersons were tragic people, (even the cannon fodder brothers, off to Korea, who are given little individuality by the script and lack the weight of the other characters). That quality was something I could not have understood when I first saw this film. After mulling it over for a few days, I think that the best reason to watch this movie may have been to see the demonically entertaining performance of Robert Walker’s disdainful, yet disturbed and moved prodigal son. His sense of shame and the ridiculous at the same time was fascinating, even though it was almost as though he was trying to keep his parents from knowing his sexual deviancy, not his political bent.

Observant, superior, conflicted and clearly a lonely figure, Walker’s “John” seemed to be trying to connect with his parents as best he could, even while fighting with one and keeping the other at arm’s length. At first his mocking attitude toward his father seemed to be one of the few funny aspects of the film, (and it reminded me a lot of Bruno in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), but gradually it seemed to reflect years of disappointments on both sides and a rigidity in both men that could not unbend enough for them to connect except in violence.

The ramshackle Jefferson house, the constant questions that John was peppered with by both his parents, and the physical and emotional darkness of the film, emphasized by Harry Stradling,Sr.’s cinematography, (which made me wish that someone would turn on a 100 watt bulb occasionally in the old homestead), all contributed to a suffocating feeling of claustrophobia. This airless quality in the Jefferson’s home made me understand the Walker character’s desire to turn his back on his familial past. His wish to believe in something that sounds as superficially logical as Communism is understandable given this “comforting” background.

I was particularly interested in the roundabout conversations and “innocent” comments constantly pouring out of the characters. Mom and John have the most cryptic exchanges, alluding to something other than the topic at hand all the time. One example is John’s reply to his mother when she asks if he has a girl. Replying with a snort he says condescendingly, “sentimentalizing over the biological urge isn’t exactly a guarantee of human happiness, dear” as well as his father’s statement that he’d like to give it to his son “with both barrels” or John’s swearing on the bible with the “I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Communist party” followed by his inquiring if his mother feels better now, while she looks on with a glow on her face murmuring “I can’t wait for your father to come home.” I was pretty startled by that scene when the FBI is secretly filming Mom Jefferson after she’s dropped off in Washington by Van Heflin who justifies his actions by saying, “we gather information, we don’t give it out”. While watching the films later with his buddy, Heflin says “That’s a mother’s instinct” as Hayes furtively darts a glance over her shoulder to make sure that he’s not following her. That’s such a strange thing to say.

I think what bothered me even more than the loopy dialogue was the anti-intellectualism of the film. Education, curiosity about the world, and even normal attempts at critical thinking, and moving away from Mom and Dad may all be reflections of that period’s fear of change, but I suspect they also tell us more about Leo McCarey’s tortured mind set by 1952, such as it was.

I’m really glad that TCM ran this movie, since, as you pointed out, it really needs to be seen to be believed. Like it or not.

2 Responses A Response to My Son John
Posted By E. DuBois : February 3, 2010 11:37 pm

I really appreciate both your posts on this film. I must confess that I watched “My Son John” with something between a smile and a half open mouth – I found some of it to be so strange! The ending was truly bizarre, but understandable given Walker’s death.

And yet…I couldn’t quite stop watching even when I snorted out loud at Van Heflin’s ridiculous comment on watching those surveillance films. If anything it must have been the dark shadow of fear that hung over the whole picture – fear of things we all take for granted and in fact we need to grow and change. That fear was hypnotic and kept me glued.

Posted By E. DuBois : February 3, 2010 11:37 pm

I really appreciate both your posts on this film. I must confess that I watched “My Son John” with something between a smile and a half open mouth – I found some of it to be so strange! The ending was truly bizarre, but understandable given Walker’s death.

And yet…I couldn’t quite stop watching even when I snorted out loud at Van Heflin’s ridiculous comment on watching those surveillance films. If anything it must have been the dark shadow of fear that hung over the whole picture – fear of things we all take for granted and in fact we need to grow and change. That fear was hypnotic and kept me glued.

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