MY SON JOHN, a Commie-clobbering relic from 1952, joined the legion (literally the American Legion) of anti-Red movies that unpeacefully coexisted with the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Hollywood blacklist and the hot part of the Cold War being waged over in Korea. Leo McCarey directed, produced & co-wrote the uneven screed (getting an Oscar nomination for Story) with industry veterans John Lee Mahin and Myles Connolly. The box office results were poor ($2,300,000,144th place) and critics who had previously venerated McCarey turned on him with viewpoint vengeance, their contemptuous mocks ironically emulating the turncoat John-boy of the title. *
With his two clean-cut younger brothers off to battle Chinese hordes in Korea, Johnny doesn’t come marching home to see them off. Instead he slinks back to Mom and Pop from his mysterious “government job” in Washington, D.C. There’s something a little too smart about John (Robert Walker), and while mother ‘Lucille’ (Helen Hayes), believes he’s sincere when she makes him swear on the Bible (she’s a devout Catholic, as was auteur tale-spinner McCarey, Hayes, too, for that matter), brimstone-stokin’ father ‘Dan’ (Dean Jagger) smells a stooge, and not the Moe or Larry kind. Arguments fray the visit, and then a chance meeting (car collisions are useful) with a, heck, nice-enough guy lets ‘Mr. Stedman’ (Van Heflin) into Mom’s confidence. Mr. Stedman is an FBI agent, and he has some bad news for the values-clashing clan. Where’s the Sominex?
Walker died (suddenly at 32) during production, and emergency rewrites led to the story finishing in clumsy fashion, but not after a good deal of whackadoodle behavior already Lincoln-logged by the old folks at home. The script mixes gauche comedy into an otherwise earnest (sincere but warped) suspense plot, with some patriotism-meets-God (on the road to—where else?—Moscow) speeches that would be right at home in the suspicion & blame-wracked USA of seven decades later.
For a movie with such a horrible reputation, it’s surprisingly watchable. Keeping you intrigued (some would say stunned) and what helps the political pablum squeeze past the heave zone is the sly sarcasm done so expertly from Walker and the minutely sensitive work from Hayes, 52, in her first screen appearance in nearly two decades. Reviewers are split between those who think she’s affected and those who find her instinctive: we’re in the compliment camp. Heflin’s solid, but Jagger is a hard pill to gag down (plus his father figure is a compound idiot). It’s the kneejerk material they’re given that’s too daft for digestion, the risible theme of anti-intellectualism and the embrace of guilt by association are pounded like a kettle drum.
Well-scored by Robert Emmett Dolan. With Frank McHugh, Richard Jaeckel, Minor Watson and James Young. 122minutes.
DAN: “As your father, you and I are going to have a talk, a good talk, away from your Mother. And it’s about you, son.” JOHN: “Well, if you’d enjoy it, Father…” DAN: “Well, I don’t know whether you will. But as I told you, we’re alert. And we ARE alert.” JOHN: “You just said that.” DAN: “Yes, and you sound to me like, like one of those guys that we should be alert about.” JOHN: “One of those guys?” DAN: “I just said that you sounded like one, I didn’t say that you… ‘cos if thought that you really were, you know, I’d take you out in the backyard and I’d give it you, both barrels.” JOHN: “No trial, huh?”
Smug John was part of the International Commie Conspiracy that found red-blooded foes (in fitting black & white) that year in The Atomic City, Big Jim McLain, Diplomatic Courier, Invasion USA, One Minute To Zero, Red Planet Mars, Walk East on Beacon and Retreat, Hell!
It’s unlikely Stalin or Mao had anything to do with it but 1952 also saw an unusual number of movies that started with “My”: keeping John company were My Cousin Rachel, My Six Convicts, My Pal Gus, My Wife’s Best Friend and My Man And I.